Windows 8 Speed: It’s Not About the Benchmarks

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Casey Mears races a Microsoft-sponsored car at the Carquest 300 in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2003.’s Michael Muchmore has helpfully performed an array of speed tests of various sorts on the Release Preview of Windows 8, comparing it to Windows 7. The news is mostly good: Windows 8, which we now know is due to arrive in late October, started up and shut down quicker than its predecessor, and performed meaningfully better in browser benchmarks. By the time Microsoft is done tweaking the final version, it might be even faster.

If Windows 8 were merely a replacement for Windows 7, such rigorous, objective data might be the best indication of whether it’ll come off as zippy or sluggish. But Windows 8 is attempting to be far more than yet another operating-system upgrade. It wants to power tablets that take on the iPad head-to-head–including Microsoft’s own Surface–and to keep more conventional PCs relevant in the iPad era. And it’s doing so in large part by de-emphasizing the Windows interface we’ve used since the Windows 95 era in favor of the simplified, touch-friendly Metro.

In short, Windows 8 is so different from Windows 7 in both overarching goals and specific details that fixating entirely on an, um, apples-to-apples comparison might leave you with a misleading impression of the experience it’s going to deliver.

I’m glad that Muchmore performed his tests, but I’m still wondering about the following issues–most of which are tough to answer based on the preview versions of the operating system Microsoft has released so far.

How often will you have to boot up and shut down Windows 8, anyhow? With tablets and smartphones, actually starting up and turning off the operating system is a once-in-a-while annoyance, not an everyday necessity. (More often, you’re just bringing the device in and out of suspend mode.) So shaving a few seconds off the time it takes to boot it up and shut it down isn’t as important as ensuring that you don’t have to do either very often.

How quickly and reliably does it come out of suspend mode? Historically, desktop operating systems such as Windows and OS X don’t snap back to attention as swiftly and predictably as fully mobile ones like iOS and Android. (Also: The longer I own a Windows laptop, the more trouble it seems to have waking up.) Like an iPad, a Windows 8 PC should be ready to go the moment you press the power button.

How fast can you get stuff done in Metro? It’s missing many of the features from the Windows desktop, and has some new ones. And just about everything you can do, you do in a new way. How quickly will typical Windows users be able to perform typical Windows tasks using this all-new interface once they’re acclimated to it?

How responsive is Metro? With touch-centric interfaces even more than with mouse-and-keyboard ones, a huge part of perceived speed involves overall fluidity rather than total amount of elapsed time required to perform a task. When you touch your finger to Windows 8, it should respond immediately. When you drag and scroll, there shouldn’t be any distracting jitters. The operating system’s memory management should be so efficient that you never feel like it’s struggling to keep up with you.

Does the combination of Metro and the Windows desktop feel fast? The Microsoft honchos in charge of Windows 8 keep arguing that the operating system offers the best of both worlds: the new-wave Metro interface and apps designed for it, plus the old-school Windows desktop and familiar software. But this duality will have Windows 8 users bopping between two worlds, each with its own features, conventions, pros and cons. I’m still curious how jarring this ongoing mental shift will be over the long run.

Will PC makers muck Windows 8 up? A virgin copy of Windows 7 is one of the nicest, most efficient desktop operating systems ever created. But it’s often a slow-motion mess once hardware makers have gotten their hands on it and larded it up with demoware, flaky utilities and other unwantedware. We still don’t know what Windows 8 will be like on actual shipping computers.

How fast will Windows 8 be after a year of use? One of the most irritating things about Windows is its tendency to get slower the longer you use it, sometimes so much so that it becomes downright unusable. Windows 8’s new Refresh feature, which lets you re-install the operating system while preserving apps and settings, may help here. Of course, with the mobile operating systems which Windows will now compete with, even such re-installations are virtually never necessary.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m predicting that Windows 8 will feel like a slowpoke. And I acknowledge that some of these factors may matter less if you’re running Windows 8 on a garden-variety laptop or desktop, as hundreds of millions of people will do, rather than on a tablet. But the collective subjective impressions of real people running Windows 8 on real shipping hardware are going to tell us things about its speed that no laboratory tests can measure. It’s going to be fascinating to see what their verdict is.