Windows, Do You Copy?
The file-copying tests yielded a hodge-podge of results that didn't radically favor any particular OS. According to Microsoft, Service Pack 1 improves the operating system's file-copying times; but in several of our tests, plain old Vista beat Vista with SP1. Vista without the update was about 10 percent faster than Vista with SP1 at copying a .zip file over a network, for example.
Results differed when the files being copied were scattered across the hard drive; in those tests, which measure both throughput and access time, SP1 outperformed original Vista by a few seconds on the desktop. XP finished last, trailing the winner by 15 seconds. On the laptop, however, pre-SP1 Vista came in first, by several seconds.
Access time played a lesser role when we copied a 3.06GB .zip file on a local drive. On the desktop computer, Vista was about 13 percent faster than XP and about 16 percent faster than SP1. On the laptop, Vista was 18 percent faster than XP and 19 percent faster than SP1. At copying .zip files, original Vista outshines both XP and SP1.
SP1 took top honors in only one heat of our hand-timed evaluations: the multicopy test on the desktop--and that by a negligible margin over plain Vista.
In compression tests, SP1 did improve on Vista's performance, but XP stole the show. Vista took three times as long as XP to extract files on the desktop, and SP1 took twice as long.
SP1 also outran Vista when adding files to a compressed folder, but only by about 2 percent. XP narrowly won the competition on both test systems.
In our hibernation tests, SP1 woke up faster than Vista by less than a second on the desktop and by 3 seconds on the laptop. As in the compression tests, XP took first place on both test systems, but its margin of victory over SP1 was narrower on the desktop system (2 seconds) than on the laptop (9 seconds).
The Frame Game
Gamers have complained that Vista hampers game play, and our tests confirm that XP is substantially faster than either Vista version on games. SP1 had almost no gain over original Vista.
In frame-rate tests on the desktop PC, XP bested both versions of Vista every time. On the Doom 3 tests, antialiasing usually had a slightly negative effect on Vista's performance, but antialiasing scarcely made a difference to XP. In the desktop Doom 3 tests without antialiasing, XP's frame rate was about 14 percent faster than that of second-place SP1; with antialiasing turned on, XP's frame rate was about 14 percent faster than that of second-place Vista. In the Far Cry tests, Vista and Vista with SP1 improved a bit with antialiasing turned on. Antialiasing degraded XP's performance on the Far Cry test, though XP still won handily on every test.
Our test laptop wasn't built for gaming. XP, Vista, and SP1 fared about the same; SP1 and Vista bested XP in Doom 3 and matched XP in Far Cry. But the frame-rate counts were very low for all three, ranging from 2 to 7 fps with antialiasing and 10 to 25 fps without.
As these tests show, graphics performance depends greatly on hardware and on the OS. So how do you know whether your current (or next) PC's graphics card is up to snuff?
The Rock-Bottom Line
It's not unusual for an OS designed for older, slower PCs to test well; newer operating systems tend to have more-sophisticated features designed for more-powerful machines. For example, Vista's Aero environment requires a lot more graphics power than XP's interface does. But our tests also indicate that Vista SP1 doesn't improve markedly over the original Vista--even when both are installed on a high-powered PC with components built to run the new OS efficiently. SP1 did outperform plain Vista in a few areas, but not in any jaw-dropping way. What's more, the service pack's poor performance in many areas compared with Windows XP shows that Vista is still playing catchup.
Unfortunately, you may not be able to avoid Vista forever. Windows XP is slated to disappear from shelves in June, along with the last new computers that have XP installed at the factory.
In addition, as computer makers direct more resources toward Vista, cus tomers will be harder-pressed to find XP-compatible drivers for new hardware components. So if you want an XP system that will last as long as possible, you need to start your shopping today while such PCs are still available.