There's been a lot of talk about Windows 8 since its release, and there's no doubt that it's the biggest "new thing" to come out of Microsoft's Windows division since Windows XP, and arguably since the revolutionary Windows 95. But besides its aggressive re-shaping of the desktop environment, it brings some changes under the hood, and that's led gamers to wonder whether it's worth upgrading to the new OS regardless of the pros and cons of the new interface. With the release of Windows 8.1, we decided to put the question to the test. We've compiled results in nearly a dozen benchmarks to give you a full picture of exactly how Windows 8.1 performs in games, and to put it simply, it's not that simple, but there's one game where it really matters. Read on to learn more!
In the pages that follow, we'll be providing results for one synthetic benchmark and nine games, one of which (Battlefield 4) that we test in both single-player and multi-player modes. In total, we have eleven graphs for you, and as you'll see, you really need to review them all to get a clear picture of how Windows 8.1 affects gaming performance. To provide multiple data points, as well as to demonstrate where CPU performance may be a limiting factor, we tested our system in both stock and overclocked configurations, as follows:
- Intel Core i7-3770K@3.7GHz (stock)
- Intel Core i7-3770K@4.5GHz (overclocked)
The rest of our test system is consistent throughout all the tests: an Asus Maximus V Gene motherboard, an EVGA GeForce GTX 780 3GB Superclocked video card running at boost clocks of 1110MHz core and 6000MHz memory, and 16GB of DDR3 memory running at 1866MHz. We used the latest WHQL GeForce Driver Version, 331.82, and set our Dell UltraSharp U2713HM monitor to a resolution of 1920 x 1080 for every test, as that is by far the most popular gaming resolution in use today.
To ensure that our testing would be as accurate as possible, we performed all of our gaming tests under Windows 7, and then upgraded our test system to Windows 8.1 - in other words, it's the exact same system. We learned, however, that Microsoft actually removed the ability to do an "in place" upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 8.1, despite it being prominently featured in Windows 8. So we tossed our brand-new Windows 8.1 installation disc back in the box, and upgraded using a new copy of Windows 8 instead - we weren't about to reinstall the fifty or so applications we had on the test system just for this article! Of course, once Windows 8 was on the system, upgrading to Windows 8.1 was easy enough from the Microsoft app store. Oh, Microsoft, why must you make everything so complicated? We've actually written a separate article regarding the upgrade experience, and frankly, we know why Microsoft pulled the ability to do an upgrade - it was darn messy, essentially losing all of our application launch icons and breaking a few pieces of software along the way. We'll be mentioning some of those issues later where it's relevant to gaming performance.
The games we tested generally fall into four groups:
- Synthetics - 3DMark Fire Strike (Page 1)
- CPU-limited Games - Dirt 3, Civilization V, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Page 2)
- GPU-limited Games - Hitman Absolution, Far Cry 3, and Tomb Raider (Page 3)
- CPU- and GPU-limited Games - Crysis 3 and Battlefield 4 (Page 4)
Of course, whether a game is CPU- or GPU-limited absolutely depends on the equipment you're running, but we'd consider our setup a fairly balanced high-end system, and with a balanced system, you're bound to find some games that are more CPU-limited and others that are more GPU-limited. To a certain extent, this is determined by the age of the game (older games are generally more CPU-limited), but as you'll see, this isn't entirely true in every case.
All righty, then, hopefully we've made clear how we performed our tests. There's lots of data to go through, but let's start off easy, with an exploration of our 3DMark results, shall we?
3DMark Fire Strike
Yes, we know, 3DMark isn't a game. But it's a fairly popular benchmark, and it just so happens to have separate Graphics and Physics tests that focus on video card and CPU performance, respectively. And that's critical here, because our theory going in is that whatever effects Windows 8.1 has on gaming performance, they may relate to computational performance, graphics processing performance, or both.
So this first test sets up a baseline against which we'll compare the many game benchmarks that follow. And right off the bat, we see that Windows 8.1 appears to provide around a 0.5 percent boost in the Graphics Score on our stock-clocked system, and around a 1 percent boost to our overclocked system. As far as we're concerned, that's within the margin of error of this benchmark, but it was repeatable, so we'll call it a small victory for Win8.1. But take a close look at the Physics Score. In both of our test scenarios, the performance drops about 1.1 percent. That's also fairly insignificant, but it was consistent across multiple runs, so it seems likely that it's not a fluke.
As we mentioned above, we've divided our games roughly into categories based on whether they are CPU-limited, GPU-limited, or both. First, we'll take a look at the former, to determine whether the unexpected results in the 3DMark Physics Score are actually going to be a factor in gaming performance, then we'll move onto more GPU-limited games.
By the way, we mentioned that our upgrade to Windows 8.1 did not go as smoothly as we'd hoped. One of the applications that broke during the process was 3DMark - we needed to reinstall it from scratch to get it to load at all.