Vista for visualists is a problematic proposition. Typically, musicians have the toughest upgrade curve with any OS, but there’s a major incentive for musicians with Vista, as reported on CDM: the promise of significantly improved audio performance and stability. Right now, there isn’t enough software or hardware support for most musicians, though I expect that picture will start to change even within the next few weeks.

For visualists, though, we have two problems:

1. The only really major improvement (beyond what’s in Vista itself) is the new 3D platform, DirectX 10. That could be huge for advanced visualists willing to be platform-specific — but with the development tools only just now available and a lot of Microsoft’s own development initiatives (like XNA) still tied to DirectX 9, even programmers are unlikely to do anything with DX10 in the near future, let alone end users. (Cheap cards will be out soon, but more on that in a separate story.

2. So far, the big hole in Vista is graphics support. So, not only is the step forward (DX10) not quite ready for most users, in the meantime OpenGL and even DirectX 9 will see a big step backward for the short term.

NVIDIA mobile drivers aren’t even generally, publicly available as I write this; that situation is likely to change, but the disconnect between the marketing hype and the support reality was enough to get me ranting about Vista in general on CDMusic.

Indications in the fall were that new Vista drivers weren’t performing as well as XP in either OpenGL or DirectX 9 — particularly OpenGL, which is really bad news since that’s the visualist bread and butter for many apps (Jitter and many Jitter-based VJ apps, Processing, and many cross-platform VJ applications). If you are an early adopter, there’s nothing catastrophic; feel free to give it a shot on a second partition or secondary machine. ExtremeTech has a great story testing a range of games. Interestingly, results are competely unpredictable. Some games are fine; others are disastrous. What concerns me is that OpenGL support clearly came second in both ATI and NVIDIA drivers, and requires more adjustment.

The conclusions on actual driver support from ExtremeTech are telling:

NVIDIA: “Nvidia’s has 97.46 drivers for Vista on all cards up to the GeForce 8800 series, and 100.59 drivers for those GeForce 8800 cards, which support DirectX 10. It supports SLI only on those 8800 cards, and only on DirectX 9 titles. Performance on Vista isn’t quite where it needs to be on Nvidia’s drivers, with some games running very close to WinXP speed and others falling way too far behind. Still, I found some irksome driver problems in a couple games (the Gothic 3 example above comes to mind). OpenGL performance isn’t where it needs to be yet, either.”

ATI: “ATI just released the WHQL certified Catalyst 7.1 drivers for Vista, with support for their whole modern lineup of cards. It also supports every current CrossFire dual-card configuration that is supported in Windows XP, and will soon support the “alternate frame rendering default in all games” feature that was just added to the Windows XP driver. ATI’s OpenGL driver in Vista is totally rewritten from the ground up, and only promises stability; performance improvements are coming in future drivers. I don’t like the sound of that, and I don’t like the way CrossFire is not supported in OpenGL. ATI’s Direct3D performance under Vista is quite good: Many games appear to run around 5% slower than XP, some are more like 10% slower, some are even a little bit faster.”

(Their full story has many of the details and game-by-game tests.

No CrossFire? No SLI on most products? Performance hits not only on OpenGL, but even DirectX 9? I’d say that adds up to a definitive “wait” recommendation. None of these issues seem to be fundamental Vista issues; they do

I’ll be interested to test OpenGL support in Jitter once it’s available for Vista. The current hang-up is availability of anti-piracy drivers from PACE. A PACE anti-piracy representative confirms that these are available in beta for developers; official support for Max/MSP/Jitter is likely due soon and you’ll know here first. In the meantime, there’s clearly no rush. I do like how glitch-free on-screen visuals are in Vista versus OS X, and eventually access to DirectX 10 could be a major carrot for many people. I’m just guessing summer or even SP1 is a more likely target for many visualists to want to run the new OS. Stay tuned.