Windows 7 on multicore: How much faster?

Microsoft has been touting its superior handling of threads in Windows 7. InfoWorld's tests show that speed isn't the only benefit, or necessarily the main one

Microsoft's Windows 7 operating system is receiving raves in its pre-release testing. While much of the kernel that lies at the heart of the operating system is based on Vista code, several key advances have been made that get rid of Vista annoyances and greatly improve the user experience. Inside the kernel, one important change centers on how multithreaded applications are run. The threading advances provide benefits in energy reduction, scalability, and, in theory, performance.

To check out the benefits on the desktop, I ran tests that reflect the most common use case for heavily threaded desktop apps -- namely, graphics-oriented software. Programs such as Adobe Photoshop and other graphical applications query a system's capabilities at startup and self-configure workloads accordingly. They typically use all the processor cores and as much RAM as they can get away with monopolizing. This approach enables them to provide the fastest performance. So I checked how such programs perform using the Viewperf benchmark (an omnibus graphics benchmark from SPEC, the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation) and Cinebench, which is a pure rendering benchmark from Maxon Computer. Following InfoWorld's tradition of using benchmarks that you can download and run on your own systems to see how your mileage varies, both benchmarks can be obtained at no cost.

[ Get the full scoop on the newest Windows features and performance in InfoWorld's Windows 7 Deep Dive Special Report PDF ]

I ran the benchmarks on a Dell Precision T3500 workstation. This model was the price-performance winner in InfoWorld's July roundup of Intel Nehalem-based workstations. The T3500 is an entry-level workstation that represents the kind of system that high-end graphics users who work on large images or complex projects are likely to employ. It sports a quad-core Xeon W3540 (Nehalem) processor running at 2.93GHz, an Nvidia FX Quadro 4800 graphics card, and 4GB of RAM. I expect that 12 to 18 months from now, its capabilities will represent the high end of the desktop (that is, subworkstation) market.

For this review, we used three identical hard drives, each preloaded by Dell with the latest versions of Windows XP Professional, Vista Ultimate, and Windows 7 Ultimate -- all 32-bit -- with the latest drivers the company makes available. We then ran the benchmarks on each OS, swapping in a new disk when we were done with the previous operating system. This approach allowed us to see what benefits each version of Windows provided when run on identical hardware. The results for performance appear in the table below.

Performance benchmark results for three versions of Windows

Benchmarks

(bigger is better)
Windows XP SP3Windows Vista SP2Windows 7 Ultimate

SPEC Viewperf 10

(SMT off)
95.84142.95139.35

SPEC Viewperf 10

(SMT on)
93.45145.30138.80

Cinebench 10

(SMT off)
3.433.403.48

Cinebench 10

(SMT on)
3.984.074.09
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