Games never run fast enough. As soon as you've got your system sorted some clever swine develops a game that strains everything to the max again.
In the never-ending quest for faster frame rates the graphic card has centre stage, rapidly followed by the processor. But there is another component staring you in the face that's a factor too: which Windows is best for gaming?
As you hurl yourself at the enemy lines, guns blazing, does it make a difference which version of Windows you are running? Does running a 64-bit version of Windows make any difference? If you are still running XP should you upgrade for faster gaming?
You may think that this question is an easy one, the newest version of Windows should be best, right? That would be too simple. If there's one thing we know about Windows it's that not everything is guaranteed to improve with each incarnation; sometimes it goes backwards.
There's only one real way to find out which version is best for games, we took what we see as an average game system: Phenom II X4 965 armed with a Radeon 5850 and 4GB of main memory, four versions of Windows and a small stack of games and benchmarking tools, formatted our drive and set about testing. And yes, it did take quite a long time and require considerable patience but that's why we are here. Let battle commence.
The big gaming component of Windows, of course, is DirectX that set of APIs sitting between OS and hardware. This is what finally prised gaming away from DOS, and we are jolly glad it did.
To those who fought to get any game running in the bad old days, punting DOS soundcard drivers into high memory and running the likes of QEMM – we salute you.
DirectX had a very shaky start. Microsoft's initial DirectX was finished in 1995, but didn't manage to crawl out of the lab. DirectX 2 was only allowed out on supervised visits, so it wasn't until version 3.0 that we finally got to see what the Redmond giant had planned for us all.
Version 4 was cancelled as well, and to be honest there have been a couple of howlers since this shaky start, not helped by the fact it was a total pain to uninstall. It's all much better now, and well it should be.
DX9 is capable and stable. Then you've DX10 and DX11 on top, with all sorts of fancy new effects. Why aren't all games using DX11 then?
Consoles. Big games demand big budgets and need big sales, which means cross-platform is the watchword. Since consoles are still DX9 (with the odd visual bell and whistle), that is where much of the game development is.
The full list of DX11 games is horribly short: DiRT 2, Alien vs. Predator, BattleForge, Metro 2033, STALKER: Call of Pripyat, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and not much else.
In the list of DX11 games to follow we have Civilisation V, Lord of the Rings Online, Battlefield 1943, Crysis 2, F1 2010 and so forth. Nice and all that, but hardly a massive choice.
DX10 support is thankfully much more prolific. A good gaming PC chews up and spits out consoles and there are some juicy titles that use the extra goodies a PC system can offer, but you'll be running DX9 games more often than might be expected. Thus DX9 performance is still very important when specifying a games system.
What the graphics cards boys do in the future is important here, if development is focused on running DX11, then DX9 will inevitably get pushed back. Currently Radeon's HD 5000 series (our faves) is still basically optimised for DX9, that can't last forever though.
Technical talk of polygon tessellation, Screen Space Ambient Occlusion and volumetric clouds are all very well, but when will we start seeing games that really take DX11? Such capabilities need to really spring out and catch you in your face before we can start unreservedly recommending DX11-capable systems. Until then it's a mixed-up crazy world.
A familiar and friendly face, Windows XP is still running on more machines than Microsoft would like. It does mean that you are limited to running DX9 games, but as we've already pointed out, for the most part this doesn't limit the games you can play that much.
Microsoft does have a great way of 'encouraging' use to upgrade though. It does this by easing back on support for older products, which forces everyone into buying the next version. Clever eh?
There is a 64-bit version of XP, but we decided to ignore it, as it is famously half-cooked, and the editor claimed it was "rubbish" (that wasn't the exact word he used). It has earned itself something of a poor reputation either way, and driver support as a whole ranges from inadequate to woeful. If you are going to go 64-bit, then there are two much more capable and up-to-date 64-bit versions of Windows to pick from.
The installation of XP went smoothly and fairly quickly, at first. Our disc contained Service Pack 1, and Windows was pretty sure we needed Service Pack 2, immediately. Perhaps this would get the graphics card driver working. Nope, that required .NET Framework 2.0, which required Windows Imaging Component first.
Thus began a nice round of updates and patches, which we stopped as soon as what we wanted working, was working. There was more to come, including a lot of security updates, and then came Service Pack 3. It didn't stop there either. Patching XP proved to be a long-winded pain that sees a once svelte operating system dragged down by more software sticking plasters than a self-conscious zombie getting ready for a date.
Vista, while offering the usual host of 'benefits' trumpeted by Microsoft, was not generally loved on release. There's nothing majorly wrong with it as it stands now you understand, but it was buggy and barely functional at launch, and it wasn't the leap forward that Microsoft had promised and many of us had hoped for.
A whole bunch of those promised benefits proved to be cumbersome and not as compelling as the hype as well.
We started with the 32-bit version. Not the speediest of installations and it includes a couple of long silences with little on the screen to suggest that anything is actually happening, but for the occasional whirr of the drive.
We thought we had better patch it, and the 107 important updates that were initially reported took some time to chew through. The PC was left to run overnight, and we have a dizzying fast connection at PCF Towers. You have been warned. From this we learnt not to use Windows Update. Official Microsoft support for the original version of Vista stopped on the 13 April this year.
The 64-bit installation wasn't any more informative. Is it beyond the wit of Microsoft to make a status bar that doesn't stop at 0 per cent for forty minutes?
Using a 32-bit operating system does have one big disadvantage: it can only address 4GB of RAM. Under Vista 32-bit, our 4GB reported having 3.33GB or 3.25GB (depending on the reporting software), which left 2.55GB for Windows to skip and jump through. There's a pretty good reason to go 64-bit right there.
The best version since Windows XP in our humblest of opinions, Windows 7 installed easily and there were 'just' 32 important updates waiting for us. There is a 32-bit version of Windows 7, but what is the point of that?
There are several versions of Windows 7, depending on how much cash you want to splash out. Exactly which version to go for is a matter of taste (and cash), and if you don't like any particular aspect there are a multitude of tweaks to be made and utilities you can download to customise it.
Windows 7 holds your hand like a friendly uncle (the nice kind). Stray from the path to forge forward on your own, and it's so unhelpful it almost feels as if it is being deliberately obstreperous.
Windows XP's preference for the My Documents directory looks like a helpful suggestion in comparison to Windows 7's 'you must put your documents here or else. Installing Windows can be annoying to put it lightly, but thankfully you (generally) don't have to do it very much, so moaning about sloppy or slow installation procedures is fun, but no way to pick a version.
Each incarnation of Windows was subjected to a battery of games and benchmarks. The games were run in two configurations: a maximum setting with everything turned on or up to really stretch things, and a lesser setting, which is more of a match for a typical game setting.
What did we learn?
When we last looked at which version of Windows made the best gaming system Windows XP was top banana at DX9. And it still is. It's not top by a huge margin, but it is a significant one when you are trying to squeeze every ounce of performance out of a system.
Win7 hasn't managed to close the gap on the old timer. Switching to DX10 told a very different story. No XP here and the three versions left in the running (Vista 32- and 64-bit and 64-bit Windows 7) all crossed the line pretty much together.
Win7 coped with the higher demands of the maximum settings on Far Cry 2 better. Otherwise a draw.
DX11 testing came down to running DiRT 2's benchmark. Here we have a little oddity. Crank up the settings and Win7 falls behind. Running Win7 without everything on maximum and it's faster. Something fishy perhaps with the Win7 graphic card driver?
DX9 AND 11 SIDE BY SIDE: We still await the game that makes us all dribble slightly and demand DX11 or nothing
We believe the slower result is the odd one out and we're backing Win7 for DX10 and 11. if you've got the 32-bit version of Vista then put a paper bag on your head and don't remove it until you've upgraded.
You get all the disadvantages of a 32-bit OS, plus it's the slowest for gaming. Pah. Vista 64-bit is little faster for games, and offers access to oodles of RAM, so you don't have to wear a bag on your head. However, it's neither the best for DX9 or DX11.
If you have XP then fret not, you have a decent OS for games and until DX10 and 11 take off you are well set. Until the market is more established you won't miss out on top titles, they will still be DX9 compatible for a while yet. The limited memory addressing isn't ideal and you'll miss out on 64-bit programs, of course.
When the draw of DX11's lighting effects and physics becomes too much then jump straight to 64-bit Windows 7. If you have Win7 then you can enjoy the full spectacle of DX10 and 11 and have the best overall OS, if you can live with the fact that your DX9 games aren't necessarily giving you the peak of performance.
And there we have it. In an ideal world you would have XP for DX9 games and Windows 7 for DX10 and 11. Until DX9 games fade for good, it looks as if it'll stay that way too.
First published in PC Format Issue 243
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