Hardware acceleration conveys the idea that some parts of the rendering use the GPU in order to speed things up.
In a web browser there are two main topics for hardware acceleration:
- Hardware accelerated content rendering: Drawing content on the GPU, like rendering text, shadows, shapes, etc. I also place video decoding in that bag but it is a somewhat different topic and I am not going to talk about it in this post.
- Hardware accelerated compositing: We render different elements of a web page in different layers (think of layers as photoshop layers) and compositing is the action of flattening all these layers into the final image that gets to the screen.
The former is generally very hard to achieve. Rendering content on the GPU is hard because GPUs are not always good at it. But it depends and there are things that we can do efficiently on the GPU and things that we can’t do efficiently on the GPU. For example graphics cards are not good at rendering text (text that looks good). Some canvas operations are very fast on the gpu (like blitting surfaces) but others are not (drawing bezier curves and shapes in general), so there is a trade-off and “hardware-accelerated canvas” is not always “accelerated” depending on what you are doing with your canvas.
The latter, GPU compositing, is a much more interesting optimization for browser implementors because it is a simple task that the GPU is very good at doing: blitting quads. Gecko performs compositing on the GPU except when the graphics card model or driver is black-listed and unfortunately, except on desktop Linux because we haven’t yet dedicated enough resources to support it efficiently (it can be activated manually but the results will not always be better). Note that Linux accelerated compositing is a very good area to contribute to.
When people around the internet speak of hardware acceleration in web browsers, they almost always refer to accelerated compositing.
Now let’s talk about a very bad misconception that has spread: I have read in various places on the internet that using 3D transforms enable hardware acceleration. This is very wrong. Gecko, Webkit, Blink, etc. use heuristic to determine when elements of a web page should be placed in a separate layer. Doing so let’s us do things like not invalidating (and re-drawing) an element that is overlapping with something that is animated, and some other optimizations. Applying a 3D transform to an element just happens to trigger this element to have its own layer. Layerizing an element is different from enabling hardware acceleration. when the browser starts up, it decides whether it will do compositing on the CPU or the GPU, and it won’t switch between the two because someone applied a transform on some element of a web page.
Layerizing an element is good if the element is going to be animated, but it is not something that will just make things faster. It can, and most likely will, use more memory because it will require us to allocate an extra texture to host the pixels of the element. For example, Gecko tends to layerize elements during a CSS transition, and merge back the element with the rest as soon as the transition is over, to avoid having too many layers at the same time.
Sometimes people blog about how applying a 3D transform can accelerate rendering, then other people read it and believe that applying transforms is the silver bullet to making web pages faster. Please, please, don’t blindly do things like that. I realize that we need to document more what layers acceleration in a web browser is, and how compositing works. Thankfully most browsers today have roughly the same notions of layers and compositing, so talking about layers in Gecko or Webkit should be equivalent from a web developer’s point of view. Layerizing for the sake of layerizing can degrade performances and memory usage. Heuristics evolve, and using hacks in websites today can prevent us from doing clever optimizations in the browser tomorrow.
So only use this kind of hacks when you understand what it actually does in the browser and when you can observe a real difference. Always remember that using a hack for something it is not meant to can probably speed things up in some browser today, and make things worse later as browsers evolves.