Windows compared: Windows 7 vs Vista vs XP

13th Jul 2009 | 11:30

Windows compared: Windows 7 vs Vista vs XP

Which Windows is best? We compare them all to find out

Windows 7 vs Vista vs XP: Performance

Update: now read our full Windows 7 review.

Buying a Windows OS used to be so simple. A new version appeared, most people agreed it was better than the last one and you'd get a copy for your next PC. Job done.

But Windows Vista changed all that. Despite many years of availability, Vista's poor reception means that computer manufacturers are still selling new systems with XP. It's also common for laptops to be downgraded from Vista to XP, with battery life reportedly improving as a result.

Deciding which operating system is best for you has become decidedly trickier, then, and the arrival of Windows 7 only complicates things further. Is the newcomer just Vista with a facelift? Or has Microsoft learned from its mistakes and delivered a product that will restore its battered reputation? Perhaps you should forget about Vista and Windows 7 altogether, opting for the mature XP instead?

The choice might be easy. If you have old or extremely basic hardware, for instance, then XP will have a definite advantage: its relatively lightweight core means the operating system can theoretically run with only 64MB of RAM, so there'll be plenty of resources left over for your applications.

However, if you have high-end requirements, such as using a powerful PC to run heavy-duty applications, Vista and Windows 7 come into their own. They're better optimised for multicore CPUs, and Windows 7 in particular includes a number of tweaks to make the best of the latest hardware.

You may well find yourself somewhere between these two extremes, though, and so the 'best' OS to use will be a more difficult decision. But don't worry – help is at hand. We've taken a test PC and laptop, installed XP, Vista and Windows 7 on them and applied a number of testing real-life benchmarks to see which will come out on top. We're aware that speed isn't everything, though, so we've also explored the new features that each OS has introduced. To make life easy for you, we've split our findings over eight categories, with an overall verdict at the end.

So which is best - Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7? Read on to find out what we've uncovered.

Performance

It's often said that recent versions of Windows have become bloated, and it's hardly unreasonable to expect each new OS to perform better than its previous iteration. However, when Windows XP first appeared back in 2001, it was designed to run happily on 300MHz Pentium II CPUs with a mere 128MB of RAM. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the lightweight OS runs quickly on today's processors. Newer OSes can optimise for modern hardware and include more powerful features, but is this extra functionality really just slowing us down?

To find out, we decided to test each operating system's performance on an average PC. The system is nothing particularly special by today's standards, consisting of an Intel dual-core E5200 CPU, 2GB of RAM and an ATI Radeon HD4550 graphics card. We installed XP, Vista and Windows 7 in that order (all 32-bit versions) on the machine's 500GB hard drive and ran a number of real-world benchmarks to find out which OS was best.

The boot time test provided no surprises – Vista took the longest time to get started, XP came in second place and Windows 7 was the fastest.

Windows startup

SWITCHED ON:Tired of lengthy boot times? We bear good news. Even the beta of Windows 7 can beat Vista's sluggish start

At first it seemed like our file transfer benchmarks would deliver the same results. Vista produced poor copy speeds in our small file tests, XP again placed second and Windows 7 came out on top. But when we tried transferring larger 1GB files, Vista surprisingly just managed to win out over XP. Both were beaten by the speedy Windows 7, though.

This proved true for our application tests as well. Open a small Excel spreadsheet or PDF file, say, and XP beats Vista, but heavy-duty spreadsheets and PDF files opened faster under Vista than XP. Once again, however, both were trounced by the newcomer.

You might have spotted the theme here. Windows 7 delivered excellent results, beating or coming close to the performance of the lightweight XP in just about every category. It's quite remarkable given that this is an operating system still in beta. When all the drivers are fully finished, we should see even better performance.

If we'd run the benchmarks on a less powerful PC, perhaps one with only 1GB of RAM, then it's possible that Windows XP would have fared better than it did here. But for even a fairly basic modern PC, Windows 7 delivers the best performance around.

Scores
XP: 3.5 / 5
Vista: 3 / 5
Windows 7: 4.5 / 5

Windows 7 vs Vista vs XP: Networking

One of the few fundamental laws of computing is that no network is ever as fast as you'd like, so news of Vista's optimisation of TCP/IP was universally welcomed. Then we got to try out the new system for ourselves and realised that it didn't live up to the hype. Although there are circumstances where Vista's networking works well – transferring large files, for example – typical tests suggest Windows XP often works faster than its younger sibling.

These issues are a real shame, though, because Vista does have some useful networking features on offer. The Network Map displays a helpful graphical view of all your devices and the Network Setup Wizard can be genuinely useful. It's generally simpler to find and connect to wireless networks as well, while WPA2 encryption helps to keep you secure. And if things do go wrong, at least you'll benefit from Vista's detailed status reports. For example, Vista will let you know if your network is OK but you've lost your internet connection. Then the Diagnose and Repair option will try to fix the issue without requiring much input on your part. Internally, nothing too complicated is happening, but anything that helps you avoid using cryptic command-line tools should be welcomed.

Windows 7 homegroups

HOMELY:Homegroups promise simpler networking, but there's a snag - they're for Windows 7 machines only

Windows 7 takes Vista's networking features and adds homegroups – a simple way to create a network and securely share your pictures, music, videos, documents and printers. Sounds good, right? We're not entirely convinced. Homegroups will only work with Windows 7 systems, so if you've got an old XP or Vista PC then you'll have to create and manage your network the old-fashioned way. Once you've figured out how to do that, it's hard to see why you'd ever move to homegroups in future. It's even possible that users will largely ignore them and continue to create and manage networks just as they always have.

Still, Windows 7 does appear to have improved on Vista's networking performance. It jostled for top spot with XP in our tests, each winning one file transfer speed test apiece. That said, Windows 7 was significantly quicker at transferring large files. Along with its generally useful-feature set, that's enough for us to award it first place. But be aware that network speeds can vary greatly depending on your hardware, so consider our results as provisional.

Scores

XP: 3.5 / 5
Vista: 3 / 5
Windows 7: 4 / 5

Windows 7 vs Vista vs XP: Security

There are plenty of reasons to like Windows XP, but security isn't one of them. The operating system still receives regular patches, and will continue to do so until 14 April 2014, but it's missing Windows Vista's reassuring security developments. The result? XP is now notably less safe to take online than it once was.

The counter-argument is that it's less irritating to use, and it's true that Vista's User Account Control (UAC) is too eager to prompt you when you make system changes. However, the idea of limiting what malware can do is a good one and so although it's much-loathed, UAC does make you safer on the web.

Windows uac

SAFE HANDS:For all its irritations, Windows Vista's UAC will keep your system secure - and the utility is improved in Windows 7

What's more, UAC acts as the foundation for other useful features, including Internet Explorer's Protected mode. This places strict limits on what IE can do, preventing it from writing to most of your hard drive or the Registry without your permission. ActiveX controls, toolbars and other add-ons inherit the same high level of security, so any malware you encounter won't be able to install further nasties.

Windows 7 features a much more customisable UAC that is noticeably less irritating. Multiple security levels mean that you can choose how many alerts you see – so easily annoyed users can pretend that UAC doesn't exist while resting safe in the knowledge that their system is protected from third-party meddling.

Encryption is the other big development in recent years. BitLocker delivers full volume protection in Vista, and Windows 7 extends this to removable devices. Unfortunately, this feature only comes with high-end editions of Windows, so low-end Windows 7 and Vista users will be in the same position as their XP cousins.

The real value of modern Windows security comes in its low-level changes, though. System services are more isolated and run with fewer privileges, reducing the damage that malicious code can do. A new TCP/IP stack offers improved encryption and authentication options, and Address Space Layout Randomisation loads system files as random memory addresses, making it far harder for basic malware to exploit key system functions.

There's no question that Windows Vista is more secure than XP, then. Windows 7 keeps the best Vista features, while adding additional controls to reduce the hassle of UAC and Security Center alerts, making it the marginal victor here.

Scores

XP: 3 / 5
Vista: 4 / 5
Windows 7: 4.5 / 5

Windows 7 vs Vista vs XP: Gaming

A fundamental requirement for any gaming PC is that it should be able to run all of your favourite games. Even though it was replaced some time ago, Windows XP remains the best choice for compatibility. Just about every major new release is written to run on XP, and there's a good chance that it will run older DOS games, too. (Read 'Which Windows is best for gaming?)

It's a similar story when it comes to joysticks, gamepads and other accessories. Most new hardware comes with drivers supporting XP as well as Vista. XP users also have access to a wide range of older kit that may never see drivers released for newer OSes.

This doesn't mean that Windows Vista users are deprived, of course. You can still run a plethora of old games – we've even found one or two ancient examples where Vista proved more compatible than XP – and there's no shortage of compatible gaming accessories.

What's more, Vista and Windows 7 add support for DirectX 10 gaming – a graphics and sound standard that can deliver new effects, better image quality and should improve performance in compatible games (assuming you've got a DirectX 10 graphics card).

Windows gaming

3D POWER:Windows 7's gaming performance is already impressive, and it's only going to get better

We say 'should' because Vista has performance issues and doesn't make the best of RAM – a real problem when you're playing more demanding games. Does Windows 7 improve the situation? Our first tests didn't give clear answers: Windows 7 managed the best frame rates when we ran Unreal Tournament 3, but XP won out in our Company of Heroes tests (a shame-faced Vista came last each time).

What we can say is that Windows 7 performed really well for a pre-release version and should be faster still by the time it's released. The Windows XP advantage also tends to fall away as you use faster hardware. So, if you have a decent mid-range PC, Windows 7 would marginally be our preference for gaming, although XP still performs remarkably well.

Scores

XP: 4 / 5
Vista: 3 / 5
Windows 7: 4 / 5

Windows 7 vs Vista vs XP: Mobility

Laptops never quite have the processing power of their desktop cousins, so the relatively lightweight Windows XP seems an obvious pick for your mobile computing needs. It should deliver reasonable performance, even on old or budget systems.

What you won't get by running XP on your laptop is any kind of sophisticated power management, which in theory should have an adverse impact on your battery life. As ever, though, it's not quite as simple as that. Yes, Windows Vista can tweak your wireless adaptor, PCI Express bus, USB suspend options and more to reduce overall power consumption, but a large number of users still report that their laptop's battery life is significantly increased under XP.

Windows 7 laptop

POWER UP:Windows XP's low requirements make it ideal for netbooks, but Windows 7 looks set take over

It seems that the increased CPU use from running Vista's extra features will often cancel out any benefit from its power management controls. That's been more than a little embarrassing for Microsoft, but at least the company has learned from the experience. Windows 7 takes a more in-depth approach.

The focus is now on idle time. The typical laptop will spend most of the time just idling while it's waiting for something to do, so reducing the power consumption at this stage can make a real difference to battery life. With this in mind, Windows 7 makes considerable efforts to reduce repeated background activities in Windows, drivers and applications.

In addition to this, Windows 7 services will often start only when they're required (Bluetooth won't be launched until a Bluetooth device is attached, for example). Best of all, a new core parking scheme turns off all but one CPU core when there's little to do, saving a significant amount of power when you're only performing simple tasks.

The end result, according to our informal tests, is that Windows 7 appears to deliver even longer battery life than XP. We can't say that definitively yet – there are too many factors involved and our test group is too limited – but it's looking promising, and we think it's likely that the disappointments of Vista will be forgotten soon after Windows 7's launch.

Once you've also taken into account its excellent performance, relatively low system requirements and the advantages of being able to use its simplified networking while you're out and about, Windows 7 has to be the standout winner of our Mobility category. Windows XP takes a respectable second place for being handily lightweight, which makes it more than suitable for extensive on-the-go use. Meanwhile, Windows Vista's performance issues and its selection of well-meaning but ineffective power saving features means that it comes trailing into a dismal third place once again.

Scores

XP: 3.5 / 5
Vista: 2.5 / 5
Windows 7: 4 / 5

Windows 7 vs Vista vs XP: Entertainment

If you're looking to create a specialist entertainment PC, Windows XP could be a reasonable choice. It demands little in the way of memory or CPU power, for example, so it will run well on the majority of older systems. Yet it's still highly compatible with all the hardware you might need: TV tuner, wireless networking adaptor, memory card reader and so on.

There's surprisingly little software support within XP, though, probably because Microsoft hived off most entertainment features into Windows Media Center (WMC). So if you want WMC-like functionality – such as the ability to watch and record TV, manage your music collection or browse your digital photos – then you'll have to opt for a third-party tool. We recommend the free MediaPortal. It's a remarkably powerful program, but be aware that it does occasionally throw up glitches.

Opt for Windows Vista instead and you'll get Windows Media Center thrown in (with the Home Premium or Ultimate editions, anyway), and that makes a huge difference. Hardware manufacturers know that Media Center is the biggest player in the entertainment PC world right now, so they take a lot of care to ensure that their products are compatible. This means that you're less likely to have codec problems. Vista extras such as improved networking connectivity, Windows DVD Maker and HD support in Movie Maker are welcome, too.

Windows media center

MEDIA MOGUL:Windows Media Center is essential for home entertainment PCs, but it's only available on Windows Vista or Windows 7

Windows 7 takes this a step further with improved support for HD displays, including the ability to calibrate a screen to ensure it's accurately reproducing colours. It's easier to share your media files around a home network, and the touch interface support makes sure that everything is easy to use (for those with touchscreen hardware, anyway). However, we'd bet that your budget for an entertainment PC is limited and that you won't want to experience the driver-related issues that Windows 7 is bound to throw up in its first few months. So, while Windows 7 is bound to be a future winner, it's overkill at the moment.

Our entertainment pick right now, then, is Windows Vista. It runs reasonably well on budget PCs, any performance issues it has won't be a big deal for an entertainment system (with the possible exception of network transfers) and there's plenty of compatible software and hardware available.

Meanwhile, Windows 7 is the best pick if you've got lots of money to spend or an HD touchscreen to hand and don't mind the occasional delay when you discover that your TV tuner (or some other piece of kit) doesn't work quite as it should on the new system. If your budget is limited, opt for XP instead. Shop around and you can put together an excellent entertainment system for just a few pounds.

Scores

XP: 3.5 / 5
Vista: 4 / 5
Windows 7: 3 / 5

Windows 7 vs Vista vs XP: Reliability

Whatever else you want from an operating system, reliability is essential. Defining exactly what that means can be tricky, though, as there are many different factors to consider. A reliable operating system has to be well understood by developers, for instance, and here Windows XP is in its element. It's mature, it's built around classic Windows NT kernel technology and there are many development tools around to help produce quality applications.

Reliability also requires weak points to be addressed, however – and Windows Vista does implement some important new ideas. Windows XP, for example, allocates system memory for device drivers, file cache, kernel stacks and other requirements at boot time. If, say, it turns out that your drivers need more RAM later, then that's just tough: they'll have to do without, usually with catastrophic results. Vista can manage its system memory dynamically, freeing up RAM in one area when more is required elsewhere, reducing the chance of driver-related crashes.

Windows bsod

FEELING BLUE:When crashes happen, Windows Vista does a good job of helping you track down exactly what caused them

Of course, a really buggy application is going to fall over at some point anyway, so a reliable operating system must also provide ways to track errors, diagnose problems and find out what's going on. It's here that Vista really wins out over XP. Crash data is saved, allowing you to view your system stability over time. A greatly improved Event Viewer is far more likely to identify the cause of your problems, and Windows can regularly check for new fixes that might prevent particular crashes.

Windows XP wins in terms of stability and maturity, then. But the majority of problems are caused by bugs in drivers and applications, not core Windows code, and so Vista's superior error handling and reporting is extremely important. When you also factor in a selection of low-level changes, such as improved memory management and the ability to recover from failures like broken services or corrupt system files, then Vista (despite all its quirks) just scrapes into first place for this category. Our award is for a strictly limited time, though, as we'd anticipate Windows 7 moving swiftly into the top spot once its understandable teething problems are ironed out.

Scores

XP: 3 / 5
Vista: 3.5 / 5
Windows 7: 3 / 5

Windows 7 vs Vista vs XP: Conclusion and benchmarks

Conclusion

We've spent a long time poking, prodding and stress-testing these three operating systems, but it's still remarkably difficult to pick the outright best of Windows XP and Vista. XP is mature, still current enough to be compatible with most recent hardware and software, and a good all-round performer. But Vista fights back with a much better feature-set, especially in key areas such as security and error handling. On balance, we prefer XP for basic systems and would move to Vista only as hardware needs demanded – but that's a fine line to tread.

The good news is that you won't have to spend long agonising over the whole 'XP or Vista?' decision, because Windows 7 generally outdoes them both. Microsoft really does appear to have learned its hard-taught lessons and, while it hasn't fixed everything, the latest incarnation of Windows does show significant improvements over its predecessor – impressive for a pre-release version. The finished Windows 7 can only be better, and it should finally give long-standing XP fans a reason to upgrade.

Windows benchmarks

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First published in PC Plus issue 283

Liked this? Then check out Gaming smackdown: Windows XP vs Windows Vista vs Windows 7

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