Microsoft has been talking up hardware acceleration since Internet Explorer 9, but of course now it’s integrated into Windows 8 (and RT) across the board. The latest Building Windows 8 blog posts tells you way more than you need to know about this change, but a summary is simple: Hardware acceleration is a big part of what makes Windows 8 so “fast and fluid.”

In Hardware accelerating everything: Windows 8 graphics, Steven Sinofsky writes:

With Windows 8 we set out to enable all applications to have the beautiful and high-performance graphics enabled by modern graphics hardware.  This work builds on the well-established foundations of DirectX graphics, which have been providing an increasing breadth of APIs and capabilities. In Windows 7, we expanded the capabilities of DirectX to provide a common hardware-accelerated graphics platform for a broader range of applications. Whereas previously, DirectX mainly provided 3-D graphics, we added functionality for what we call “mainstream” graphics. Mainstream uses center on the typical desktop applications most people find themselves using every day, including web browsers, email, calendars, and productivity applications.  Windows 7 added two new components to DirectX: Direct2D for two-dimensional graphics (shapes, bitmaps, etc.) and DirectWrite for handling text. Both of these additions not only focused on performance but also on delivering high-quality 2-D rendering. With these additions, DirectX became a hardware-accelerated graphics platform for all types of applications. Indeed, we showed what a typical application could achieve by using DirectX when Internet Explorer 9 brought hardware-accelerated graphics to the web.  WinRT bring these capabilities to the full range of new Windows 8 applications.

Paul explains:

Thanks to integrated hardware acceleration, Windows 8 and RT perform better across the board than does Windows 7.

This post is heavy with information that typical users shouldn’t think or worry about. Skipping over the historical stuff, we arrive at:

Goals. Microsoft had four goals for graphics in Windows 8: Metro apps should perform well, all Metro-style apps should be hardware accelerated, DirectX should be enhanced with new visual capabilities, and Windows 8 should support as much graphics hardware as possible.

Performance. Obviously, a lot goes into whether Windows 8 performs well. Rather than focus on benchmarks, however, Microsoft rates performance in this OS based on how well it handles specific scenarios.

Hardware acceleration of “mainstream” graphics. While legacy Windows versions offered hardware acceleration of 3D graphics with Direct3D, Windows 8 offers hardware acceleration of mainstream graphics, including text, 2D geometry (“shapes”), and images (PNG, JPEG, GIF, etc.).

New visual effects. Microsoft’s DirectX-based libraries for developers have been enhanced in DirectX 11.1 with new 2D effects (real-time image processing, photo-type adjustments, and other effects).

Supports lots of graphics hardware. Windows 8 has been engineered to support a diverse array of graphics hardware that performs well while maintaining battery life on portable devices.

Put simply, the average user can safely skip this entire post. Windows 8 performs faster than Windows 7, and part of the reason is more pervasive hardware acceleration capabilities. Put another way, Windows 8’s hardware acceleration is arguably the driving force, if you will, behind this OS’s “fast and fluid” performance.