Benchtest: Windows XP SP3 vs. Windows Vista SP1

The Feedster

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Jun 26, 2007
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What's the point of Windows Vista? Worryingly for Microsoft, the increasing consensus among savvy consumers is that it offers little or no benefit.

The slicker-looking interface aside, all you get is a wide range of drawbacks, including sluggish performance, painful hardware demands, patchy software support and irritating but ineffectual security measures such as the infuriating User Account Control feature. Leaner, simpler Windows XP remains the best operating system for home users in that context.

Of more immediate relevance, especially to PC enthusiasts, is the release of new service packs for both Windows XP and Windows Vista. The former indicates that Microsoft realises that Windows Vista is so off target it may never reach truly widespread acceptance and hence support for Windows XP must continue. The latter, meanwhile, is probably Microsoft's last chance to salvage the crumbling reputation of Windows Vista.

> Jump to our overall verdict and performance results

Windows XP SP3: the features

Historic upgrades: said to be the last major service pack for Windows XP, SP3 brings your installation fully up to date with all historical upgrades, though it does require an SP1 installation as a minimum starting point. SP3 includes a number of incremental post-SP2 upgrades and patches, too, such as the latest WPA2 wireless networking security protocol, and also delivers a few unique features.

That said, cosmetically it's essentially identical to SP2. Installation requires around 20 minutes depending on the precise hardware configuration.

Security upgrades : the key additions for Windows XP SP3 involve the age-old Windows bugbear: security. First up is Network Access Protection (NAP), a feature already present in Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008.

To put it at its simplest, it's all about giving network administrators a straightforward way in which to validate the health, in security terms, of a system connecting to a given network. This new feature also allows for automatic "push" updates onto connected systems with a view to preventing them from turning nasty.

Next up is an improved cryptographic module including the random number generator. This addresses a specific weakness that made encryption keys generated by Windows XP theoretically vulnerable to exploitation. More expansive description text can also be found in the options' dialog boxes.

Licensing : Finally, with SP3 Microsoft has brought Windows XP into line with Windows Vista in terms of product activation and license key management. As with Windows Vista, a Windows XP installation disk with SP3 included will allow users to install and run the operating system for 30 days without inputting a license key. Overall, it's hardly a show-stopping list of enhancements. but then Windows XP is a mature and relatively well developed OS.

What you don't get: still, what SP3 notably doesn't do is tread on the toes of Windows Vista. There's no updates to the ancient user interface or addition of Vista-only features such as the DirectX 10 API. Microsoft may be learning lessons from the troubled Vista launch, but it clearly hasn't given up on its latest OS yet.

Windows XP SP3: the performance

Performance-wise, Windows XP in SP2 trim is already pretty lean and mean by Microsoft's standards, so users shouldn't be expecting dramatic improvements from the latest service pack.

Indeed, Microsoft itself makes no claims regarding performance, and our results shown at the end tend to confirm that. For the most part, performance across a wide range of tasks - including file transfers to and from various devices, encoding, rendering and gaming - is essentially identical to SP2. Likewise, as with previous builds of Windows XP, SP3 is pretty easy going in terms of hardware support: it zips along at a decent lick even on extremely modest systems.

Ultimately, therefore, the new features in SP3 don't really add up to a compelling argument for an upgrade. But what it does offer is a simple mechanism to apply those little hotfixes and patches that accrue over time - especially for those who prefer to disable Windows Automatic Update.

Finally, we did not note any software or hardware compatibility problems with SP3, though with the colossal scale of today's PC-related ecosystem we wouldn't be surprised to if the odd glitch appeared eventually.

Windows Vista SP1: the features

If SP3 is a low-key final fling for Windows XP, the first major service pack for Vista is a much, much bigger deal. Not only might it make or break Windows Vista, it could even have a major influence on the long term health of Microsoft itself.

Historic upgrades: as with all service packs, SP1 rolls up all hotfixes and patches to date. Obvious examples of patches that have already been made available via Windows Update include the Virtual Space management tweak which reduces the amount of memory used by games in Vista. Due to a quirk in the original Windows Vista Display Driver Model (WDDM), some games were pushing the 32-bit build of Vista towards its 2GB virtual address barrier. Once that limit is breached, be prepared for a blue-screen bomb out.

Performance improvements of the new-to-SP1 refinements, the most important are tweaks to the way Windows Vista handles file copying, management and transfers.

Microsoft has been quite open about the reasons why Vista can be painfully slow for certain types of file movements, particularly network transfers. The short version of an extremely complex explanation is that changes to the way file data is buffered during transfer in the original build of Windows Vista leads to increased disk or memory stick access and reads.

Also, there are differences in the way Windows XP and Windows Vista report when a file management task is completed. Windows XP will tell you the job is done when all the data has been copied to the write cache. Windows Vista is more of a stickler for the truth and will not give the all clear until all disk writing is completed.

For Windows Vista SP1, Microsoft has reinstated most of Windows XP's buffering procedures while keeping one or two of the Windoes Vista measures that improve performance for really big files.

UI enhancements: on the interface side, the only significant refinement involves a streamlining of User Account Control (UAC). By default - even for novice computer users - UAC can be a ghastly nag, constantly demanding permission to perform apparently innocuous procedures.

It's bad enough that many feel compelled to knock the whole thing on the head and opt to disable it, which rather defeats the object. SP1 reduces the number of security dialogue boxes in certain situations - for example, when creating new folders in protected locations.

General tweaks: beyond the headline-grabbing new features, there's a truly encyclopaedic list of detail enhancements. One good example is a partial resolution for the conflict between the MultiMediaClass Scheduler Service and the network stack.

In Windows Vista, the former has been given supremacy over the latter in terms of access to system resources in order to ensure that audio streams do not break up.

The downside to this is throttling of network throughput. It's really only an issue on super-fast gigabit networks, but for the record, Microsoft claims that the balance has been tipped back towards networking with compromising audio stream stability.

So, the enhancements that SP1 brings are as broad as they are deep. But is this bandage enough to stop Vista's bleeding out? In performance terms, we have to admit we were surprised at the proximity of Vista, be it the original RTM build or SP1, to Windows XP in the majority of our benchmark results. As far as gaming goes, time has no doubt healed some of the wounds.

Graphics chip makers have now had plenty of time to get to grips with the new driver model and the performance gap has been slowly closing. Today, there's precious little in it.

Our verdict

It's tricky to capture with benchmarks the sort of subjective glitches and slow downs that anyone who has used Vista as their main operating system for an extended period will be all too familiar with. Anecdotally, at least, Vista installations seem particularly prone to growing fat and wheezy.

Certainly, Windows Vista is packed with all sorts of subroutines and hidden processes - such as file indexing, application caching - that are ostensibly designed to improve performance. But the same measures can also induce an enormous amount of what seems to be entirely unnecessary disk activity. It's not unusual to find an idle Windows Vista box making a noise that sounds uncannily like the hard drive chewing a brick.

Nevertheless, there are one or two areas of real interest from our objective benchmarks. Firstly, SP1 has solved Vista's previously feeble zip file handling. It's now on a par with Windows XP in that regard. SP1 also remedies a small but worrisome shortfall in memory bandwidth compared with XP.

However, a particularly popular gripe that SP1 does not address is Windows Vista's piggishly resource-hungry nature. If there's a single figure that sums up the perceived bloat it suffers from, look no further than Vista's memory usage at idle.

787MB is an absolutely ludicrous amount for a system to swallow from a fresh boot of a new installation. Windows XP squeezes itself into just one fifth the space.

In the end, SP1 is undoubtedly better than the original RTM build of Vista. Windows We're glad to see Microsoft at least attempt to address the criticisms that its latest operating system has attracted. But it's probably not enough to prevent Windows Vista from going down in history as marking the beginning of the end for the Windows project.

Technical analysis

TEST: System efficiency: Windows Task Manager:

Memory Idle: Lower equals better
Windows XP SP2: 159MB..........Windows Vista RTM: 782MB
Windows XP SP3: 162MB..........Windows Vista SP1: 787MB

TEST: Memory bandwidth : SiSoft Sandra 2008:

Memory throughput: Bigger equals better
Windows XP SP2: 6.99GB/s..........Windows Vista RTM: 6.55GB/s
Windows XP SP3: 7.02GB/s..........Windows Vista SP1: 7.01GB/s

TEST: Extracting ZIP files: WinZip Extraction Test:

Time to complete: lower equals better
Windows XP SP2: 14sec..........Windows Vista RTM: 32sec
Windows XP SP3: 15sec..........Windows Vista SP1: 15sec

TEST: 3D rendering: CineBench R10:

Time to complete: Lower equals better
Windows XP SP2: 81sec..........Windows Vista RTM: 84sec
Windows XP SP3: 81sec..........Windows Vista SP1: 82sec

TEST: Game loading time: COD4 level load time:

Time to complete: Lower equals better
Windows XP SP2: 19sec..........Windows Vista RTM: 19sec
Windows XP SP3: 19sec..........Windows Vista SP1: 13sec

TEST: Time taken to boot Windows:

Time to complete: Lower equals better
Windows XP SP2: 35sec..........Windows Vista RTM: 65sec
Windows XP SP3: 37sec..........Windows Vista SP1: 76sec

TEST: Video encoding: X.264 Video Encode:

Framerate: Bigger equals better
Windows XP SP2: 160fps..........Windows Vista RTM: 155fps
Windows XP SP3: 159fps..........Windows Vista SP1: 157fps