Review: Windows XP--good for gamers?

Review: GameSpots says the combination of stability and game compatibility will, for a great many users, make it worth the upgrade from Windows 98 or Me.

Pros: Remarkable stability, robust multiprocessing and networking, solid gaming performance, better compatibility with consumer products than Windows 2000.

Cons: Games without Windows 2000 support may not run, some recent products won't initially have XP support, strict antipiracy activation process.

Every few years, Microsoft unleashes its latest version of Windows amid a marketing blitz that desperately tries to convince business professionals, IT administrators, home users, and PC enthusiasts to drop everything and buy a copy. Every step in Windows' evolution from 95 to Me has seen new claims that the operating system is easier than ever to use and the new features are absolutely indispensable. But there's rarely much incentive to rush out and upgrade the OS on a system that runs well. In combining the power of a Windows NT core with the polish of a consumer OS, Windows XP is the most compelling overhaul of Windows we've seen in a while. It does have new features that really matter, it is easy to use, and it's all but impossible to crash. And Windows XP has come a long way since the beta that we put to the test in our June Windows XP preview. The combination of stability and game compatibility will, for a great many users, make it worth the upgrade from Windows 98 or Me.

Windows XP signals the end of the beleaguered Windows 95 kernel, versions of which have powered Windows 98, 98 SE, and Me. Instead of nursing along that hybrid of 16- and 32-bit code (which, despite Microsoft's best efforts to hide it, is dependent on DOS), Windows XP is based on the streamlined and far more reliable Windows NT kernel. Windows 2000, the previous OS built on NT, found a strong following among technically minded gamers, but Microsoft never officially endorsed it for home use. Windows 2000 is positioned as a professional operating system, and, as a result, it hasn't seen universal support from third-party hardware and software makers that focus on home use. Windows XP is the first NT-kernel OS that Microsoft is marketing directly to the general public, and rightly so--it's much easier to set up and use, with most of the workgroup and security functions transparent to users.

The migration path to Windows XP couldn't be simpler. We didn't experience a single glitch installing it on three different test systems. It goes in with zero fuss on a clean hard drive, and our experiences were equally smooth in upgrading both a Windows 98 SE installation and a very heavily used Windows 2000 system. While a clean install reduces the chance of any software incompatibilities cropping up, the upgrade option does run your system through a compatibility test and transfers over most programs and settings.

Microsoft will initially make two versions available, Windows XP Home Edition and Windows XP Professional. Gamers will find everything they need in the less expensive consumer version, but there's one exception: Home Edition does not support multiple-processor systems. If you've splurged for a dual CPU setup, you'll need XP Professional to get the most out of it. Most of the features found in Professional but not in Home Edition are academic to gamers (robust file encryption, increased laptop and mobile platform support, additional administrative tools, and so on). While the beta versions of Home Edition left the multiple-monitor support introduced by Windows 98 out (something that has since become a fairly common graphics card feature), Microsoft did add the feature back into the final release. Windows XP Home Edition is definitively the most user-friendly version of Windows ever created. Its robust help system includes tours, walk-throughs, and a whole legion of wizards to help with everything from customizing the desktop to setting up a home network. Anyone who can read, click a mouse, and register a pulse is sufficiently equipped to use XP to its full potential.

The basic Windows graphical user interface, familiar to any Windows 98 and 2000 user, is intact--mostly. XP's interface has been streamlined, placing more icons and shortcuts in the opening page of the Start menu. The taskbar, system tray, and shortcut panel are mostly unchanged, butcontrol panels are now grouped by function and most windows have context-sensitive options and information listed on the left side. The look of the GUI is completely customizable with a few different colored themes, and a traditional Windows 2000 and Me look is available for users who don't like XP's colorful new appearance. XP's desktop only supports resolutions below 800x600 and color depths below 16-bit for the sake of legacy compatibility. It defaults to 800x600x16.

Although Windows XP is just as bloated as previous versions of Windows and requires a whopping 1.5GB of hard drive space, many of the extras are surprisingly useful. For example, Media Player 8, which is included with XP, has the ability to interface with CD burners to create audio CDs. Similarly, XP's version of Windows Explorer can create data CDs without the help of third-party applications (like Adaptec's ubiquitous EasyCD).

Other niceties include the built-in ability to create and expand Zip archives, a comprehensive help center, and nifty enhancements for handling multimedia files. For instance, you can browse thumbnails of digital images in any folder. Likewise, Windows Movie Maker is a surprisingly robust video editor that gives users a simple interface to edit video and arrange clips. It works nicely with video from USB webcams or video captured from ATI's All-In-Wonder Radeon.

Despite all the new features and the OS's large drive footprint, Windows XP looks like the Microsoft gaming platform that everyone's been hoping for. Our exhaustive game testing showed it to be fast, stable, and compatible with a vast majority of titles we installed and played.

Our game testing was exhaustive. Starting with current games, we piled on everything from cutting-edge FPS monsters to quaint 2D strategy games. Among the dozens of FPS titles we ran are the entire Quake series, Unreal and Unreal Tournament, Half-Life and a half dozen mods (including Counter-Strike and TFC), Max Payne, Tribes 2, and the Return to Wolfenstein Multiplayer Test. Virtually all of them ran perfectly, with fast, playable frame rates on all our test systems. Windows XP handled many other recent titles equally well. The general rule of thumb is that games and applications ready for Windows 2000 will carry over to XP without any trouble. Westwood's RTS games, including Command & Conquer Red Alert, Red Alert 2, and Emperor: Battle for Dune, were all compatible and ran smoothly, as did Starcraft, Sacrifice, Ground Control, and Homeworld. We also flew a handful of flight sims on XP, like Jane's F/A-18 and F-15, MiG Alley, and Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000. Strategy, adventure, and RPG games fared well, too--Diablo II, the Baldur's Gate series, Desperados, and Commandos 2 all performed well.

Sports-game testing revealed a few surprising incompatibilities. A number of EA Sports titles flat out refused to run on XP. Tiger Woods 2000 installed fine, but crashed on execution. Madden 2001 was shaky--it often ran for a few minutes before crashing to the desktop. FIFA 2001, NBA Live 2000, and NHL 2000 experienced a similar lack of stability. A representative from Electronic Arts informed us that EA Sports titles that were released prior to the 2002 series were not designed to run on Windows 2000 or XP and are only supported by Windows 98 and Me. We were able to test Madden 2002, and it ran smoothly and dependably.

DOS games also didn't do too well. The Doom and Duke Nukem series ran, but without sound. Destruction Derby wouldn't even install. Hyperblade worked moderately well, but exhibited frequent slowdown (that old game should just fly on a P4 1.5GHz). Final Fantasy VII didn't work at all, even on a Voodoo3 card. Tomb Raider II and III both generated errors on startup.

Windows XP's Compatibility Wizard is supposed to help in such cases. It offers a few options to experiment with, including modes that allow the OS to mimic earlier versions of Windows for program compatibility. It didn't help at all. We truly expected it to help with Windows 95/98 games like Final Fantasy VII, Hyperblade, and the Tomb Raider games, but it was basically useless.

It's very important to note that, throughout our testing, driver installing and uninstalling, and other messing around, Windows XP did not crash. While we encountered occasional program crashes and incompatibilities, in virtually every case, Windows was able to terminate the program gracefully and return to the desktop without hanging, flashing the heart-stopping blue screen, or exhibiting any other undesirable symptoms. However, we have seen some driver problems (the Game Theater XP, for one, does not have compatible drivers) and some unexpected bugginess with some of the corporate software we use around the office. As we saw with the Windows 2000 launch, many such issues with third-party products should be worked out in the months following the final release.

Nonetheless, if you do upgrade, expect to sacrifice legacy compatibility for stability. In all fairness, that's to be expected. The reason Microsoft has taken this long to migrate fully to the very stable NT kernel from the very shaky Windows 95 kernel is that the latter offers better backward compatibility. If you have old DOS and early Windows 95 games that you'd like to enjoy once in a while, install XP in a dual boot configuration and keep a DOS boot disk with sound card and CD-ROM drivers handy. We tested three current-generation video cards and two versions of Windows on two different platforms: an Athlon 1.1GHz system and a Pentium 4 1.5GHz system. To test driver performance, we dropped in Nvidia's new GeForce3 Titanium cards and ATI's Radeon 7500 for an early head-to-head comparison.

The scores reveal a wealth of information about the video cards tested and the operating systems they were tested on. Note that each operating system was installed cleanly and fitted with the latest drivers and Windows updates, but otherwise remained totally unoptimized. It's likely that the performance of the XP games will continue to improve over time--Windows XP dynamically optimizes itself for frequently used programs, arranging frequently used data on the hard drive for faster access, prefetching commonly used startup applications during boot, and performing other optimization tasks. To simulate the experience of a typical gamer, we left all of Windows XP's settings at default and repeated the tests until we saw consistent results.


Direct3D Game Tests

How we tested:

3DMark2001 (Direct3D): Default (1024x768x32, compressed textures, D3D pure hardware T&L, FSAA off).
Max Payne v.1.01 (Direct3D):
AquaMark v.2.0 (Direct3D):
Quake III Arena v.1.30 (OpenGL): Highest texture and geometry settings, trilinear filtering, demo 4.dm_66.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein Multiplayer Test v.0.7.15 (OpenGL): Highest texture and geometry settings, trilinear filtering, atdemo6.
MDK2 v.1000.2 (OpenGL): Highest texture quality, trilinear filtering, T&L on.
Serious Sam v.1.04 (OpenGL): 1024x768x32, trilinear, all else defaults, Karnak Peaceful Night Coop demo, originally recorded score.

Systems:

Abit K7V motherboard (with VIA 4-in-1 drivers v.4.33)
Athlon 1.1GHz
256MB PC133 SDRAM
Philips Acoustic Edge PSC706 sound card (Windows Me drivers v.2.59, XP/WDM drivers v.1.55)
Seagate Barracuda ATA IV 20GB Ultra/100 7200rpm hard drive
Toshiba SD-R1002 8X ATAPI DVD-ROM
3COM 3C450 Fast Ethernet adapter
DirectX v.8.0a


Intel D850GB motherboard
Pentium 4 1.5GHz
256MB RDRAM
Philips Acoustic Edge PSC706 sound card (Windows Me drivers v.2.59, XP/WDM drivers v.1.55)
Seagate Barracuda ATA IV 20GB Ultra/100 7200rpm hard drive
Toshiba SD-R1002 8X ATAPI DVD-ROM
3COM 3C450 Fast Ethernet adapter
DirectX v.8.0a
The performance differences between Windows Me and XP are minimal. In 3DMark2001, we see a definite 8 to 10 percent advantage in Windows XP, while the real-world Direct3D games we tested lean toward Me. Meanwhile, nearly all the OpenGL games performed better in XP than in Me, with the exception of MDK2. The performance differences alone don't justify an upgrade, though.

Note, however, that all these games have been available for some time and are not optimized for XP. There's no way to predict the future, but if XP is the success Microsoft is hoping it will be, there's a very good chance that upcoming software will be designed to take direct advantage of its kernel. That could result in games that perform noticeably better on XP than on Me.

Meanwhile, Nvidia's drivers seem to be slightly better prepared to take advantage of XP than ATI's. Overall, there was little difference in performance between the two operating systems, but the GeForce3 Ti 500 squeezed in a slight boost in XP. . From the specs we'd expect the GeForce2 Ti 200 to take the lead over the ATI Radeon 7500, but it's interesting to note how that gap varied. The Radeon 7500 trailed dramatically in the Direct3D tests and generally did better in the OpenGL tests, with the notable exception of Serious Sam, where it pumped out only half the frame rate of the Nvidia cards.


Direct3D Game Tests

The Bottom Line We don't usually get excited about operating system upgrades, but all things considered, Windows XP is an incredible product. Its ease of use is unprecedented in a Windows operating system, it's loaded with applications, applets, and new features that are actually valuable, its gaming performance is excellent, and it's the first Windows consumer OS that we can comfortably describe as rock-solid stable.

As PC makers scramble to load it on all new PCs and Microsoft pushes retailers to remove previous versions of Windows from their shelves, Windows XP will progressively take over the PC market. That's not a bad thing. If you're going to purchase a new PC in the next few months, make sure XP is installed. Windows XP also has enough advantages to make it a compelling upgrade from consumer versions of Windows. If you've been dying to check into the reported stability of Windows 2000 but weren't sure if it was right for a gamer, wait no longer--XP is a feature-rich, user-friendly product built on the NT/2000 kernel and optimized for home use.

The upgrade version of Home Edition only costs $99 (instead of $199 for the full retail copy), so it's a good choice if you have Windows 98, 98 SE, or Me. In contrast, the upgrade package for Windows XP Professional costs $199 (down from $299 for the full Professional edition), and this is the only way to upgrade Windows 2000 to Windows XP. For this reason, there isn't as much incentive for Windows 2000 users to run out and upgrade right away. But in any case, as the development community pushes toward XP support, you'll eventually want to take the plunge--even if it means waiting until you get a new PC. In dissolving the line between the reliability of a professional-level OS and the convenience of one intended for consumers, Windows XP has real advantages for gamers.

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