Thursday, August 16, 2007

Weigh the pros and cons before upgrading to Windows Vista for gaming

Takeaway: Microsoft Windows Vista introduces a new graphic API to the mix: DirectX 10. The advances encompassed in the DirectX 10 technology may entice you to upgrade to a new PC or video card, but you should also consider some of the challenges upgrading will present. Josh Hoskins reveals some of the upgrade drawbacks and weighs them against the visual benefits.

With the release of Windows Vista and DirectX 10, a new epoch in PC gaming is upon us. The images and videos released of DirectX 10 games show a level of detail and realism that has impressed everyone. Unfortunately, it's not all wonderful news. Several issues must be considered before you upgrade your gaming rig to Vista.
Upgrade challenges

One of the first things you'll notice about gaming on Vista is that Direct Sound is no longer a part of DirectX. In many games, Direct Sound was used to provide positional audio in the game. With DirectSound no longer being included, your sound in those games will downgrade to stereo sound. While not affecting game performance much, it is something worth considering.

Another thing to consider is the fact that many older games are not compatible with Vista out of the box. A large part of this is due to the security restructuring in Vista, not allowing games to write to the Program Files directory after install. Although many game companies are working on or have already released patches for their games, many older games are no longer supported by their manufacturers. You can bypass this issue by setting the games to run in Windows XP mode, but doing this bypasses the improved security system of Vista, which is one of its major selling points.

While DirectX 10 is backwardly compatible with previous versions of DirectX, there are many reports that DirectX 9 and older games run slower on Windows Vista than on Windows XP. This has been tested to be true in several games, though the exact reason remains undiagnosed. Many believe this is due to the new display architecture and Aero Glass.

In previous versions of Windows, the GPU was not a shared resource. It was totally controlled by one resource at a time. In Window Vista, the GPU cycles can be split between multiple resources (like a CPU). While this does provide for many of the advanced features in the Windows Vista GUI, it is also limits the cycles your game can command from your GPU. The Aero Glass interface itself requires a DirectX 9 compatible video card to render the new desktop effects. There has not been much concrete testing, but many have speculated that disabling the Aero Glass interface will give you increased performance in games.

At this, point DirectX 10 compatible graphics cards are still hard to find and very expensive. Currently, only Nvidia has DirectX 10 cards on the market. These cards come in a couple of versions, but the lowest-end cards still price at over $400. This dearth of competition is truly limiting. Although ATI is working on its DirectX 10 cards, none is currently available.

Hardware vendors have been developing their drivers for Windows XP for several years now, and most are fairly stable. Unfortunately, the drivers currently available for Windows Vista are still immature, and many are unstable. Nvidia is currently facing a potential class action lawsuit due to the unstable nature of its video drivers under Vista. As most gamers know, unstable or even poorly written drivers can have a huge effect not only on gaming performance, but also on whether a game can even run.
Upgrade benefits

While all these issues seem to stack heavily against Windows Vista, there is one important fact to remember. DirectX 10 is only for Windows Vista. This may not sound huge, but the potential for DirectX 10 games is unbelievable. The realism of even the first generation of games is at totally unprecedented levels. Describing the effect of DirectX 10 is much better done with visuals (here and here) than with words. Most upcoming games will support DirectX 10 and DirectX 9, but the better visuals are available only on DirectX 10. Some other upcoming games, such as Alan Wake, will be DirectX 10 exclusives.

Figure A
An image from the yet-to-be-released game Crysis (courtesy of GameSpot)

One performance issue to be considered is the fact that DirectX 10 games that support backward compatibility with DirectX 9 will perform significantly faster under DirectX 10 than DirectX9. These games (none of which is released yet) will be among the main selling points of Vista. You will literally be crippling your performance by not upgrading to Vista (if you have a DirectX 10 video card).

The PC gamer is truly standing at a crossroads. The future clearly leads to Windows Vista, but is it too soon to go down that path? Do the many pitfalls deter you from upgrading, or do you go all out, buy the hardware you need to run DirectX 10, and bask in the amazing graphics presented to you (in a few months)? Both arguments have their merit, but the choice is up to you (and your pocketbook).

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