Gaming and entertainment

When Vista first appeared, the news was bad for gamers. Reports circulated that Microsoft was telling members of the gaming industry to expect a 10-15% performance hit against XP. Both ATi and Nvidia appeared to have been caught off guard by the new OS, and for a few months confusion reigned. New drivers appeared on an almost weekly basis, and gaming performance took a serious hit. Dual-card setups, such as Nvidia’s SLI and ATi’s CrossFire, either simply didn’t work or often ran worse than single-card setups.

But with Vista approaching its first birthday, the big two graphics card vendors have got their act together. We ran our Call of Duty 2 test under both XP and Vista on the same hardware, and the results were promising: 27fps under XP and 24fps under Vista. Running 3DMark 06 yielded a similar result, with its benchmarks producing an overall score of 4,252 under XP and 4,032 under Vista. This puts gaming performance ahead of Microsoft’s original estimates and, if your games run smoothly under XP, they should be fine under Vista. Nevertheless, you wouldn’t expect a new OS to have a negative effect on gaming, and even with the modest performance hit you might have to drop detail or buy a new graphics card.

And what of DirectX 10? The screenshots doing the rounds on the internet before Vista arrived promised lush, photo-realistic scenery, lifelike game characters and physics simulations that accurately mimic the real world. In real life, DirectX 10 has yet to deliver anything meaningful. DirectX 10-only games such as Halo 2 are simultaneously thin on the ground and quite underwhelming. The difference between DirectX 9 and DirectX 10 is very hard to spot in games with dual-rendering modes at present and, while we optimistically hold out hope that DirectX 10 will lift the PC above the current crop of games consoles in terms of performance and visual impact, it’s just about the worst reason to upgrade to Vista we can think of.

Bundled games

The one area of gaming where Vista does make a distinct improvement on XP is with the bundled games. There’s now a surprisingly slick 3D chess game, a curious puzzle game called InkBall, and a decent version of the Chinese board game Mahjong. Even the old Windows favourites – Solitaire, Hearts and Minesweeper – have been given a lick of paint. Vista’s bundled games aren’t about to put the Xbox out of business, but they’re more likely to help pass a train journey than those in XP.

Media Center

One of the most fundamental changes between XP and Vista is the integration of Media Center. Treated as a separate edition of the operating system under XP, Media Center is now an integral part of both the Home Premium and Ultimate editions of Vista.

it_photo_17608Media Center’s handling of music collections is much better in Vista than the XP version.

The new Media Center is more polished than its XP predecessor. An MPEG2 codec now comes preinstalled, so that DVDs play out of the box, and both analogue and digital TV broadcasts are handled without fuss. The interface is also much cleaner: large music collections are much easier to browse thanks to the album artwork thumbnails, while the new television electronic programme guide (EPG) is now simple to follow and reliable.

The stability issues that afflicted XP’s Media Center have been largely overcome, although there are still some kinks in the software. System files occasionally crop up in your media library, the “online showcase” of content that’s streamed over the internet is both weak and unreliable, and programme recordings do still occasionally go astray.

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