Testing 64-bit Vista and Windows 7
This story was significantly updated with added detail during the first 2.5 weeks after it was launched. Those additions did not fundamentally change the thrust of any of the original points I made. They were aimed at clarity, added support for points made, and the addition of new details as I’ve continued to use Windows 7 Beta 1.
If you’ve been reading Scot’s Newsletter of late, you’re probably aware that I’ve been giving Windows 7 a close look. Several of my stories have been about Windows 7 performance. Since I’ve been more critical than most on that point — using what I consider to be typical hardware for Windows XP users (the vast majority of Windows users) — I decided that I needed to approach the question of Windows 7 performance from a different perspective.
To gain that perspective, I bought a new Windows 7 testbed. I selected the Sony Vaio VGN-SR290, a notebook that is very similar in many ways to Apple’s new MacBook in size and features. It came with the P8400 Core 2 Duo running at 2.26GHz, 3GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3470 with 256MB of adapter RAM and an HDMI port, 13.3″ LED display, Firewire 400, DVD/RW drive, two USB 2 ports, and so on.
Perhaps the most significant difference between the late-XP era hardware I’ve tested with in the past and the notebook PC I just bought is that the new one is an x64 machine with 64-bit Windows Vista Home Premium. I upgraded the Vaio’s RAM to 4GB shortly after I received the computer.
The first thing I noticed about the Vaio is how fast and stable Vista was on it. This is the only good Vista performance experience I’ve ever had. Even before I upgraded from 3GB to 4GB, 64-bit Vista felt as fast to me as 32-bit Windows XP does on lesser hardware. I don’t consider that to be Vista vindication, to be honest. Other OS makers manage to deliver new versions of their operating systems without requiring significantly better hardware. By the time Windows Vista shipped, most of the best advances that Microsoft had touted during the Vista development process had been stripped out. The value proposition wasn’t good for me and many others. There wasn’t a sufficiently compelling reason to invest in new hardware to support Vista properly. But it’s good to finally run Vista the way Microsoft hoped it would operate.
To test 64-bit Windows 7 Beta 1, I split the disk into two partitions using Partition Manager 9 from Paragon Software, backed up my Vista partition using Acronis TrueImage Home 2009, and installed Windows 7 cleanly on the second partition.
[Note: I was forced to use the "recovery disk" versions of both Partition Manager 9 and Acronis TrueImage Home 2009 to carry out these tasks. TrueImage Home worked fine with Vista but doesn't support Windows 7. I believe both products use a Linux-based UI offering their program functionality when booting from a disc. The Acronis boot-disc software is especially well done. I wasn't able to discover why Partition Manager required me to boot from disc to work with Vista. I presume there's an issue with 64-bit Vista, although incomplete contact with Paragon Software implied that might not be the case.]
The installation of Windows 7 was uneventful and complete. It’s the best Windows installation experience Microsoft has produced to date. Several of the Vaio-specific hardware functions (such as trackpad scrolling) weren’t properly configured, which was to be expected. Even so, Windows 7 is running well, and the forthcoming OS did a good job of configuring the Vaio’s specific Intel mobile chipset and some of the Sony stuff on its own. Although few hardware makers, such as Sony, offer any Windows 7-specific drivers yet, Windows 7 does a better job of managing driver issues than any previous version of Windows.
I’m going to endeavor to test this more objectively, but my initial impressions of Windows 7 performance on the Vaio are both very much the same and very different. Windows 7 startup and shutdown times — a trouble spot for Vista — are subjectively faster than Vista’s. But in all other aspects, performance of Windows Vista and Windows 7 on this machine seems to me to be about the same. Remember, I raved above about how well Vista runs on this hardware, so I’m not damning Windows 7 with faint praise. But I’m also still not noticing a significant performance difference between Vista and Windows 7 on up to date hardware.
The way my initial impressions are very different is that, compared to how well Windows 7 runs on XP-level hardware, 64-bit Windows 7 runs lickety-split fast on brand new 64-bit hardware with 4GB of RAM. It is easily as fast as XP is on the hardware of its era. Overall, taking in the entire user experience, I’d choose Windows 7 running on this hardware over XP. In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s high praise from me.
The caveat is that I had to pay $1,200 to get this hardware, not including the cost for commercial software that I need. In my case, that means Microsoft Office. That also doesn’t include the RAM upgrade. The specific Vaio I purchased was also discontinued a couple of weeks after I bought, so it was on sale at a lower price than its replacement, the VGN-390.
For a couple of years now, we’ve seen thousands of debates on forums and in blog and article comments about Vista vs. XP. Vista is a pig! It runs great for me! In the end, it appears to me that both sides are correct. Vista is a pig on XP-class hardware — even on high-end XP hardware. But that’s not apparent on 64-bit hardware properly designed and equipped to run Windows Vista Home Premium or Ultimate.
Based on what we know now, Windows 7 is likely to be a more compelling upgrade than Vista was. Time has marched on, and two-plus years later, Windows XP, approaching eight years in age, is getting long in the tooth. There are fewer negatives, such as UAC, with Windows 7. I think we’re all ready (whether we know it or not) for a new Windows operating system. Security issues alone drive that consideration. So even though Windows 7 is not a significant features upgrade over Vista, new features aren’t what we’ve needed anyway. What many Windows users have craved is a leaner, less annoying, more usable Vista. Based on 64-bit Windows 7 Beta 1, that’s what Win 7 is. Let’s hope the final version of the new Windows stays on track.
I still think Windows 7′s performance and reliability improvements over Vista are modest at best. A lot of this is about the 64-bit versions of Windows, which can address more RAM. It means new hardware for most people, which may cost a bit more than 32-bit hardware (it certainly makes sense to grab at least 4GB of RAM). But for those who jump through those hoops, it looks like a solid, enjoyable Windows experience awaits. And the overall experience is better with Windows 7 than with Vista.
Finally, if you’ve been following the problems that I and others have experienced with Windows 7′s HomeGroup, there’s some good news there, too. When I ran the HomeGroup initialization on the Vaio, I started by turning on my Dell Inspiron Windows 7 test machine and placing it next to the Vaio. The Dell already had HomeGroup running on it (which had earlier been unable to connect to a virtualized installation of Windows 7 on yet another computer). The Vaio found the Dell’s HomeGroup right away and I was able to connect with it exactly as Microsoft intended. The result was pretty dramatic too, all Mac and Windows computers on my network (a lot of machines) were immediately visible in the network browser on both Windows 7 machines. I haven’t tested this extensively yet. I need to spend a couple hours checking every connection against every other connection to draw hard conclusions. But I am finally able to see HomeGroup in operation. And it does hold some promise.
More to come as soon as I find more time to test various aspects of Windows 7. I’m also looking forward to testing Windows 7 RC1 when it’s released.