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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Windows 7 - what it means for gamers

Will Windows 7 achieve the respect that Vista failed to win?


A slightly tweaked Games Explorer brings support for auto-checking for game patches

The Windows Experience Index has increased its maximum rating from 5.9 to 7.9, to account for upcoming beefier components

It's telling that one element of Windows 7 Microsoft isn't especially trumpeting (amidst the cloud of self-congratulation about how the new OS is slicker, faster and essentially the Barack Obama of networking) is its gaming clout.

There's one simple reason for that - it's built on Vista, an operating system that gamers at large have spurned after all its outrageous performance promises turned out to be performance penalties instead.

Sure, SP1 helped a lot. And yes, there's been a ton of exaggeration from the operating system's counter-propagandists to contend with. But the truth is that three years on DirectX 10 remains a niche option of debatable usefulness, while the back of most game boxes coldly state you'll need an extra half-gig (or more) of RAM to run 'em on Vista instead of XP. Even the notoriously hyperbolic Microsoft is unlikely to attempt a similar massaging of the facts this time around.

So we can largely expect 7's gaming performance to be pretty much on a par with Vista's, and the recently released beta bears that out: give or take a few frames per second, benchmarks match those on the same system running Vista SP1.

More RAM available

It's the RAM issue that's likely to be 7's biggest boon to gamers, however. While the new OS is fundamentally an optimised version of Vista rather than a brand new platform, it's significantly more efficient, especially in terms of memory usage.

This means there'll be that much more RAM optionally available to gamers, as less of it is sacrificed to the OS's bottomless stomach. It also means there's the potential for smoother-running, faster-loading games for those with ample RAM, and for more games to run in the first place for those toting just a Gigabyte or so.

Unlike fat old man Vista, 7's even happy on a netbook, so there's more scope for Eees, Winds et al to be decent mini-gaming platforms.

In the long-term, we hope Windows 7 will achieve the success that Vista didn't quite manage and, more importantly, the respect that it definitely failed to win. If most gamers decide they trust 7 enough to finally step away from their faithful XP, that means DirectX 10 (although Win 7 introduces DX11, it won't be the major shift that 10 was from 9 and, importantly, it'll also be available for Vista) will be that much more established. That, in turn, means more games will support it, so we get better-looking titles all round.

It's likely, too, that the fairly insulting Vista-only tag carried by the few games unfortunate enough to get caught up in Microsoft's marketing misfires will seem less offensive when it now means the game will run on two operating systems.

Solid 3D stability from day one

Speaking of which, the early days of 7 shouldn't suffer from the really severe performance hits that blighted Vista's first months. While Vista's launch saw 3D card makers scrabbling to write drivers for a whole new architecture, we're told that this time around what works on Vista will work on 7.

While there's bound to be a few casualties, the current beta version certainly installs the latest Vista Nvidia and ATI drivers without complaint, which should mean rock-solid 3D stability from day one. Outside of drivers, however, the beta's not quite proving the plain sailing Microsoft is promising 7 will be - there's a few weird-beardy errors such as Mirror's Edge not playing sound during its cutscenes.

While most current games run solidly and developers working on upcoming titles have most of 2009 in which to ensure maximum 7 friendliness before the OS's retail launch, there's a worrying chance some older titles will remain unpatched and only partially functional.

In the end, though, Windows 7's main appeal to dedicated gamers is that it's simply a more pleasant place to be than Vista ever was. It looks better, it loads quicker, it's more responsive and it gets in your face a whole lot less. It may not offer gamers much that's new, and it's certainly not going to revolutionise performance, but as a nippy, cheerful background platform to launch games from, it's probably Microsoft's strongest-ever hand.