So, Microsoft released the first beta version of Windows 7 this weekend. (Actually they did it on Friday, but a thousand million keen participants brought their servers to a halt, before a mad rush to setup new servers to handle the insane load.) Officially the beta product keys will expire on August 1, which is a little later than I’d hoped, but having played with the beta for a day now myself I’m going to stay optimistic about the RTM date.
Because, put in a nutshell: Windows 7 is looking fantastic so far.
At a glance, yeah, it looks very much like Vista. But what are you expecting, exactly? The fun is in the details. My observations so far:
- It’s fast. I did an upgrade install from Vista, so you’d expect it to run like a 3-legged dog, but I couldn’t ask for more speed. It boots like a fresh install of XP, it shuts down like a Mac (it’s like 8 seconds at the most), and the whole UI is very snappy.
- Vista had far better control of text and button size etc, for people with bad eyes or stupidly huge screens; they’ve gone the whole hog in 7, and the new taskbar handles giant screen resolutions really well. I always turned off taskbar button grouping because I couldn’t stand how it behaved, but it’s somehow more intuitive now. The whole thing acts more consistently, as well as looking stunning.
- Everything’s been slightly rearranged to be a whole lot more usable. I’m still dubious about renaming “Accessibility” to “Ease of Access” – was nobody else struck by the irony there? – but for the most part things are excellent. The screen resolution manager (screenshot above) is close to perfect, the visual theming thing (below) is great as long as you can remember that practically everything is click-on-able…
- …and the event summary screen has been fixed a bit. Shrinking the other sections now gives you more than four lines of vertical space for the summary list, making it a lot easier to use. It’s still butt-ugly, but it’s making progress and becoming something pretty useful.
- And the feature most of interest to me: You can run more than one discrete graphics card driver simultaneously.
Yup, that’s my ATi Radeon 4870×2, coexisting quite peacefully with my stone-age NVidia Geforce 8600GT. What I said in November still stands: Windows 7, in theory, lets Radeon users run a Geforce in tandem for PhysX.
Enabling GeForce PhysX on Windows 7
Windows 7 provides GeForce drivers via Windows Update, but those drivers don’t yet support PhysX properly – you have to go to nVidia’s website and download their offical W7 beta drivers. You may have to turn UAC down or off to get it to work (look in the new Action Center for this UAC in 7; it was under User Accounts in Vista).
Update: it works!
I got my 8600GT back, and immediately put it to work doing PhysX. Turns out there’s not much to it – the guy here says you have to enable one video output on the GeForce, making it your secondary monitor if you like, and then you can turn PhysX on in the NVidia control panel.
I can back that up with the following set of screenshots. Here’s PhysX running in software mode – that’s on my poor old Intel E6600, painstakingly drawn by my Radeon 4870×2:
My CPU on its own scores a lowly 743 “o3Marks”. Next, here’s the same test, same resolution, drawn by the same Radeon:
Note it’s only dropped to 16 frames per second by the time it’s 75% through the test, as opposed to four. The score’s up to 1948 03Marks, too. All I’ve done is turn one of the 8600GT’s monitor outputs on.
- The FluidMark test proves you can run an ATi Radeon to draw the pretty graphics, and use an NVidia GeForce to run PhysX to make bricks and crap fall better. I couldn’t get the same trick to work in Unreal Tournament 3, though – I spent hours loading and reloading the PhysX-modded version of the Heat Ray map, and couldn’t get the framerate to stay above nine every time it hailed, no matter what settings I used. YMMV, and I hope it does.
- An 8600GT is not a powerful video card. It’s only a few times better than plain software rendering on a 2.4ghz Core2. Probably the best value card for this sort of thing would be a 9600GT. Does your budget extend to one of those? If it does, you could probably afford to buy an actual PhysX card. Would it be cooler to own an expansion card that does nothing but bounce rocks off each other, or a videocard that does it better but has essentially been shoehorned into it?
- If you go the videocard route as I did, you may fully expect to throw in the rag and ditch the GeForce a month into the experiment out of sheer frustration. I couldn’t get it to work in UT3, so all I really got from this is two months of mind-bending irritation at having two completely different video cards in your computer. My ASUS P5E3 refused to boot with graphics coming out of the Radeon when the GeForce was plugged in, and Windows sometimes wouldn’t fully load and display anything if the Radeon wasn’t. It wasn’t worth the pain to live with.