Incorporating special effects on the Desktop - A brief analysis

March 23, 2006
Recently, I came across this article where I read that a certain yet to be released proprietary OS required the top of the line graphics cards in order to display in full, the special effects that were being integrated into it. This set me thinking....

Why is the OS industry obsessed with providing richer, processor intensive graphical effects ? Shouldn't the stress be more on providing a functional desktop which runs on average hardware rather than an obsession with eye candy? After some pondering, I realised that this trend has more to do with the market dynamics. It is about staying ahead in the game. The proprietary OSes need to give their users a valid reason to upgrade to the next version. So improvements in the security as well as functioning of the OS is not enough. There should be something more tangible. And the answer to it is swarming the users with more eye candy and special effects which, hopefully can be made a selling point in making the users part with their money.

This trend has become so prominent that Linux corporations like Novell and Red Hat are compelled to take an active interest in the development of special effects in Linux too through projects like AIGLX and XGL which (they hope) would be an answer to the competition.

Now lets get this right; many of the software applications which run on the OS rightfully need to be feature rich. For example, a game like Half-Life will be well received if it incorporates better graphics and modelling which utilizes the extra processing power. But building more special effects in the OS level will rob the extra power and memory from the applications and games which rightfully require them.

There are other valid reasons too which prompt me to take the viewpoint that less eye candy is better for the OS. Experience tells me that it is futile to do productive work within a desktop with all the special effects enabled. The last time, I tried it, I was severely distracted and fell short of completing my work. Is it just me or are there others who have been through the same experience ? To do productive work, it always helps to have a fully functional but spartan desktop.

Thankfully Linux aims to provide a balance between both the worlds. One example where this balance is evident is in the clearlooks theme on the Gnome desktop. I find this theme really pleasant at the same time less distracting. And again, one is not compelled to upgrade the OS just to get the new features which are provided by the software developers.

But the Windows users do not have this luxury. For example, a person using Windows 2000 will be forced to buy a copy of Vista if he needs the added security and extra features like better search. And to install Vista on his computer, he will most certainly have to embark on a spending spree to upgrade his PC to accomodate the extra special effects that are integrated into the OS. The alternative being to keep on using the same old OS with reduced features and dwindling security updates.

The bottom line is that it is more beneficial for the users to have a choice when deciding on the features that the OS provides and Linux most certainly is strong in providing these choices.


  • Sounds like the words of a true DOS fan.

    I can agree that alot of crap can get in the way of productivity. However, pushing the interface will ultimatly result in innovations that have a 'productivity' value. One example of that might be the icon bar on OSX that enlarges as you hover over each icon.... i find that a very nice way to nav shortcuts.

  • In the end, Vista doesn't require newer graphics cards to function. It only needs it if you wish to turn on all the eye-candy. It runs perfectly fine with older hardware without all the extra glitz enabled.

    So, Microsoft is basically giving us the *option* to have the nice eye-candy if we want it.

    There is one nice side effect of the entire OS running in 3D mode though: 3D images/games/widgets viewed in a window won't cause the OS to choke the way it does today with XP when you try to open a 3D window on top of 2D desktop.

  • I think your taking to simple a perpestive. A lot of these features are being added as a usability help. The transition effect are so that people understand and know where a window disapeared to. The picture browsing effects are so that people can find their files quickly. I think you rush to judge the OS based on the requirements, rather then actually trying to understand why they are implementing all this "eye candy".

  • Ender

    I partially agree. The issue is that if you are using a GUI of any sort, it makes sense to have the GUI operations running on the graphics card instead of the processor. I think pretty much everybody these days has a 3D card of some sort, and those that don't probably use the command line more often than not anyway. Requiring a GPU for the GUI really should increase performance of the machine as a whole.

    It don't think it's reasonable, however, for a GUI to necessitate the need for a cutting edge graphics card though. A basic GPU should be able to do the job more than adequately.

  • I agree with you in many ways. I am a Linux fan since 1996. However, I feel Linux is still not 100% functional on notebooks, out of the box (sleeping, controlling external projectors seamlessly). Ubuntu is a step in the right direction. Once that happens you have a solid argument!

  • Super Fast Ninja

    You are confusing the OS and the Window Manager. Gnome is a WM, KDE is a WM, both of which use the X-Windows system. Linux is an OS, which doesn't care about eye candy beyond providing video card drivers. Just because Windows has no clear distinction between the OS and the WM/eye candy doesn't mean this is true for all OSes. If you don't like the eye candy in linux, use a different WM. If you don't like it in windows, use a different OS. :)

  • -M.

    To a point this is true, but for the most part these upgrades to the UI are not for computer experts like you. For an example, minimizing a window, you know where it goes. A novice user might click the button while exploring and the window disappears. Now with the new "eye candy" OS they see the window morph into toolbar (Vista) or dock (OS X) they are allowed to explore without repercussions. But that morph to show where their window is going took a lot of graphics power so that the computer did not stop presponding while it was processing it. (yet another discouraging factor for new users.) The things like tranparent windows and movies playing when they are minimized are less useful but allow for better visualization and image matching. I remember when the mac introduced color to the UI and yes it was annoying at first but the bugs got worked out.

  • I find myself more willing to work on a machine that provides a work area that is nice to look at. If I'm working in an OS that looks bland and uninteresting, I get bored very quickly.

    I can see a problem arising in OS eye-candy that fails to provide any real purpose other than to make the user "ooh" and "ahh". But things like Expose` in OSX can actually help the user work more efficiently as well as look really cool.

  • Obviously, you haven't used OS X.

    The graphics are pretty, yes, and some of them are superfluous, but for the most part the effects are used subtly and tastefully to convey information.

    For instance, dock icons bounce slightly when an application is launched. When you minimize a window, it swoops down to its new resting place so you can find it easily, but the motion is not irritating.

    Also, Exposé speaks for itself.

  • The enhanced gui should not cause any decrease in performance as the processing is all done by the graphics card, in some circumstances, this will actually improve performance. There are usability improvements, where anti-aliasing, and drop shadows are used, it takes the strain off staring at a monitor for hours. Another point being the fact that the enhanced Aero compositor will be optional in Vista, and Xgl optional as well in linux, so the new Os's will work on less high powered hardware

  • Unknown

    a person using Windows 2000 will be forced to buy a copy of Vista

    Let's follow the logic: How many average people (not geeks, nor people who have geeks in their family to help them out) actually upgrade their OSes? In my experience that number is tiny at best. The overwhelming majority of people upgrade their OS when they upgrade their machine, and that's it. Since it's good business to target your product at the largest audience, that's who OS upgrades are targeted at. So, if you know that everyone (or near enough to everyone) who will be using your new OS is going to buy new hardware, you target that hardware for features.

  • Ernest Millan


    It is my understanding that Vista will provide a "scaled-down" version of its default theme, which will forego some of the more complex UI elements, as an alternative for those with slower machines.

    For the record, I'm a Mac user and I've been very pleased with Apple's attempts to balance form and function with every new release.


    - Ernest

  • Dan Parmelee

    I agree with you 100%, Ravi. While everyone loads up their desktops with obnoxious themes, widgets, toolbars, etc, I prefer the minimalist approach. Form follows function; I still use the original Windows XP "luna" theme with no wallpaper, minimal desktop icons, and very few tray icons.

  • That sure is my main reason for upgrading my Windows installs. It has nothing to do with newer software requiring the latest version of the OS, "Windows Security", being on the cutting edge, etc.
    Also, as a web designer, once I get the latest graphics for my desktop - currently running a RADEON 7200 - I immediately turn them all off because I am a web developer. I know my Radeon is top of the line because it has plenty of power for W2K3, but things like smoothing the edges of screen fonts and having icons (as opposed to outlines) when I click and drag is simply too much of a distraction for me to get anything done.

    And as for upgrading my PC, I can run UT2004 on my six year old video card @ 800x600x32 fine. Maybe I missed the point of the article, but my Win98 hardware should work fine on Vista.

  • I will note up front that I work for Microsoft. Market forces do drive rich UI's and rich feature sets for applications. With Vista, you can turn off the fancy UI by setting your theme to Windows Classic, which drops you to a rather simple, Win 2K - like UI. This also frees up a good bit of memory that would otherwise be used for transparency.

    Note that features have a processor cost. Having a service index in real time is going to cost cycles. While tempted for security reasons, I very much doubt if I will upgrade my 4 year old PC (1.4 GhZ P4 with 768 MBytes of RAM) to Vista. It would run, but it wouldn't be fast (I already upgraded it from ME to XP SP2).

    At least, I can count on Microsoft continuing to provide security patches for a number of years for XP. I haven't seen a security patch for my OS X.1 iBook in a long time.

  • Two comments here. First, the processor and graphics card are very seperate. The graphics use the graphics card, while applications use the processor. It's true that games require the graphics card, but when you're playing a game that takes up the whole screen, then the shiny stuff isn't being rendered anyway.

    Second, it's optional. You can turn off all those effects and make Vista (or XP, for that matter) look just like Windows 2000.

  • I am very much with you on this. It really does break down to a simple catch phrase "Sex sells". If you offered an OS that was more secure, could run your apps faster, and loaded in ten seconds, all on average hardware, but it looked like Win 3.11, no one would buy it. It's not 'Sexy'. It may be better but it's not 'Sexy'.

    Game consoles are the same way. Other than online play there hasn't been a real change to the basic game play of a game console since the days of Nintendo and Sega. Games haven’t really gotten better, they just got 'Sexier'. You still fight by mashing buttons, you still drive your virtual hotrod the same way, and your 3D RPG is really moving around tiles. But people upgrade to the newest hardware to play the sexiest versions of the same old games.

    Innovation on how we use our OS, how we interact with our OS, how it presents us with information is what we should be focusing on. Not making the title bar of every window look like frosted glass.

  • Roshan Shariff

    Eye candy is not all that bad. In the case of XGL or AIGLX, they make the desktop more usable. I find it easier to keep track of a large number of windows and applications using Compiz, a window manager that uses the new features of the X server.

    Apart from this, XGL at least actually improves performance, since graphics rendering is handled by the graphics card, leaving the CPU to do more important tasks.

    And finally, the modular architecture of GNU/Linux and X means that Xservers, window managers, etc are completely interchangeable, so you can decide to run, say, Gnome with Compiz or Metacity, on top of normal Xorg or XGL. The choice is yours, and you can mix and match to your heart's content.

  • Pete Goodall

    Your theory doesn't quite hold true for the Linux vendors. Since none of the large OEMs will sell you a Linux desktop, and none of the graphics vendors really support Linux, there is no one to incent the Linux vendors to require newer hardware. In fact, if you do buy the latest hardware it may not work because it doesn't come with Linux drivers. The Linux distributions are looking for ways to make working on a computer more fun. In addition, the eye candy can provide better ways to notify the user (i.e. wobbly windows) and new ways to organize your work ("the cube" in Xgl). Finally, thanks for the Linux endorsement. ;-)

  • I hope you realize the the "proprietary OS" you are talking about is shipping with 6 versions.

    The "Starter Version" should solve your problem...

  • The truth is most people never upgrade the OS on their computer. The majority of Windows sales don't come from retail boxes; they come from OEM bundles. When MS releases a new OS, they aren't aiming for the typical PC in homes & offices today, they are aiming for the PCs on store shelves today & tomorrow.

  • Sam

    All I can say is I use a Mac and Mac OS X doesn't cough up showing its graphics. Thats mainly because it lets the graphic card do the work, which is otherwise while I'm coding just bored to death. I switched from Linux to Mac about 3 years ago and don't regret it. My work speed and overall workflow has increased a lot and I feel I get things completed quicker and can be more creative. IMHO the eye-candy kinda gets you creative. And one thing you will always miss in any OS is Apple's Exposé functionality. Combine it with Desktop Manager and it will blow your mind out how easily you control lots of windows on different virtual desktops.

    I do agree that the eye-candy shouldn't imply the top-noch latest hardware to run. Mac OS X can run the effects fluidly on smaller and older computers, e.g. my old iBook G3 700MHz runs Mac OS X Tiger - Exposé and Desktop manager with no problem at all. (I was surprised when I tried it out.)

  • Interesting point. I'll submit -- Isn't part of the agenda for the unnamed OS to require newer, DRM-compliant hardware?

  • Rafael Simon Garcia

    i feel the same way about a desktop with lots of eye candy, my win xp desktop has objectdock, and yahoo widgets. it looks good but i always fail to do any work on windows, i'm checking the rss reader widgets or playing with the eye candy. on the other hand when i switch to linux, i run gnome with not much eye candy, and i always end up doing the work i planned to do on linux on time

  • DgnawkZ

    I would disagree with you on some areas within the article.

    Microsoft does not choose to make Windows flashy or up the security. It was forced to because market forces demanded it. Not because it would get users to upgrade. That is only a secondary reason.

    I might be wrong, but I see this as more of a business decision to remove the competitive advantage of all other OS out on the market, by matching the features they offer.

    Linux provided more security, therefore Vista is quite bit more secure in order to compete against Linux.

    Apple provided quite a number of special effects, therefore Vista incorporated special effects.

    BTW, I really appreciate all the Linux resource links you have provided on the side. I would like to use a copy of Linux, but being a first time user, I am left with an abudant amount of choices that all seem great. Which one would you recommend?

  • You make it sound as if the enhanced visual features of Windows Vista are required for its operation. I speak with no authority whatsoever, however, I do believe Windows Vista will operate satisfactorily on lower end hardware with these visual features disabled. I believe one will also be allowed to disable them should they have higher end hardware and choose to do so. I am in your camp as these features distract me as well, however I do have to admit to being completely compelled by them.

  • I agree that needless "bling" on a production desktop is not a good thing.

    However, the current trend towards 3D-accelerated desktops is fueled less by the OS vendors saying "look! pretty!" and more by the realization that most computers these days have some kind of 3D graphics card - installed or onboard. Have you ever opened up Gnome's system monitor (or Windows task manager), and then dragged one window over another really fast? Watch your CPU usage spike to 100%. Do the same under Xgl? CPU doesn't budge.

    As long as it's done reasonably, offloading graphics functions to (gasp) the graphics card will actually improve performance.

  • Nathan Neitzke

    I disagree. Windows Vista has a new composition and layout engine that can utilize modern graphics cards to actually reduce the amount of stress on the cpu for graphics work.

    On top of this, its not just eye candy. The Vista engine allows much more flexibility to developers to provide a more usable interface to their applications.

    So I guess what I am trying to say is that these improvements we are seeing are more than just drop shadows.

    Also, this drive for eye candy has got us to where we are today. In your world I can only imagine we would all still be using the command line and the majority of the world would be even more alienated by technology.

  • Just two points. One, eye candy is a perfectly valid and legitimate reason to upgrade an OS. That it's a reason you personally don't appreciate, that's cool too. Whether it's distracting or not is for each user to decide, I certainly get a lot more work done on OSX than on the more spartan-looking Windows 2000.

    As far as Windows Vista goes, I understand it can be run with the odious "classic" look, much as XP can, so it shouldn't be an issue.

  • I think a certian amount of eye candy is neccessary. Take OS X's method of minimizing, for example. For most users, this is a very intuitive way of minimizing. You know where the window has gone so that you can find it later.

    Or, again from OS X, the moving stripes on the progress bar. It may seem unnecessary, but you'll be able to tell if you computer is frozen or if the program is still chugging away trying to do whatever it's doing.

    Eye candy, sometimes, appeals to people because it's more intuitive. The trick is knowing when something is useful because it's pretty, or if it's just pretty

  • hoodooyoudo

    A) there are several versions of Vista, and two don't include the full Glass/Aero effects set.

    B) you can turn it off very easily

  • I think its unfair to single out Clearlooks as the most pleasing etc theme. Fact that its based on KDE's plastik is completely lost of most of the bloggers such as yourself -- and that's really serious omission. Its almost as bad as MS patenting something when it already existed as prior art!

  • I felt the same way about the eye candy when I first saw XP. I called it the "bubblegum desktop".

    If it can be turned off and present an interface along the lines of Win2k, then what's the purpose of putting it there in the first place? Spend the time, energy and MONEY where it's really needed - solid apps and SECURITY!

    Lastly, one must remember the basic business module for that proprietary sysetm - there will always be a person sitting in front of the screen. If the person wasn't there, then the fancy interface wouldn't be needed and the company wouldn't be able to perpetuate its vendor lock-in strategy.

  • C) the ones without Glass/Aero are crippled

    XGL and Compiz have out done every beta of Vista, in both graphics and requirements, that i've tried and every screen shot i've seen.

    As for Vista's security enhancements, it seems as though some have been written purely to generate more revenue, with the side effect of being a bit more "secure" (relative).

    If you haven't used XGL and Compiz, go and use it before posting, you can get a live CD called Kororaa which works on it, try it out.

  • Microsoft OS's may have questionable code but I think the Windows "Classic" desktop is the cleanest and tidiest IMHO. When using KDE on Kubuntu I like to use Redmond and Plastik with the buttons a slight shade of beige. Simple rectangular shapes and clean functionality that does not compete with the application for your attention. A good desktop is one you don't particularly notice. Square cars and round girls look nice too! Opposite may be currently fashionable but ughh.

  • I've tried XGL, and it's actually faster than the standard graphical system on linux. This is because it's using the 3d card I already have to move windows around. I even tried it with the slowest CPU setting on my laptop and it was still faster than the regular 2d graphics system. Using OpenGL to render the desktop is not just about fancy special effects, it's about making the desktop faster too.