The quad-core project - Gaming still better under XP than Vista

I had thought that if I threw enough hardware at Windows Vista that I would get similar gaming performance to that of Windows XP - I was wrong.

I had thought that if I threw enough hardware at Windows Vista that I would get similar gaming performance to that of Windows XP - I was wrong.

Windows Vista went RTM back in November of last year and it was released to the public at the end of January and things have improved considerably over the intervening months. More Vista compatible hardware has been released and many companies have been continually releasing updated drivers in an attempt to squeeze as much power from the new OS as possible. However, testing seems to suggest that Vista has a long way to go to before it can match XP.

Over at the PC Doc HQ we've been carrying out some testing on the quad-core systems that we built a little while ago (parts list here). The testing that we carried out was relatively simple but proved (to us at any rate) that XP is still much better when it comes to gaming that Vista.

Here's the testing process we used:

  • Install the OS (whether XP or Vista)
  • Make sure that updated drivers are applied (especially the graphics card driver - we're using ATI's Catalyst 7.9 drivers for both XP and Vista)
  • Apply all OS patches and updates (and on Vista we switched off Windows Gadgets)
  • Turned the Indexing service off
  • Install FRAPS 2.9.1 (which will be used to measure game frame rate)
  • Install The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, including the Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isle updates and then applied the latest patches to bring everything up to date
  • Defragged the system
  • Set the scenery detail of the game to ultra high and the screen resolution to 1024 x 768
  • Enlist the help of my kids (who know Oblivion cheats and how to get around the Oblivion world much better than I do!)
  • Play a few sections of the game and see what the performance is like

It's always important to follow, to the letter, the testing procedure that you've laid out at the beginning otherwise you screw up and waste time. This is what we (or, more specifically, I) did. The initial set of tests that we carried out had to be thrown out because we had missed out the step of installing all the patches for Oblivion and this resulted in the game running with different level of scenery detail under XP compared to Vista (which resulted in the game under Vista feeling a lot smoother and better).

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So, with the initial test results binned and checklist in hand, we embarked on a second set of tests, this time making sure that the game is properly patched and up to date.

What surprised us is that the overall performance of Oblivion (which is a very demanding game in terms of the hardware requirements) was very good under both XP and Vista. Game loading times were fast, the game played smoothing, transitioning between scenes was fast and smooth and saving and loading saved games was fast. I'd rate gameplay experience overall as excellent with smooth graphics and little in the way of lagging or delays. Given the free time I could happily pull off a long gaming session on either OS.

However ...

Having been playing Oblivion for a very long time on a variety of systems and we know what parts of the game hammer the system. Specifically (and this will only make sense to you if you've played Oblivion) fighting around an Oblivion gate or running and fighting on complex terrains such as grass can put a strain on the system and decrease frame rate.

When under little load, both OS could easily manage 60 fps, but this frame rate varied depending on where we were in the game and what we were doing. This is both normal and to be expected. What we were looking for was evidence that one OS was better than the other, and we saw this. Under Vista we saw the frame rate drop more dramatically than under XP (the lowest frame rate we got while playing on XP was 34 fps while under Vista it dropped as far down as 25 fps), we also saw the frame rate stay at a lower level for longer. At the time when the frame rate dropped, the game felt a little more choppy under Vista, but the game was still totally playable.

Conclusion: If you're a hardcore gamer and you want the maximum frame rate possible, you need to stick with XP for now, no matter how much hardware you throw at it.


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