Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Windows

For web development, I prefer to work on a Mac. But I also like to game. So I tend to invest in hardware that will allow me to game and work without shelling out for a top-of-the-line Apple PC (at the moment, I think that would be my ideal setup).

I’ve never had the time to fully embrace Linux as a Desktop environment (too busy trying to understand Windows, which as you’ll remember, I require for gaming). This has historically left me in a somewhat uneasy truce with Windows as my primary OS (Operating System).

Anyway, about a year ago I decided to take the jump to Vista. Don’t ask why, that’s a separate saga, and not important to the information presented here (if you ask nicely, I might tell you some time).

Just add RAM

After upgrading, my rig was coping ok with 2 GB of RAM, but it felt sluggish at times and did not seem quite enough for Vista plus gaming. RAM is fairly inexpensive these days, so I considered simply adding some more. My assumption was that this would be a simple upgrade “just add RAM”, you know like “just add water” (note: don’t mix the two). Needless to say I ran into a number of problems upgrading and trying to tweak performance, of which there seems to be much confusing and often conflicting information available online in articles and forums.

Luckily, at the time I was on holidays, so I had time to sift through the mountains of technical missives, waffling threads, and all-out flame wars to distil what I believe to be the most useful and accurate advice — which I’ll publish one day soon, in the meantime, the saga continues…

Just add 32 bits

After upgrading to 4 GB of RAM it became apparent that not all of it was visible to Vista, it turns out that a 32 bit operating system can only address up to 4 GB of memory (including RAM and memory attached to other devices, like a video card).

I considered enabling PAE (Physical Address Extension) but read that would introduce driver incompatibilities. Instead, I decided to upgrade to 64 bit Vista because a 64 bit OS can address all of my RAM and video memory at the same time.

Just add XP

Unfortunately, while 32 bit Vista was sluggish and a little unstable, 64 bit Vista was sluggish and extremely unstable. I put this down to a lack of quality 64 bit drivers, but the result was a return to XP. After weeks of reading, upgrading and general frustration I was back at square one.

At the time I decided not to blog about all of this because I don’t generally like to dwell on the negatives (certainly not worth dwelling on a failure of this magnitude).

Just add Windows 7

It’s ok though, because the saga has a happy ending. In the last couple of months, I have installed the 64 bit Windows 7 Release Candidate (W7) and the results have been very promising. Stability is good, and performance is great, and I’m a big fan of the W7 features and UI improvements over XP.

Many of these UI improvements of course have been lifted straight from the Mac OS X playbook, but Vista/W7 have a few nice features of their very own, for instance they provide very nice options for replacing/merging files and folders.

Two weeks ago I upgraded my rig to the Nehalem architecture, and 64 bit Windows 7 has been just as reliable, and a little snappier thanks to the i7 processor and 6GB of RAM.

The verdict

In short, for best performance and usability: If you can’t afford a hulking Apple — Use Windows 7, use the 64 bit edition and pack lots of RAM.

For a more detailed list of performance dos and don’ts that I accrued through much reading, trial and error, stay tuned for my next post…

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