Summary: Which OS delivers the best performance for gaming? Seasoned gamers would probably say Windows XP, but as you'll see in the benchmarks, that may not be the case anymore. Inside we've compared 32-bit and 64- bit flavors of Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7 across ATI and NVIDIA hardware. SLI and CrossFire are also tested. See how the operating systems stack up in today's article!
For some of you, Windows 7 is here. For others, it's coming soon. The question we as gamers all want to know is will Windows 7 finally deliver on all the hype that began during the run up to Vista’s launch. Will it finally "unite the clans": gamers who love Windows XP's performance and scalability, versus the Vista gamers who have been enjoying DirectX 10 visuals and performance enhancements found in games like Far Cry 2.
I’m not going to spoil the answer on the first page of this article – that’s what the benchmarks are for – but I will say that as much as I rightly criticized Vista’s gaming performance back in January 2007, it ultimately did get a bit of a bad rep.
Sure, eye candy features like Aero Glass performed terribly with some hardware, USB transfers were slower, and user account control was so annoying most people just turned it off, but just as Microsoft was to blame for some of Vista’s problems, equally culpable were the hardware manufacturers. Intel had no business lobbying Microsoft to lower requirements in order to get their 915 chipset certified as “Vista Capable”, and nearly all the manufacturers were too slow in optimizing their Vista drivers for performance, if they had a Vista driver at all. Despite the fact that Microsoft had issued numerous public betas and release candidates for Vista, graphics drivers for instance were missing features and suffered from poor performance in some games on launch day.
All this bad news weighed heavily on the Vista launch. As the saying goes “you never get a second chance to make a first impression”. Well, Microsoft learned this lesson the hard way with Vista. Even though many of these issues were resolved within 8 months of Vista’s launch, public perception had already dragged Vista down.
With Service Pack 2 and the latest drivers, it’s now a great gaming OS, but no one knows it or is willing to admit it.
Today we’re here to see how Microsoft’s latest and greatest OS, Windows 7, stacks up against its predecessors, Windows XP and Windows Vista. Inside you’ll find benchmarks of the 32-bit and 64-bit flavors of all three operating systems, bringing the grand total of OS’s tested to six. We’ve also gathered a mixture of games to see which OS runs them best. There’s a lot of incorrect assumptions out there about 32-bit versus 64-bit, and XP vs Vista performance, so hopefully this article will help clear the air a bit.
As any enthusiast knows, one of the keys to game performance is graphics drivers. A good, up to date driver contains performance tweaks and optimizations for the latest software. This includes games and the OS. Both ATI and NVIDIA are using the same unified driver for Vista and Windows 7, but they’re claiming that memory management tweaks implemented in Windows 7 can lead to performance improvements in some situations.
We’ll be putting that to the test, as we’re comparing drivers from both manufacturers, including 2-Way SLI and CrossFire. We all remember what a mess multi-GPU performance was when Vista launched. It took months of work before ATI and NVIDIA had competent SLI and CrossFire drivers for Vista. We wanted to make sure history wasn’t repeating itself for Windows 7.
Let's get started shall we?
Intel Core i7-920
Gigabyte GA-EX58 Extreme
6GB (3x2GB) OCZ Reaper HPC DDR3-1600
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 275
ATI Radeon 4890 1GB
500GB Western Digital Caviar SE16
Windows XP Professional 32-bit w/Service Pack 3
Windows XP Professional x64 w/Service Pack 2
Windows Vista Ultimate 32-bit w/Service Pack 2
Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit w/Service Pack 2
Windows 7 Ultimate 32-bit
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Call of Duty 4
ARMA II – DX9
Bohemia Interactive’s latest military sim, ARMA II, is known for its ability to bring systems to their knees. With its large outdoor environments and advanced physics engine it’s pretty demanding on your CPU and GPU, and as our results show it performs best in Windows XP at this moment: both the Radeon 4890 and GeForce GTX 275 cards run at least 10% faster under XP, if not more.
Call of Duty 4 – DX9
Like ARMA II, Call of Duty 4 ran slightly faster under XP than the other operating systems…As long as you stick to 32-bit XP. The GeForce GTX 275 ran 8-9% slower under Windows XP x64.
Crysis – DX9
Crysis performance is pretty even across XP, Vista, and Windows 7. Again, the GeForce card takes a slight hit under WinXP x64, the GTX 275 runs about 4% slower under the 64-bit version of Windows XP, but everywhere else performance is pretty similar. In fact, the SLI setups run 2-4% faster under Vista and Windows 7 at 1600x1200, and that margin grows to 7% at 1920x1200. If you recall Vista was the first Microsoft OS designed from the start for multi-GPU setups like SLI and CrossFire.
Left 4 Dead – DX9
GeForce GTX 275 performance in Windows XP x64 continues to suffer in Left 4 Dead. The card ran 2-5% slower under x64 depending on the resolution. Vista performance was also down in comparison to XP at 1600x1200. Once again SLI performance was actually better under Vista and Windows 7; the SLI setup was up to 2% faster under Windows 7 when compared to WinXP.
Fallout 3 – DX9
While we see the single Radeon card take a backseat in performance at 1600x1200 in Vista when compared to XP and Windows 7 (the deficit is 5%), performance evens out at 1920x1200. CrossFire scaling is pretty similar across all 6 operating systems as well, although we did hit a hiccup with Windows XP x64 at 1600x1200 with Radeon 4890 CrossFire.
Far Cry 2 – DX9
Once again we see performance benefits for multi-GPU setups in Windows Vista and Windows 7 when compared to WinXP. Windows 7 ran up to 11% faster than Windows XP (at 1920x1200) with a pair of Radeon 4890 cards running CrossFire. Vista also outperformed WinXP, although here the margin was much slimmer, generally 2-3%.
Dawn of War II – DX9
Radeon performance is pretty similar across all six operating systems in Relic’s RTS, Dawn of War II. Even with the CrossFire rigs we didn’t see any major differences in performance.
STALKER: CS – DX9
Add STALKER to the list of titles that scales better with multi-GPUs under Windows 7 and Vista in comparison to WinXP. Both the CrossFire and SLI setups ran considerably faster than XP.
Resident Evil 5 – DX9
While GeForce GTX 275 performance is pretty similar across all operating systems when one card is used, the Radeon 4890 clearly ran faster in Vista and Windows 7 with Resident Evil 5. Vista 64-bit ran 12% faster than Windows XP at 1600x1200 with the Radeon board. At 1920x1200 Windows 7 64-bit ran 11% faster than XP 32-bit.
Windows XP’s origins date back to Windows 2000, an OS that was never designed for multi-GPU.
On the other hand NVIDIA and ATI worked closely with Microsoft to get Vista’s DX9.0L and DX10 APIs to scale more efficiently with SLI and CrossFire. Memory management tweaks found only in Windows 7 increases this even further, allowing SLI and CrossFire to scale even better under Windows 7 in comparison to Vista in many games.
Going into this article I didn’t expect the gains to be as great as they were, but the benchmarks don’t lie. Windows 7 is a huge improvement over XP in this regard.
The 3-Way battle between Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7 is much closer when you exclude the second GPU benchmarks; other than ARMA II, the Radeon and GeForce GPUs performed remarkably similar regardless of OS (as long as you exclude the GeForce Windows XP x64 numbers). No one OS really pulls away from the other, they just trade wins and more often than not, they’re tied in performance. For this reason I’d have to give the overall nod to Windows Vista and Windows 7, as they generally run just as fast as XP, with the obvious addition of DirectX 10 and DX11 support.
So is Windows 7 the best OS for gaming? Based on the results we’ve just looked at, I’d have to say “yes”. Windows 7 delivers the best combination of features and game performance of any OS tested today. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s also just as stable as Windows XP and Vista and seems more responsive. The addition of gestures and the new taskbar really push Windows 7 over the top.
I’m not a huge fan of the new system tray but I can understand Microsoft’s reasoning behind the changes and it’s an easy adjustment to make. Compatibility could be the one issue where Windows 7 takes a backseat to Vista and Windows XP, as I did have to manually install a third-party driver to get STALKER to run properly (I don’t recall the manufacturer, but I believe it was related to the game’s copy protection scheme). Even though it’s less aggravating, I also continue to disable UAC.
Comparing the issues Vista faced on its launch day to Windows 7 though, all signs point to Windows 7 being a huge success. Windows 7 builds on the foundation Microsoft laid with Windows Vista and takes it to another level. Based on everything seen so far, I see no reason why Windows 7 won’t be a homerun for Microsoft.
Gamers reluctant to upgrade from Windows XP fear not. You finally have a reason to upgrade. If I was running Windows Vista with Service Pack 2 though, I wouldn’t be in a rush to pick up Windows 7. It’s definitely an improvement over Vista, but unless you plan on running SLI or CrossFire, it’s probably not worth Microsoft’s asking price. After all, it is fundamentally just a highly polished extension of Vista. Instead I’d spend that money on a better graphics card or CPU.
Windows 7 is the genuine article though. This time the final product does live up to the hype. By taking the features of Vista, improving the interface, and combining the best attributes of Windows XP, namely its performance and stability, Microsoft has put together a solid OS that should please the most discriminating hardware enthusiast or gamer. In some ways, this may just be Microsoft's best OS yet.
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