Microsoft's new Windows 7 finally hit store shelves last week with record sales. But does the new OS really offer more benefits than XP and Vista for MMO gamers?
This week was a big one for about 90 percent of all computer users. That is to say; 90 percent of those computers users are running Microsoft's Windows operating system, as opposed to an Apple or Linux OS. And unless you've been living in a cave lately, you've heard that Windows 7, the highly-anticipated next-generation OS from Microsoft launched last week, with record-breaking sales. But what does this mean for gamers? Specifically, as an MMO gamer, is Windows 7 something you should be interested in, if given the choice? Is it really worth shelling out the cash for Microsoft's newest OS, when your copy of XP or Vista seems to run your MMOs just fine?
The short answer is yes; there are incentives to upgrade. Of course, as any level-headed consumer, you should do a little research and weigh the pros and cons, especially as they apply to your personal computing experience. Since most of us don't use our PCs exclusively to play MMOs, there are other factors (productivity, for example) to consider. But for an MMO gamer, Windows 7 does offer improvements and benefits from the aging XP operating system, if your hardware can support it. Users of the newer Vista OS will also notice improvements, as Windows 7 is its natural successor, or "what Vista should have been in the first place," as many have said. Let's take a look at the viability of upgrading to Windows 7 and, more importantly, why it matters to fans of the MMO genre.
WINDOWS 7: A QUICK PRIMER
Rather than preface this editorial with a long-winded explanation of Microsoft's OS history and Windows 7's development cycle, I'll cut to the chase; this isn't a PC technology website and you aren't here to learn about those aspects of the new OS anyway. There are plenty of better resources for that sort of info online. Instead, let's jump straight into the thick of it and help you decide whether Windows 7 will make any difference in your gameplay experience, whether you're killing 10 rats or leading a massive PvP zerg with 100 players on the battlefield.
However, it might be a little negligent not to mention the basics of Windows 7, in case you haven't been following the news lately. Officially launched to retail on October 22, 2009, Windows 7 was originally imagined as the true successor to XP. Instead, Microsoft released Vista as an "interim" OS, based on many of the new principles and architecture it imagined for Windows 7.
Microsoft's aim with Windows 7 was to provide a more user-friendly experience to the end-user, while delivering higher performance and a slew of new features. Straight out-of-the-box, even the least discriminating users will notice a moderately-redesigned UI, meant to provide more conveniences with fewer hassles. New features like Jump Lists, the redesigned taskbar and upgraded Aero interface are all meant to improve on previous Windows versions, learning from mistakes of years past and adding a bit of MS innovation as well.
Under the hood, Windows 7 offers upgraded core programs and features, like its new Media Center, Home Networking and Security platforms. Laptop users will appreciate Windows 7's smarter power management, and control freaks will like the overhaul to the previously-annoying User Account Control. More importantly for gamers, the new OS offers greater stability and system performance across the board; from your hard drive and RAM to your CPU and graphics card, Windows 7 promises to squeeze out that performance more efficiently—and elegantly—than ever.
IS YOUR PC COMPATIBLE?
But before we delve into its potential for MMO gamers, it's important to consider whether or not your hardware can even handle the new OS. Unfortunately, you can't just throw it into any old PC and expect it to work its magic; just like an MMO or any other piece of software, Windows 7 has its own "minimum system requirements." According to Microsoft's Windows 7 website, your computer must have:
- 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor
- 1 gigabyte (GB) RAM (32-bit) or 2 GB RAM (64-bit)
- 16 GB available hard disk space (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
- DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 or higher driver
Luckily, those specs include pretty much any PC or laptop manufactured within the last three-to-five years, and two of them can be easily upgraded (RAM and hard drive space). The final spec, a "DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 or higher driver" describes a low-level, discreet (or "integrated") graphics card, which you most likely have at least if you're playing an MMO like World of Warcraft. Do your research if in doubt—but if you're playing modern MMOs at even semi-respectable frame rates, your PC hardware is almost certainly able to handle Windows 7.
HARD DRIVE PERFORMANCE
Obviously, we can't just take Microsoft's word on marketing claims of increased performance, so there's been a lot of independent verification ever since the beta version of Windows 7 went live. One example of a popular third-party benchmark is a ZDNet blog post in which the author compared a variety of memory-related tasks in the Windows 7 beta environment with XP and Vista, and the results were impressive; Windows 7 outperformed the previous operating systems in almost every test. Another popular benchmark tested Windows 7's read/write speeds on both traditional and solid-state hard drives compared to Vista, showing a substantial performance gain.
Hard drive data transfer rate is an important factor in PC gaming, because it's often one of the biggest performance "bottlenecks," behind your graphics card, CPU and RAM. From the perspective of your hard drive alone, enhanced memory management and transfer speeds means smoother gameplay in your MMOs, with less loading time, in-game "hitching" and other client-related performance issues. If Windows 7 is able to perform faster read/write speeds, that's one less issue you have to worry about when you're trying to squeeze an extra 10 frames per second out of your favorite MMO.
CPU and GPU PERFORMANCE
CPU (processor) speed and graphics card performance is a bit higher on the list when it comes to running your MMOs in all their glory. Processor speed is more important for gaming than many people think, especially when coupled with a lower-end graphics card. So, does your CPU perform any better in Windows 7 than in XP, or Vista? Yes and no. With older and semi-modern CPUs, the difference between clock speeds in a Windows 7 environment vs. Windows XP is negligible, as reported in many benchmarks, like this one. Interestingly, both Windows 7 and XP performed better than Vista, according to that particular benchmark. It's worth mentioning, though, that the aforementioned enhanced energy efficiency in Windows 7 applies to your CPU as well as other hardware components, so laptop users might find more appeal than desktop users, in that regard.
When newer chipsets enter the picture, though, users should begin seeing more optimized performance from Windows 7. A blog post at Tom's Hardware explains new technology in Windows 7 that utilizes modern CPUs like new Core i7 so efficiently that they can actually run PC Direct X 10 games like Crysis without a dedicated graphics card. Granted, it's just a proof-of-concept test and it doesn't mean graphics cards will become obsolete any time soon. But it does illustrate that gamers will probably begin receiving bigger gains from Windows 7 if they're using newer chipsets. But if you're using older hardware, Windows 7's overhead might be more than it's worth; in other words, the power required to run Windows 7 could be more taxing on your system's resources than just sticking with XP.
When it comes to graphics cards, the advent of Direct X 10 in Vista, and Direct X 11 in Windows 7, is a substantial reason to consider ditching Windows XP (again, if your hardware supports it). The majority of modern MMOs use the DirectX 9 API, as opposed to the open-source OpenGL technology. Microsoft launched Vista with Direct X 10, offering higher-performance graphics possibilities; but in order to take advantage of it, you need a newer, Direct X 10-compatible graphics card. The same is true with Windows 7's new Direct X 11, which offers even higher performance and complex rendering.
In a nutshell, this means that if you already have a Direct X 10-compatible graphics card, or you're planning on buying a Direct X 11-compatible card in the future, you'll definitely want to use Windows 7 to take full advantage of your hardware.
ARCHITECTURE AND RAM
You might have noticed that Windows 7 is available in both "32-bit" and "64-bit" versions. This terminology refers to the architecture of your PC's processor; 64-bit processors are newer, and offer higher performance than 32-bit architecture. It's pretty simple; if you have a 64-bit processor, you'll want to get the Windows 7 64-bit edition. If you have a 32-bit processor, you'll have to get the regular Windows 7 32-bit edition, because you can't run a 64-bit OS on 32-bit hardware.
Also, as many frustrated 32-bit users know, the amount of RAM you can install is limited to 3.3GB on 32-bit architecture. Supposedly, there are some pretty sketchy and complex tweaks to get around this, although I haven't bothered seeking them out. The long and short of it is that unless you have a 64-bit system, Windows will only recognize 3.3GB out of the 4GB of RAM you've installed in your PC. Luckily, this idiotic issue was finally remedied under 64-bit architecture; Windows 7 64-bit recognizes up to 192GB of RAM. However, in typical Microsoft fashion, the varying editions of Windows 7 64-bit have varying limits on the amount of RAM you can utilize. The "Starter" edition allows up to 8GB, "Home Basic" allows 8GB, "Home Premium" allows 16GB and "Professional" and above all allow 192GB. For more information on the differences between the versions, check out the Microsoft website.
Although we won't need anywhere close to 192GB of RAM for our PC games and MMOs for some time, the option to have more than 4GB of RAM is important. Aside from upgrading your graphics card, adding more RAM to your PC is one of the cheapest and most effective things you can do to boost your gaming performance. Considering Windows 7 will use around 1GB of RAM itself, you'll want to give your MMO all the physical RAM it can handle, and then some. If you have a 64-bit system, make sure you get a 64-bit version of Windows 7 so that extra memory doesn't go to waste.
I've used every version of Microsoft Windows since 3.1, in the early-90s. Up until recently, I swore by XP as the gamer's OS of choice, providing Direct X 10 wasn't a factor. Don't get me wrong; I'm not one of those "XP snobs"—I liked many of the changes Microsoft introduced in Vista. But when came to gaming, I usually fell back to my "gaming" hard drive with good-old XP installed.
When the beta version of Windows 7 launched, I was excited to see how my favorite MMOs would perform on the new OS, as opposed to Vista. From my subjective viewpoint, I saw a definite increase in performance over Vista, and even XP, with MMOs like World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online and Champions Online. In some games, I saw increases of 15 to 20 frames per second (even after my hard drive started to fill up and become fragged). Of course, everyone's mileage will vary.
When trying to decide whether or not Windows 7 will boost your MMO performance, it depends on your hardware and the OS you're currently using. For example, if you're using Vista, you don't have much to lose by switching to Windows 7. In fact, you'll most likely see increased performance across the board if you're moving from Vista to Windows 7.
If you're using XP, it depends on your hardware. If you're PC or laptop is more than four or five years old, and it isn't a high-end gaming rig with a top-notch graphics card, you might be better off sticking with XP until it comes time to buy your next system. Then again, I tried out using Windows 7 on my old Dell e1505 laptop, which has a measly ATI x1400 GPU, a 1.83Mhz Core Duo processor and 4GB of RAM—and I was still able to run older MMOs like WoW smoothly, at around 50 frames per second.
To some extent, it's all going to be relative on your own hardware. Generally speaking, Windows 7 will provide a higher-performance environment for your MMOs, especially from this moment on. It won't be long before Vista is completely phased out; new PCs are being shipped with Windows 7. And as the hardware advances, Direct X 10 and 11 GPUs will eventually render Windows XP obsolete, from the modern gamer's perspective.