Windows 7 - It's Here

Windows 7 launched, and we put it through its paces with what matters most: the games.

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Windows 7 seems like a turning point for Microsoft. The operating system came out on time, it runs well, and it's much leaner than Vista. We've spent a few months tinkering with the beta and now the final version. It has still got a few quirks, but overall it's way better than Vista when it launched, and it's a worthy successor to Windows XP. We went over most of the new features in a previous article, but this time around we get to do what we couldn't before: see how the games run.

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In terms of gaming, Windows 7's major improvement is DirectX 11. Unlike the shift to DirectX 10 on Windows Vista, where Windows XP users were left out in the cold, Windows Vista users will also benefit from DirectX 11. XP users, it's time for you to step up. Fortunately, many Windows XP users didn't really miss out on too much with DirectX 10. That looks to change as, DirectX 11 will see major support now and in the coming months. In the near future we should see DiRT 2, Aliens vs. Predator, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited, The Lord of the Rings Online: Siege of Mirkwood, and considerably more if we look more than six months out. If you want to scratch that DirectX 11 itch now, you can download BattleForge, EA's free online real-time strategy game.

Dirt 2 Stalker Aliens vs. Predator D&D Online LoTR Online Battleforge

DirectX 11 doesn't bring a whole boatload of new features; it simply builds onto DirectX 10 and makes it better. Among other changes, the key new gaming-related additions are tessellation and the computer shader. Tessellation allows the GPU to draw in extra geometric detail. For example, if your character walks past a car, in DirectX 10 the vehicle will look fine from a distance, but when you get closer, its shortcomings will be readily apparent. With tessellation, the GPU will be able to draw in extra curvature on the fly to make the vehicle look rounder. The compute shader allows the GPU to calculate any number of things. In games, ATI has been using the compute shader to sort transparency effects much more quickly than was traditionally possible.

Tesselation Off Tesselation On Transparency Effects
(Screenshot Credit - ATI)

When Vista launched, hardware drivers from manufacturers were a mess. And when they did work, the molasses-like nature of Vista didn't help the experience. By comparison, Windows 7 feels considerably more snappy, and requires fewer resources. Windows 7 also benefits from the growing pains of Vista, as they largely share the same driver format. For gaming, our biggest concern is video card drivers. We've taken a smattering of games old and new to see how they run across Microsoft's last three operating systems.

System Setup: Intel Core i7 920, Intel DX58S0, 3GB DDR3 RAM, Windows Vista SP2 32-bit, Windows XP SP3 32-bit, Windows 7 32-bit, 750GB Seagate 7200.10 SATA Hard Disk Drive. Graphics Cards: PNY GeForce GTX 280 1GB, Radeon HD 4870 512MB. Graphics Drivers: ATI Catalyst 9.9, Nvidia ForceWare 191.07.

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Interestingly enough, newer games like Batman: Arkham Asylum and Resident Evil 5 run better on Windows 7 by small margins on both Nvidia and ATI GPUs. Resident Evil 5 and Lost Planet are both multithreaded and give us an interesting look at how games run in DirectX 9 and DirectX 10 across all the operating systems. Windows XP lagged behind Vista and Windows 7 on both GPUs and in every test. Call of Duty 4, a single-threaded DirectX 9-based game, was Windows XP's only definitive victory. If these results represent a trend, then it's clearly moving toward Windows 7 and Windows Vista. Overall, game development is moving toward DirectX 10/11, and games are only getting more multithreaded as time goes by.

From a gaming standpoint you could stick with Windows XP a little while longer if you have aging hardware. However, Windows 7 is the way to go the moment you start to factor in newer computers. Vista users can sit pretty, because the operating system has improved tremendously since launch and it supports DirectX 11. However, it doesn't run anywhere near as nicely as Windows 7 does, and that's from the get-go. We've been using Windows 7 since the beta was released almost 11 months ago. Even then it was the clear choice.

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