Windows 8 is something of a conundrum for PC gamers, who usually upgrade their operating system as soon as possible to poke and prod it and see what happens. However, major players in the PC gaming space like Valve Software founder Gabe Newell and Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson have claimed that Windows 8 is a "catastrophe" for PC gamers.
Well, I am a gamer, and I performed a clean install of Windows 8 professional on my Windows 7 ultimate machine a few days ago. Read on for my thoughts, and find out if Redmond's latest operating system is right for you.
Metro - The elephant in the room
Before I talk about games specifically, I know that everyone is curious about the new start screen. The faithful start menu that's been with us since '95 is gone, replaced by a full-screen takeover of colorful tiles. These tiles launch full-screen tablet apps like News, Weather, Calendar, and the Microsoft App Marketplace. Fortunately there's a tile called "desktop" that you click on that will jump you straight into old-school windows. There's also a pretty cool program called OblyTile that lets you make custom tiles, like the Dishonored, XCOM, and Borderlands 2 ones you see in the shot above.
Philosophically we'll all differ about the use of the start screen. Personally, I didn't buy a monitor that's almost the size of four iPads, only to use full-screen tablet apps with a mouse and keyboard. That said, the start screen comes and goes just as fast as the old-school start menu, and launching apps by hitting the Windows key and typing works just as quickly, if not more quickly than in Windows 7. The start screen is something that can be easily ignored on your way to games. And hey, with a little effort, it sure looks pretty.
Okay, but How will my games run?
Let me dissuade all your fears right away: Steam works fine. With one major exception, all games work fine too. Currently, adventure games from Telltale crash if there is an Xbox 360 controller plugged in when you launch them. Here's a fix for that if you're having trouble.
I've played The Walking Dead, Mark of the Ninja, Dishonored, Hotline Miami, XCOM: Enemy Unknown and the Planetside 2 Beta on my Windows 8 machine, and they all perform about the same as they did in Windows 7, though framerates were a bit smoother in most cases. Basically, installing programs, running Steam, and gaming performance, are all exactly the same as they were in Windows 7, minus a few early adopter quirks.
Microsoft has tweaked Windows 8 in a lot of other cool ways under the hood. Since Windows 8 is technically able to run on tablets as well as beastly gaming towers, you'll find that it uses much less RAM and CPU at idle than Windows 7, which results in more fluidity when zipping around the OS. Microsoft has also tweaked the boot times to be insanely fast: even my old platter drive boots straight to a usable desktop in 10 seconds. This used to take at least 20 or 30 seconds in Windows 7.
The task manager in Windows 8 has also received a makeover that gives a much clearer view of everything that is running on your computer. The task manager also lets you run an internet search on any programs that are running. This is really helpful when there's a suspicious program bogging down your machine.
If everything really goes pear-shaped, you can even trigger a fresh install of Windows through the control panel. Just hit a few buttons and Windows will start wiping your hard drive and re-installing itself. A full clean install performed this way took me about 45 minutes. And yes, you can put this option behind a password lock so that your friends don't completely bork your computer while you are in the bathroom.
Bottom Line: Should I Upgrade? Should I Care?
I decided to upgrade to Windows 8 with my own time and money, and don't regret it. Microsoft's re-imagination of the start menu is interesting, though not incredibly useful on day one. That said, I enjoy the increased speed and fluidity of the OS. With upgrades running $40 until late January, it is also the least expensive operating system Microsoft has ever released. Here are my cut and dry recommendations for all of you.
If you are fine with performance in Windows 7 and don't want to upgrade: Don't upgrade, yet. Metro is not a good reason to update to a new operating system, and your gaming performance will honestly only change by a handful of frames per second at best. Microsoft will keep supporting Windows 7 until 2015, so you don't have to worry about suddenly getting left in the dark.
If you are interested in Windows 8 but are nervous about how your gaming experience will be affected: Upgrade. Windows 8 is just as good for gaming as Windows 7, if not a little bit better thanks to those under-the-hood tweaks.
If you are still running XP or Vista: Upgrade. Going up to Windows 8 from these legacy operating systems will give your computer a swift kick in the pants as far as performance, security, and compatibility goes.