X marks the spot: Is Microsoft's DirectX 10 a real treasure?

X marks the spot: Is Microsoft's DirectX 10 a real treasure?

The release of a new Microsoft operating system is a significant challenge for resellers. Not only do you need to get up to speed with what the software looks and feels like on the outside, you also need to know what's going on inside the machine.

When Microsoft Vista hit the market last year, there was an initial peak of excitement, followed by a raft of reviews comparing the operating system unfavourably with previous releases.

Cosmetically, at least, there wasn't enough of a difference between Vista and its predecessor, Windows XP, for reviewers to get excited about. XP had caused more of a stir because of significant alterations to the graphical interface, a hearty dose of multimedia functionality and changes to some of the day-to-day operations. The collective yawn claimed Vista to be nothing more than repackaged XP.

However, looks can be deceiving, and thanks to a grunty graphics upgrade of the internal DirectX application program interface (API), Vista may be a creeping success amongst gaming and multimedia users.

As the name might suggest, DirectX 10 is the latest version of Microsoft's DirectX API which is designed to transfer some of the more demanding graphics processing off the CPU and onto the graphics cards. The DirectX API was designed to create a standard interface between the software games and graphics developers were pumping out, and the hardware coming out of disparate graphics cards manufacturers. It consists of a range of features, which facilitate the creation of textures, three-dimensional images, the integration of sound and movement, as well as managing the interface between the software and input/output devices.

According to Microsoft technical audience marketing manager for the developer and platform strategy group, Deeps De Silva, the DirectX API facilitated the development of faster, better looking and more interactive gaming technology for more than a decade.

"It's a technology that enables high performance in both graphics and sound for use with games and multimedia on your PC," De Silva said. "DirectX gives multimedia access to hardware like 3D graphics and sound cards, it also controls 2D graphics acceleration, input devices such as joysticks, keyboards and mice."

And it's not just the gaming community that avails itself of the DirectX APIs; videos, PowerPoint slides, websites - if it looks good, chances are it's using some version of DirectX.

Like successive Microsoft operating systems, successive versions of the DirectX API were characterized by a series of gradual improvements, punctuated by sudden signifi cant changes. The reason DirectX 10 is causing a bit of a stir is because unlike DirectX 8 and 9, this latest system has made a substantial break with previous versions of the technology. In fact it's a complete overhaul.

"DirectX 10 adds realism to games by making characters and environments more life-like," Da Silva said.

This being the case, why aren't we seeing a raft of new games driving the gaming market into stores for PC upgrades? Simply because the developers in most cases have had to go back into their games and rework millions of lines of code.

In the know
For this reason, the only people getting excited about changes to the DirectX API are the games developers, who are facing a significant overhaul of the way they do business in order to take advantage of the new technology.

According to games developer with strategy games powerhouse SSG, Alex Shaw, the changes DirectX 10 will produce on the screen are underpinned by significant modifications to the way the API operates.

"The first nine versions of DirectX were backwards-compatible in the sense that they were built up incrementally," Shaw said. "Now with version 10, it's like Microsoft has cleaned out the entire system. It's a whole new rewrite and if a developer wants to use DirectX 10 functions they will have to go back into their software and rewrite some of the basic code."

As a result, games developers are being forced to go back and rework graphics engines which have been built on incrementally through successive DirectX versions. When the rebuild is complete, they expect to be able to create more detailed, realistic images more quickly than was possible with previous versions of the software.

Keen to be the first game to take advantage of the new software system, developers at Relic Entertainment managed to pump out a DirectX 10 version of World War II strategy game, Company of Heroes, in June. The differences between DirectX 9 and DirectX 10 versions of the game included more intricate 3D backgrounds and shadow effects, as well as more textured explosions.

Although slight at this stage, it's easy to see how the cumulative effects of these differences will produce games with greater visual impact and more realistic movement. "At the moment there are a lot of games developers working on DirectX 10 versions of their games. It will take a bit of time to come into the market because it requires a lot of work upfront," Shaw said. "But it will be worth it in the long term, both in terms of quality of the graphics and in terms of how long it takes to actually write the code."

But in the meantime, the channel has little to do but to wait until the reworked games come onto the market.

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