Speed showdown: Windows 8 vs. Windows 7

We've heard it before: The next version of Windows is going to start up way faster and run far more nippily than the last. With Windows 7, we were told that we could expect 15-second boot times, but that sure hasn't been my experience. With Windows 8, it looks like the claims are for real: In using the Windows 8 Developer, Consumer, and Release Previews, I've noticed a huge improvement in startup times. No longer do you have to wait for nearly a minute just to log into a typical PC.

And Microsoft has stated that it's working on reducing another major bugbear when it comes to waiting times: Updates. If you don't use a Windows 7 PC for a week or so, chances are that you'll have to wait a few minutes for it to download and install updates, and you'll probably have to go through a second reboot. This is less of a problem for PCs that are left on all the time (to the detriment of energy conservation), which is the case for most business PCs.

In addition to startup and shutdown times, I wanted to compare the performance of Windows 8 with that of Windows 7 using some other yardsticks. I used PCMark, Geekbench, and three browser benchmarks. I also timed how long it took to copy large files and encode a video project.

I first installed a fresh copy of Windows 7 Ultimate (64-bit) on a Toshiba laptop with a 2.5GHz Core i5-2450M chip, 6GB of RAM, a 500GB HDD, and an Intel HD Graphics 3000 integrated graphics processor. I ran the tests, then installed a clean copy of Windows 8 (64-bit) on the same hardware. For each OS, all updates had been installed.

Startup and shutdown times

Few performance issues are more important than how long it takes your computer to boot up and be ready for usage. Windows 8 makes bigger advances in this respect than any operating system in memory. Of course, our tests involved clean OS installations, and boot time can be affected by installed apps which load code during startup. But this, too, is more of a problem for Windows 7, since Windows 8 saves the system state and memory contents to a file on disk, and simply reloads it on reboot, rather than initiating everything all over again.

Another factor in favour of the new operating system is behavioural – it's designed to encourage the user to "sleep" the machine rather than completely shutting it down when they’ve finished using it. And, maybe most importantly, with newer hardware that uses a UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) hardware boot process and solid-state drives, you'll see more drastic startup speed boosts. But even without all this, my startup results showed that the OS upgrade reduced startup time to less than half that of Windows 7. Shutdown time was improved, but not by such a wide margin.

Large file set move

One of the few improvements made to the traditional Desktop interface that lurks beneath Windows 8's new-fangled Metro user interface concerns file moving and copying in Windows Explorer. It's not just the cosmetics of the added ribbon atop Explorer that's been changed, either. Now, when you copy or move multiple files simultaneously, you'll also see an information box showing each operation's progress, with an optional throughput graph. To test file-move performance I used a USB 2.0 thumb drive loaded with 500MB of 81 large files, all of various different formats. I also tried a single large file of just under 1GB.

The newer OS also did a better job predicting how long the move operation would take. Though these tests didn't show a speed improvement (presumably because it's a hardware-constrained test), when I tried copying the same files to another folder, it was a near-instant process, whereas in Windows 7 I had to wait the same time for the file to move again.

Geekbench

Geekbench 2.3, from Primate Labs, runs a series of geeky tests like prime number, Mandelbrot, blowfish encryption, text compression, image sharpen and blur, and memory stream test. The subtests comprise both single and multithreaded applications. The results are normalised so that a score of 1,000 is the score of a Power Mac G5 1.6GHz, so a higher number is better.

I ran both the 32-bit and 64-bit tests in Geekbench three times, taking the average for each OS. Mostly designed to test hardware, Geekbench didn't show much change between OS versions. But it's encouraging that this test version of Windows 8 was a tad faster, rather than slowing down the benchmark's operations.

Video rendering

For a real-world, task-based test, I timed video encoding in Windows Live Movie Maker on both operating systems. I used the same two minute movie content (made of three different format clips I created, complete with titles and transitions), and had the program convert it to 720p at a 12.26Mbps bandwidth. Windows 8 posted a slight but encouraging improvement on this test, reducing the time it took from 1 minute and 22 seconds, to 1 minute and 11 seconds.

PCMark Vantage

The PCMark 7 benchmark runs seven system tests, each designed to represent a certain type of PC usage, including hard disk access, 3D and graphics physics rendering, web page rendering, file decryption, multithreading with video, and image manipulation. The benchmark spits out a result in PCMarks, with a higher number equating to better performance. My Windows 8 system showed a significant performance improvement over Windows 7, upping the score by 388 points.

Browser benchmarks

I tested browser performance in Windows' native browser Internet Explorer. On Windows 8, that was version 10, and on Windows 7 I used the latest version available for that OS, IE9. I ran two popular JavaScript benchmarks, SunSpider and Google's V8 (v.7) as well as a Microsoft test of hardware acceleration, Psychedelic Browsing. I ran the tests in the Desktop version of Windows 8's Internet Explorer 10 browser.

The improvement on Sunspider and V8 was remarkable, and Microsoft has clearly been working on further optimising IE10's JavaScript engine, Chakra. And the Psychedelic Browsing test showed a marked improvement as well, meaning Microsoft has done further work on hardware acceleration in the browser.

Without further ado, my results are presented in the table that follows:

Win 7 Ultimate (64-bit)

Win 8 (64-bit)

Startup (seconds, lower is better)

38

17

Shutdown (seconds, lower is better)

12.2

9.9

500MB File Group Move (seconds, lower is better)

25.2

29.2

Large Single File Move (seconds, lower is better)

46.4

46.8

Video Rendering (mins:secs, lower is better)

1:22

1:11

Geekbench 2.3 64-bit tests (higher is better)

8090

8187

Geekbench 2.3 32-bit tests (higher is better)

5962

6122

PCMark 7 (higher is better)

2313

2701

Sunspider (ms, lower is better)

180

144

Google V8 (v.7) (higher is better)

3079

6180

Psychedelic Browsing (higher is better)

3997

5292

The key thing here is startup. Windows 7 still takes just too long to boot and become usable, and Windows 8 finally remedies this drawback. Browser performance is also notably better, and it's encouraging that Geekbench showed a little improvement, and PCMark 7 a significant one. Yes, this is not even the RTM, or final release of Windows 8, but the early test results are encouraging. New hardware will, of course, make the new OS scream, particularly if you opt for SSD storage.