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Editor’s note: Now that Microsoft’s new OS is out, I decided to rerun this interview with former ExtremeTech.com editor Jason Cross on Windows 7 and gaming. -Jason
Jason Cross knows his tech. A former editor at ExtremeTech.com who also contributed to Computer Games Magazine, Cross has been covering the gaming and tech scenes for 13 years.
Cross is certainly a good geek to explain Windows 7, the Microsoft OS that comes out Oct. 22. Like all new OSes, Windows 7 confuses me. My PC is 3 years old, and while I’ve upgraded it to help it run current games at nice resolutions, I’m still not sure if my machine is up to running Microsoft’s new OS. I doubt that I’m the only one with questions.
So I asked Cross about some of my questions about Windows 7 — how it differs from Vista, its benefits for gamers, if older games will run on Windows 7, how 64-bit computing will affect gaming, and if gamers need to upgrade their machines for the new OS.
Bitmob: Microsoft made a number of promises about how Vista and its Games for Windows initiative would be a boon for gamers. The results weren’t so hot. What promises is Microsoft making for Windows 7?
Jason Cross: Games for Windows isn’t really specific to Vista. It’s a branding initiative that goes across XP, Vista, and Windows 7. And actually, the whole “branding the box with Games for Windows” thing has been pretty decent. To get that branding, your game needs to support widescreen, 64-bit, the Games Explorer, and other stuff that, really, all PC games support. So that part’s good.
Games for Windows Live, on the other hand, is sort of an embarrassment — a constant reminder that Microsoft cares way more about Xbox 360 than Windows.
Since those things aren’t at all specific to a certain version of Windows, you shouldn’t expect changes in those areas for Windows 7 — except, of course, that games with the Games for Windows branding should be tested to work on Win7.
As for what Microsoft is promising…basically, better performance, stability, security, ease-of-use, and all the other stuff they always promise. This time it appears much of it is true. But some of the marketing around Windows 7 for gamers is exaggerated or overblown.
Bitmob: What claims are exaggerated or overblown?
JC: It’s just typical marketing stuff. Windows 7 will change your life; it’s soooo much faster; all that multitouch stuff is going to change the world, etc. Don’t get me wrong- Windows 7 is an improvement along pretty much every axis. It’s just not the amazing total revolution in computing the marketing would have you believe. And for gamers, while I think most will greatly prefer it over Vista, it doesn’t offer any revolutionary new features that will make games in Windows 7 dramatically different from Vista.
Bitmob: What’s the idea behind Windows 7?
JC: A good way to think of it is “Vista done right.” The truth is, Vista is in pretty decent shape right now. It got a bad reputation because some of its features and internal components were slow and unreliable, and it took quite a bit of time to fix that.
On top of that, lots of hardware had driver issues, especially those all-important graphics drivers. So Vista, at launch, was a hardware hog — especially compared to the old Windows XP — that ran games sometimes much more slowly than Windows XP, and [it] crashed too often for its own good.
Today, most of those problems have been worked out in Vista. If you have a clean Vista install today that’s up to date and has new drivers, it runs quite well. But the damage has been done.
Windows 7 basically takes the Vista codebase and rewrites, refines, optimizes, and overhauls most of the internal stuff without making dramatic changes to the driver stacks that Vista did over WinXP. The changes to the fundamental driver models are small and mostly serve to improve performance. Plus, the hardware makers — especially the graphics guys — are on top of the changes this time around. Nvidia and ATI have been shipping quite good Win7 graphics drivers for months now.
So Win7 basically takes Vista, cleans it all up, refines the interface in some really nice ways, and hits the “reset” button so that we can all start with a new OS from a place that is, hopefully, better off than where Vista ended up after years of improvements and fixes.
Bitmob: How well do older PC formats, such as Windows 98 and 2000, run in Windows 7? How well do XP games run in Windows 7?
JC: You really shouldn’t expect much of a change from Vista to Windows 7 in terms of old game compatibility. Or at least, Windows 7 should be roughly comparable upon launch this fall to where Vista is today, not where Vista was during its first year. We won’t know for sure until we can test a whole bunch of old games on the actual final code release of Win7.
But in general you can expect “if it runs on Vista, it runs on Win7” to be true of games. And if your game doesn’t run on Vista, I wouldn’t expect Win7 to give you much more luck.
Of course, you really want DOSBox to run those old DOS games, anyway. The only ones squeezed out are those Win95/98 games that just don’t run on Vista — and almost certainly won’t run on Win7. If you just have to play one, I suggest making a small dual-boot partition or keeping an old computer around. Fortunately, it looks like the game developers are interested in fixing up some of those old games to run on modern computers and releasing them cheap through Steam or Good Old Games, which has a lot of awesome stuff.
Bitmob: Will it be difficult for gamemakers to produce Windows 7 and XP versions of games?
JC: [It’ll be] no more difficult than it is to produce Vista and XP versions of games. I would expect that, perhaps a year after Windows 7’s launch, you’ll start to see games just dropping Windows XP support and being Vista/Win7 only. Win7 just runs so much better on slow and old hardware than Vista does. You’re going to get to a point where the installed base of computers that are running Windows XP but still meets the minimum hardware requirements for the game are quite small.
Bitmob: Windows 7 allows for 64-bit computing. What are the benefits of 64-bit gaming?
JC: The big one is more memory. You’re not stuck with that 2GB-maximum 32-bit [memory limit]. Sure, some applications can use a special flag to access a bit more, but that’s not a good solution. I saw a Dell notebook advertised the other day for $479 with 4GB of RAM and 64-bit Vista. That’s the level we’re at now, and it’s awesome. Four GB is on even the cheap machines, and 64-bit is a massive percentage of the new systems being sold today. That trend will continue, and probably accelerate, when Windows 7 launches.
I’d expect that more than half of Windows 7 installations, right out of the gate and including new systems sold with Windows 7 installed, will use the 64-bit version.
Now, a 32-bit application that isn’t Large Address Aware, and that’s most of ’em, can only access 2GB of RAM, even if it’s running on a 64-bit OS. But if you have 64-bit Windows, you give every 32-bit app its own 2GB virtual address pool, and you keep most of the other OS stuff out of the way. So you still end up giving applications more room to breathe.
Over the coming years, you’ll see game developers ship more actual 64-bit executables with their games, in addition to the 32-bit ones, so that they can easily access many gigabytes of RAM.
As a side note, 8GB of DDR2 [RAM] is just over $100 these days, and 12GB of DDR3 is less than $250. So go ahead and load up on memory. You’ll be glad you did.
Bitmob: Will the multiplatform version of PC games take advantage of 64-bit computing? Or will only PC-exclusive developers take advantage of 64 bit?
JC: It’s a funny cycle, and we see it with every console generation. New consoles come out, and even though modern PCs are somewhat more powerful, the focused nature and stable platform lets developers do more with the consoles, and the console games are the most impressive. But PC hardware steadily marches on, and over the course of the console generation, the PC stuff catches up and eventually starts to offer things that the consoles just can’t do.
This console generation is heading in the direction of being a year or two longer than typical, and games take longer to make and cost a lot more. So this cycle is stretched out this time around. Already, PCs are capable of better graphics than you get on a console, especially higher resolutions. But it’s not yet to the point where developers find it worthwhile to really make the PC version much different from the console version.
PC versions of multiplatform games require more system memory today because of the differences in the platforms, and the multipurpose PC OS takes up more memory. Already there are a few games that benefit from having more than 2GB of RAM and a small handful with 64-bit clients. The next 18 months should be interesting.
By the holiday season of 2010, developers will look at the PC and see a platform were a whole lot of users have 64-bit and lots of RAM and a more powerful graphics chip and CPU and say, “This is a good platform to support as a way of transitioning to the next generation of consoles coming up.”
On the other hand, PC gaming is changing a lot. We’re seeing a lot of really great “smaller” games like Plants vs. Zombies and the Monkey Island remake that run on low-end laptops and such and are sized right for digital distribution. So in the end, who really knows?
Bitmob: What hardware upgrades do gamers need for Windows 7?
JC: None! OK, that’s a bit disingenuous. Basically, Windows 7 runs better on low-end hardware than Vista does. And Vista these days runs pretty well on almost anything you can buy today. Quite a change from where it was at launch.
Some folks report the release candidate of Windows 7 actually feeling faster than Windows XP on their four-year-old hardware. I make no promises about something that old. Hey, if you want to play games, and your system is four years old or older, you probably are best off just buying — or building — a new $800 system and getting Windows 7 with it. If your system is [younger than that], you can probably run Windows 7 just fine. If you’re running Vista now, you can run Win7, and it’ll probably be faster at a lot of everyday things.
Bitmob: So you don’t need to upgrade videocards at this point?
JC: Not really. Your videocard has nothing to do with whether or not you run a 32-bit OS or a 64-bit OS or a 32- or 64-bit application. Of course you need the 64-bit drivers for your graphics card if you have 64-bit Windows, but the graphics guys have been on top of that for a long time now. If I was thinking about a graphics-card upgrade — having nothing to do with 64-bit gaming per se, just if [the videocard] was too old and slow for modern games — I would wait a couple months and see what the first DirectX 11 cards look like.
Bitmob: Has anyone tested how download services like Steam work with Windows 7? Does DOSBox work with Windows 7?
JC: Steam works just as it does in Vista, which is to say, [it works] just fine.
DOSBox, too, works pretty much as it does in Vista. There have been some problems, but the latest version of DOSBox fixes some of them. I’ve seen reports of certain specific games not working right with the taskbar in Win7, along with some workarounds. But it seems [that] those problems are isolated, and other users report everything works just great. So your mileage may vary.
But I wouldn’t avoid Win7 because all your old DOSBox stuff is going to suddenly stop working. Just make sure you have the latest version of DOSBox.
Bitmob: What sort of framerate tests have you performed with Windows 7? How well does it run hardware-intensive games like Crysis?
JC: The answer to that needs a bit of context. When Vista was released, and for months thereafter, people ran game performance tests and found that Vista was often slower than XP, and sometimes a lot slower.
Today, that’s not the situation at all. After the service packs and OS updates and tons of driver updates, Vista is on par or faster than XP in a whole lot of games, and only rarely slower. And of course, there are a lot more games with DX10 modes to make Vista “worthwhile.”
When the public beta of Windows 7 started in January, you saw a lot of articles comparing game performance where Win7 was a bit slower than Vista, sometimes quite a bit slower. It’s all a matter of drivers. ATI very quickly released some very fast Win7 drivers, and Nvidia followed suit right behind them.
Today, even though Windows 7 isn’t out yet, the driver situation is pretty great. Most games run at exactly the same speed on Windows 7 as they do in Vista. Some run like 1 to 2 percent slower; some run as much as 5 percent faster.
So when I say that Win7 runs games as fast or faster than Vista, there are two important things to remember. One is that we’re talking about today’s Vista, with all of the fixes, new hardware, and new drivers, that runs games about as fast as XP — unless you have really, really old hardware.
The other is that we’re talking about pretty small differences, and you probably won’t notice much of a difference in framerate in most games. You really only see the difference in benchmarks.
That’s game performance, though. A whole lot of general OS tasks are way snappier in Win7.
Bitmob: What are the changes in Windows 7’s version of Vista’s Games Explorer?
JC: The changes are minor. There’s now a category for “Game Providers” where services like Steam and WildTangent and such could put icons. The side panel that used to show just the ratings and performance now has tabs showing rating, performance recommendations, and statistics that can be customized by the gamemaker, to show trophies/achievements, high scores, and so on.
You can right-click on a game and say “check online for updates” now and set Games Explorer to automatically check for updates. If one is found, you get a dialog box about downloading and applying the patch. But game developers have to build their GDF files, which describe the game to the Games Explorer, with this feature in mind, pointing to the server where updates will reside. So it’s not like you’ll all of a sudden get patches this way on all your existing games.
The thing I personally like most is that you can now use the search in your start menu to find games that show up in the Games Explorer. In Vista, if a game installs and shows up in Games Explorer, it won’t be in the Start menu and the search box won’t find it, which is just dumb. So that’s fixed.
Bitmob: In your tests, are any popular games, especially multiplayer titles like Left 4 Dead, encountering issues?
JC: None that I have personally come across. There were some issues with a few anticheating measures, [like] PunkBuster et al, and copy protection schemes back when the public beta of Windows 7 came out. But most of those have been resolved either with updates to Win7 or updates to the games.
I’m quite sure there will be some incompatibility somewhere with a game that people consider popular, but I haven’t personally come across one with the release candidate of Win7 and up-to-date drivers.
Bitmob: At this point, what hardware works best with Windows 7? Intel or AMD? ATI or Nvidia?
JC: There’s really no difference between Intel and AMD with regard to Windows 7 support; both brands of CPUs have it down, and you’ll find modern chipset drivers for all the popular motherboard chipsets pretty much built right into the OS.
At this point, both ATI and Nvidia have released WHQL-certified Win7 drivers that are pretty much the same speed, and sometimes slightly faster, than the Vista drivers. And they support all the features, too — SLI/Crossfire, CUDA/ATI Stream, etc. ATI seems to have a bit of an edge in that they added Win7 drivers to their monthly driver release schedule at the beginning of the year. So every month, when ATI releases new drivers, Win7 drivers are included along with the WinXP and Vista stuff. Nvidia is still releasing Win7 drivers separately, but that probably won’t be the case once Win7 launches.
Frankly, the driver situation for Windows 7 looks pretty great as far as gamers are concerned. The one part you want to look for is updated audio drivers for your motherboard or soundcard. Some of the printer companies need to get their act together and release some Win7 drivers, but that’s not really a gaming thing.
Bitmob: At this point, can you recommend Windows 7 as a gaming platform?
JC: I’d almost insist on it. Windows XP is old enough that running it is sort of a security risk, and you can’t run DX10 or DX11. Windows 7 is as fast or faster than Vista in most games, has a lot of nice interface improvements, runs better on older hardware, and has eats up less of your available memory, so your game has more [memory] to use. It’s hard to find a downside, other than obviously the cost of the OS itself.
If you’re running a system that’s four-plus years old-Pentium 4 or Athlon 64 CPUs, less than 2GB of RAM, GeForce 7 series or Radeon 1000 series [videocard] or earlier — I wouldn’t go upgrading the OS and expect miracles. Save your money for the new computer you’ll need to meet the minimum system requirements of games anyway and get Win7 with it.
If your system is fairly modern — dual- or quad-core CPU, 2GB of RAM or more, GeForce 8 series or Radeon 2000 series [videocard] or better — I’d recommend Windows 7.