Windows Vista tests

Posted by Kathleen Maher on June 5th 2006 | Discuss
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We had lots of stuff to play with this past three-day weekend—too much, as usual, but we gave it our best effort.

We went from the very large to the very small. Having just gotten back from WinHec with a fresh Vista Beta build, and having a new motherboard and Intel Duo processor to check out, we went to work.

Todd Sparks (our IT manager) and Jon set up a new system with an Intel Pentium D 3.4 GHz with 1 GByte of 533-Mhz PC 4200 DDR2 memory (the fastest we could get, even though the chipset will support 800), an Intel 945G chipset, and a 250-GByte Maxtor (4A250J0) ATA drive. We also had an Nvidia GeForce 7800 512 GTX AIB. Jon did the hardware (built the system and plugged in the parts); Todd did the heavy lifting and got the software to work.

We loaded all the latest drivers and set the screen resolution at 1600 x 1200 x 32 @ 75 Hz. The display was our trusty 21-inch Nokia CRT. We couldn’t use the Dell 30-inch display because the IGP has only a VGA output and we couldn’t find a VGA-to-DVI connector or cable that would work. Dell uses the dual-link DVI-D connector. and everything we had was either dual-link DVI-I or single-link DVI-I—a problem we’ll solve with a trip to the store (aAlthough it’s hard to imagine why we’d want that 30-inch display hung on an IGP).

Vista with an IGP

We weren’t worried that the new Vista install requires 15 GBytes to install—we had GBytes to spare. And we had the GByte of memory and at least a 1-GHz processor, which are some of the minimums Vista requires, so we were good to go. (FYI—By default, Vista creates multi-GByte page and cache files for performance reasons. You can disable this feature and get some of that disk space back if you want. Also, Vista uses the same file recovery mechanism used by Windows Server 2003 to help users recover lost files or previous versions of existing files, meaning that multiple copies of documents are saved so you can restore a previous version in the future. Yes, it uses a lot of HD space, but what cost peace of mind?)

We began our investigation by looking at the performance of the basic system with its IGP and determining if it could run Windows Vista Aero. It can, but that’s not the end of the story.

The first thing we did was to run the system benchmark. Windows Vista will contain a Microsoft-embedded benchmark, known as WinSAT (Windows System Assessment Tool).

WinSAT can be used by OEMs to help them to meet Windows Vista logo requirements, and to develop SKUs for marketing. End users can also run it as a guide to performance of Vista on their system. And WinSAT runs during the Vista setup procedure, to determine if the system is capable of running the Aero 3D user interface and compositing system.

WinSAT ships in both 32-bit and 64-bit flavors. The 32-bit version will not run under 64-bit Vista, and it’s even possible it could run on Windows XP but the results wouldn’t be comparable.

WinSAT consists of five different types of tests, which Microsoft dubs “assessments”:

•  Graphics Assessment. This determines how well the system can run the Aero interface. This is mainly a measure of graphics memory bandwidth.

•  Direct3D Assessment. This actually generates a frames-per-second score, and is intended as a loose guide to how games might perform. The test focuses on GPU ALU (arithmetic logic unit) performance, shader texture load performance, and post-pixel blend performance. The test works on Pixel Shader 2.0 or later hardware and will evaluate 8- or 16-bit render targets.

•  Storage Assessment. The storage sub-test actually divides the drive into regions (up to 16), and then tests performance of individual regions. This alleviates issues such as outer track performance dominating the result of the benchmark. The test reports MBytes per second, and the results from each region. Those results are aggregated into a final mean score.

•  Processor Assessment. The CPU assessment actually uses embedded Windows components, such as LZW data compression, AES encryption, SHA1 hashing, and Windows Media encoding. The test supports multi-core CPUs and generates the appropriate number of threads, depending on the number of cores.

•  Video Decode Assessment. This test is specifically designed to test high-definition playback. The default codec is Windows Media HD, but the test will use other installed codecs as well. The test uses both DirectShow and Vista’s Media Foundation technologies.

Not all of these features are in the Beta 2 release. For example, the video assessment test supports multi-core, but isn’t fully optimized for multi-threading yet. Also not in yet is the frames-per-second video-decode result, plus CPU utilization during video decode.

After it runs, WinSAT generates the Windows System Performance Rating (WinSPR). This scale runs from 1 to 5, with higher numbers being better. Certain scores suggest certain capabilities. For example, a WinSPR of 3 means that the system can run Aero well, but you'll need a score of 4 to run HD video with best results.

Figure 1 shows what we got with the Intel i945G IGP.

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Figure 1. Vista with Intel 945G. (Photo: JPR)
Figure 2. Intel i945G running Aero. (Photo: JPR)

As the screen report shows, the i945G produced a score of 2.7, which is just enough to run Aero, even though the overall score was only 2.0 (WinSRP takes the lowest whole number). So we ran Aero to see how it looked. The screen shot in Figure 2 shows the results.

We were able to observe some transparency in the windows and did see the glass effects on the tool bar. The Flip 3D screen worked, but, as the image may show, there were very noticeable jaggies on the edges. Also, the screen appeared a little dark to us.

Everything else seemed to work normally. We couldn’t get the Intel chipset HD audio drivers to load, but that’s probably an issue with the Beta version we were using.

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Figure 3. Vista with GeForce 7800. (Photo: JPR)
Figure 4. GeForce 7800 running Aero. (Photo: JPR)

Using a graphics AIB

Next we plugged in the GeForce 7800 512 GTX. The i945G sensed it immediately and turned off its graphics and defaulted to the 7800. As soon as it was ready we re-ran the system benchmark and got the score as shown in Figure 3 above.

As the screen shows, the overall score is just 3, only one step higher than the IGP-based system. But, as it turns out in this case, that is due to the disk drive, not the graphics. As you can see the GeForce got a score of 5.9 as compared to 2.7 for the i945G, so the GeForce has plenty of capability for Vista. And, investing in a SATA disk would up the overall score, so we’ll probably move that ATA to a NAS box and get a new disk.

We next set up Flip 3D and found that it too showed jaggies, which reinforced our suspicion about the Beta limitations (Figure 4). We couldn’t find any tools to turn AA the GeForce, although we well know it supports it.

The GeForce seemed to run the screen a little brighter. And it also ran the Gadgets (see clock in upper right corner), which did not appear when the i945G was being used.

More of the Aero features and richness came out when the graphics board was installed.

Get perspective

This is not a comparison of a GeForce 7800 and an Intel i945G—that would be absurd. This was just to see if users could get any Aero satisfaction out of an IGP, and the answer is absolutely. Will they get as much satisfaction as they would with a powerful AIB like the 7800? Of course not, but a powerful AIB can cost as much as a complete PC with an IGP, so it has to be taken in perspective.

DirectX 10 and investment protection

When Vista ships it will ship with a socket for DirectX 10. Vista does not require DX10, it just enables it. Future applications will make use of DX10.

The chances are the i945G and most other IGPs will not be able to support DX10. Once again, don’t get excited— 80% of the world won’t need, want, or even care about DX10 when it becomes available, and a good proportion of you reading this are in that group. You may work for a hot-shot software or graphics hardware company, but the chances are all you’re doing with your PC is pushing web pages around and writing memos in Word; so don’t go getting all uppity about DX10.

In about two years there will be mainstream products that will take advantage of DX10, and then you’ll have to do something about it. If you have an IGP-based system, there’s a good chance you can salvage that major sub-thousand-dollar three-year-old investment (jeez) by dropping in a powerful new AIB. More than likely, you’ll give it to someone you don’t like and get yourself a new machine with more powerful everything; at least that’s what AMD, Intel, Microsoft, and the GPU builders are hoping.

But wait

However, if you really are into graphics, either for work or play, and aren’t restricted with a tight budget, then forget about IGPs and get a system with a high-end chipset like Intel’s 975X and at least one high-end AIB. And even if you are bit budget-constrained, a system like that will carry all but the game enthusiasts for three years or more.

What do we think?

No one loses, no one goes home unhappy, no one has buyer’s remorse. The world isn’t waiting in long lines for Vista like they did for Xbox 360s or a chance to play with Wii. When it comes, it comes. It will be great, but no one is dying because we don’t have it. Microsoft needs Vista a hellofalot more than we do. Microsoft needs to silence those 800-support calls and those seemingly unending security break-ins. -Vista’s lateness isn’t why Intel didn’t have a great quarter, and Vista isn’t gating the game business, or Office programs. It’s an enabler, not a maker.

And yes, the OEMs will launch a big marketing campaign about their new Vista machines when the OS is ready, but whether they do that this year or next hardly matters. And in one sense, Microsoft is lucky, maybe even smart. Delaying Vista only builds the awareness and probably the attractiveness of it more.

So Vista is a win for everyone when it comes, whenever it comes. And Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer said the Windows Vista operating system is still on track for early January shipment.

“This design track [is] for a January shipment, but we’re going to see what kind of feedback we get from users,” Ballmer told reporters on the sidelines of the Seoul Digital Forum, a three-day gathering of leading figures in the technology industry.

“We’ve got still a lot of time, but we’re going to work and make sure it’s an absolutely high-quality product,” he said. Gray box

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