It’s time the industry got its act together and made hardware more than a bunch of meaningless numbers… By creating one meaningless number to help us figure out what game will run on our PC.
Why are we not all throwing out our PCs, ditching them in a mix of despair and exaltation as we let go of the need for constant upgrading, the expensive new video cards and processors (now with extra cores!) every time a new title hits the shelves? Is it part of the pleasure of PC gaming when you finally construct the perfect balance of speed, power, temperature and compatibility? The unbridled joy of having Half Life 2 burst forth at 80 unflinching frames per second in a resolution that makes you weep silently at the beauty of the virtual world, only then to find that Supreme Commander becomes a stop animation film?
Let’s face it; no one really likes the process of having to create a gaming rig. Specs constantly change and it’s easy to get burnt. Consider the people who jumped in at the launch of the NVIDIA GeForce 8800, only to find that it will not be backward compatible with the new and improved Direct X 10.1. $800 plus dollars later and they get to boast that they are the proud owners of one of the fastest pieces of hardware to become obsolete in the history of computing. The real problem here is that there is no consistency between hardware and software – the hardware setup that works well with one game will not perform with another. Fortunately, there are steps being taken to rectify the situation.
Microsoft has begun the task of simplifying the way in which we rate the performance of our PC though the introduction of the Windows system performance rating application. With Vista they have attempted to make PC use more accessible to the masses, and this new application moves to summarise the whole of your hardware components into a single number, which can then be used by software publishers to show what will run properly on your PC. This system is still in its infancy and has teething problems like any other, but if it can get to the stage where you can be sure that your shiny new version of Unreal Tournament will work well on your setup, then it deserves our support.
If you are one of the several people who have moved over to Vista, you can find the system performance rating of your PC by typing “performance information and tools” into the search bar.
Your PC’s performance is divided into five categories, or subscores: Processor, memory, graphics, gaming graphics and primary hard disk. The higher the subscore, the more intensive workload your hardware can handle. Current mid to high range hardware weighs in at around 4-5, with the highest possible score being 5.9 and the lowest 1. We are told though that as new hardware is released the maximum scores will increase. This initially seems to make sense but feels like it will become clumsy in the long run. Although compared with the alternative of having the distinctly depressing feeling of watching your base score reduce like the price of an expired sausage at the supermarket, I don’t mind the idea.
These subscores are summarised by the all important ‘Windows Experience Index’. This number is the one that Microsoft are banking on being the future of the ‘minimum system requirements’ section on the bottom of your games packaging. The flaw in this at the moment is that the number is worked out by using the lowest score across the five categories, meaning that if your PC does not perform well in the graphics category, your entire system is regarded as performing at that level. Why should your cranked up gaming rig be made fun of by Vista loving machines because it doesn’t handle Vista Aero well, which has no bearing on how installed games and applications will run? Conspiracy theorist have already emerged claiming this scoring system may lead to collusion between software developers and hardware manufacturers, who might fight to have their hardware rated better than their competitors. Only time will tell as to how this is resolved.
Interestingly, there is already a link built in to the performance rating application that would take you to the Microsoft marketplace and show you software that will run on a system with your base score…If anybody actually used the score. It seems that not even Microsoft have adopted the system with their own software, much less Ubisoft or EA. All you get at the moment is the fairly anonymous Microsoft marketplace. The second piece to complete the puzzle may end up being in the form of a system scanning utility currently running on the Games for Windows website. With a quick install this is meant to scan your system and tell you if specific titles are suitable for you. You see, although I say running I mean that the utility wasn’t able to recognise some of the hardware on my new HP dual core laptop, causing it to curl up in a ball and play dead. Infants! When this is finally running properly I feel it will be a major step towards working out our future upgrade paths, and give invaluable assistance when choosing titles to purchase. It would seem a very difficult task to register every possible video card, CPU, and sound card, but with most components coming from the major players these days most people should eventually find it an indispensable tool.
With all the promise in the world, the current version of the Windows system performance application does little to help us with our hardware woes, mirroring the feeling that people have of Vista in general. This is a product before its time; eventually though it seems destined to become a permanent piece of the gaming landscape once the ‘beta’ period is over. With the major publishers and retailers already investing heavily into the Games for Windows branding, it won’t be long before we start comparing the numbers from our computers to those on the boxes of the latest titles.