Composition Engine and Spyware Performance

One particularly important change with the move to a GPU accelerated desktop is relieving some of the enormous CPU performance penalties caused by GDI+. Because of how GDI+ handles window refreshes, heavy desktop activity that involves tasks such as moving around a window result in GDI+ eating up a great deal of CPU time just to handle these refreshes. By moving to a GPU accelerated desktop, the Window Composition Engine (WCE) that now handles these effects can offload some of the work to the GPU by treating these items as polygons and textures, which the GPU is well suited to manipulating.

In order to test the performance impact of the WCE, we set up a simple test in which we opened up several windows scattered around the desktop and in different states of overlapping each other, and then dragged around a window for 10 seconds measuring the system CPU usage. If the WCE is doing its job well, the CPU usage should be reduced. All 3 of Vista's desktop rendering modes have been tested using the exact same setup, and XP has been included using a setup as similar as possible. (We can't guarantee everything was 100% identical, as we are running on a different operating system with potentially different background tasks running.)

Click to enlarge

Windows Composition Engine Performance
XP Vista Aero Vista Basic Vista Classic
CPU usage 49% 33% 97% 78%

While the results against XP should be taken with a grain of salt due to the aforementioned setup issues, it's clear that in Aero mode the composition engine is doing its job and has pushed CPU usage down to 33% in spite of all the eye-candy this mode has over all other modes. For users who will be capable of using Aero mode, this will be a win-win situation for them as they can use all the advanced features of Aero and still need less CPU power in the process.

Vista Basic however is very distressing, and we're not particularly sure why it's doing so poorly. As we mentioned before, Basic is effectively just a new skin using the XP rendering mode, so why it's maxing out our CPU we're not sure at this point; the poor overall graphics performance of Vista shouldn't be affecting Basic this much considering it doesn't utilize 3D acceleration, nor does the debug code make for an adequate explanation for it. XP clearly does much better, and Microsoft needs to get Vista's performance more in line with XP's; otherwise those who want to use Vista on systems inadequate for Aero are going to be inadvertently giving themselves CPU-bound situations.

As for Vista Classic, since it's using a very similar rendering mode as Basic, the similarly poor score isn't surprising. Clearly disabling the semi-advanced features that give Basic its more refined look can bring CPU usage down, but 78% for the barebones graphical features of Windows 2000 is still too high. We'll definitely be taking another look at this when Vista is shipping.

Spyware Protection

While there's no formal method for testing the resilience of an operating system to spyware, one of the biggest pushes from Microsoft with Vista is that it will be much harder to infect with spyware, due to the combination of the new firewall, the UAC changes, and the integration of Windows Defender. To put that claim to the test, we attempted to infect our Vista setup with the Hotbar spyware package, a moderately annoying piece of malware that displays advertising and tries to phone home a record of user activities.

Going the direct route, we visited Hotbar's site in IE7+ and downloaded the Hotbar application directly from their site. Much to our surprise, Vista did not complain about this past the fact that we were running an executable we downloaded, something that Windows XP does just as well. Vista continued to sit idly by as we ran the installer for Hotbar, and we ultimately did not encounter any issues installing it.

It was not until we tried to remove it that we realized that Microsoft did not ship Vista with any spyware definitions, which is partially the reason that Windows was so passive about it being installed. In fact, until we installed those definitions, the only thing that kept Hotbar contained was the last failsafe, the firewall, which detected Hotbar attempting to connect to the internet and allowed us to block it before any further damage could be done. Once Microsoft's definitions were installed, we were able to remove Hotbar using Windows Defender without a problem. We then tried to install Hotbar again, at which point Defender notified us that we were trying to install a known piece of spyware and allowed us to abort the installation.

Given this test, we're not terribly convinced about Windows' anti-malware abilities at this time. In spite of UAC, Hotbar seemed perfectly happy running as a user-limited process, and it was only the firewall that kept it in check. Trashing a user account is for all practical purposes equally as destructive as trashing the entire system, so this is not a significant improvement.

It also puts Windows Defender in a bad light, as it appears that it will be of limited use in the case of dealing with a piece of malware it doesn't recognize. Certainly Defender will keep a subset of computer users from consistently reinstalling something that is spyware that they don't know about, but this may very well just lead to an arms race for spyware much like viruses today, which is not an effective situation. The firewall saved us, but that's not always going to be enough.

General Performance Conclusion


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  • Pirks - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link


    OSX officially runs on x86 hardware, as long as it has an Apple logo on it. We did it to not have to worry about drivers and such. Yeah, as if you don't both have the same Intel chipset to support.
    Windows driver support and OSX driver support are quite different, in Windows you usually need a driver CD or download, while with OSX there almost nothing to do - plug the thing and enjoy it - hence the need for certified hardware - you need someone in charge of hardware approval to get that level of smoothness with hardware & other stuff. Apple can't provide this level of service IF they can't stamp their logo on something, while Windows can't provide this level of service BECAUSE they can't stamp their logo - feel the difference here :)) There's no such thing as "certified Windows hardware that you can just pop in and enjoy" - put all the WHQL/XP/MS logos on a Chinese card from newegg - and you still have to download and setup drivers yourself - which sounds like an insult for any Mac guy, hehe ;-)
  • Locutus465 - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    Not neccessarly... Hell, at work we started using signature pad software in conjunction with an active x control to provide digital signature functionality... I ordered a Topaz signature pad, it got to the office, plugged it in the USB and wouldn't you know it.... Windows found the device right away and it worked. To be fair, microsoft supports a huge number of the box... They just can't support all of it... Heck, I didn't even *need* to install any system drivers with vista, it found all my nForce4 devices and Gefore 7800GT just fine... I chose to becaues I'm guessing nVidia probably did a better job with thier drivers than microsoft did with their generic ones. Reply
  • Pirks - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link


    To be fair, microsoft supports a huge number out of the box. They just can't support all of it.
    This is what I'm talking about - noone can support everything out there out of the box but a MANAGEABLE subset of hardware, like most popular video/audio/TV/RAID and other cards - that's a piece of cake, and now you are right, Vista will support a lot out of the box but LATER maybe in a year or two a lot of new devices start to appear on the market that Vista will not support out of the box, and the problem is NOBODY cares whether user has to download a driver or something, nobody cares about setting up some automatic update site driven by MS and maybe some other big PC vendors together (joint MS/newegg site would be ubermegacool!) which says "IF YOU GET CERTIFIED HARDWARE FROM US IT'LL WORK MAC-STYLE" meaning that if this card has a special logo - you know you pop it in and nothing else - Windows automatically locates driver online and downloads/installs it - Mac OS X style. Just forget about this thing unless you get a Mac - somehow MS and other can't realize many users would love such a feature - very nice choice - if you're a pro - go to newegg and get nice cheap stuff and install it yourself, but if you're a noob - here's your, get there, choose a card, order it, pop it in and just FORGET about everything else - no drivers no other sh1t to worry about - well, all AT/DT readers won't care about that, I know, but for noobs/general public I think that's a boon, all my Mac owning buddies LOVE that feature of Macs - hence it's a good idea to adopt something similar for Windows, don't you agree?
  • Locutus465 - Saturday, June 17, 2006 - link

    What you don't seem to realize is that Windows has such a feature called Windows update. Microsoft does continuously update their in house set of available drivers. The main thing is that Microsoft tends not to do as good a job optimising drivers for *performance*. What microsoft want's are good solid drivers that don't crash your system, as far as their conserned performance is a distant second. This is why most users in the know specifically tell Windows *not* to locate a driver for their new hardware (unless it's something simple like a USB/Firewire harddrive etc) and proceed to download drivers from the hardware manufacturers website. Reply
  • Pirks - Saturday, June 17, 2006 - link


    Windows has such a feature called Windows update
    Ever tried to install Audigy 2 or X-Fi on XP? Ever tried to pop in Nomad Zen in 2002 or so... rings any bells? Or not?

    Well, if not, here's an explanation for you - your Windows Update is just this - purely WINDOWS update, and nothing more - the problem is - Windows Update is not concerned with a lot of new hardware coming out (Nomad Zen back in 2002, X-Fi, many other examples), there's not even an idea of certifying the new piece of hardware and submitting drivers to Microsoft where they are put online with WHQL logo on them. See the difference? In Macs it's a rule - got a new fresh driver for Mac OS X for your card? Submit it to Apple NOW! In Windows? Who cares about this in Windows? Windows PC makers do not care whether their customer can or can not install drivers - here's your PC, bye now. You wanna install X-Fi? Well, you're on your own. Get a nerd or something. Yeah, this works, but why not to go one step further and do it like this - Creative makes new flashy X-Fi - IMMEDIATELY submits drivers to MS - MS quickly tests them and in a week or two there you go - you pop your new expensive X-Fi in your PC and MAGICCC!!! PC GOES ONLINE AND DOWNLOADS/INSTALLS DRIVERS ITSELF! Why? Because X-Fi has this logo "Just Works in XP". You wanna get third party hi-perf drivers and apps/tuning utils? No problemo - go get 'em. But if you're a noob and dont' know what a driver is - this is a boon.

    So far no enthusiast understood me when I mentioned this idea - and this is normal - enthusiasts do not need this kind of service. What is more interesting is why a major Home PC brand still doesn't have this kind of service. My guess this is because quality Home PCs come pre-assembled with all the drivers, but still - this service is an interesting approach to clone from Apple.

    After all Vista cloned a lot from Tiger - why not clone other things from Apple like this service?

    Will it hurt anyone?

    Or will it make PCs more noob friendly and hence better competitors for Macs which constantly boast this "Just works" attitude? I mean this is nothing major, this is just a little service - but this Dashboard and Expose and other things - they are also little services, if you think about it. Is Vista actively cloning this stuff? Sure it is, everybody loves eye-candy, Spotlight and stuff like that - so why would anyone NOT like this additional automatic hardware configuration service?

    I feel this is a thing of the future, and should appear sooner or later.

    Any other opinions on that?
  • Locutus465 - Saturday, June 17, 2006 - link

    Yes, but perhaps what you're missing is Microsoft will update their own in house drivers for hardware they consider essential to Windows functioning properly. The fact that microsoft doesn't try to control the PC market in the way Apple controls the Mac market has made the PC significantly more cost effective than Apples platform, while still allowing for a very high degree of innovation. The IBM PC has always been about economics, which is why no one (including IBM) could control it the way in which Apple controls the Mac platform. So apparently the answer to your question is yes and no.

    Yeah, there does need to be a service to update driver critical to the functioning of modern PC's automatically (in Microsoft's case, Windows Update). But no, in order to retain the economic's of the IBM clone market, there needs to be no such Apple like control over the market..
  • Pirks - Sunday, June 18, 2006 - link


    But no, in order to retain the economic's of the IBM clone market, there needs to be no such Apple like control over the market.
    Excellent point - total Apple-like control of the hardware turns PC into Mac, which is obviously not what users need and want (excluding zealots, of course). However, my point was not about turning PC into Mac by introducing total hardware control over every PC out there, Apple-style, it was rather about creating a special BRAND of PC, obviously a Vista-based PC, which should retain best features of Vista and Mac from the point of view of a noob. This means: a Vista PC which has similar subset of applications as OS X Tiger, and which also behaves like a Mac when you pop a certified piece of hardware into it - it goes online and downloads/installs drivers quietly and user just enjoys the device without any thinking - it "just works".

    Naturally, there is no need at all to convert all PCs to that ideology, one brand would be enough. Who is the best candidate for that? Probably an alliance between Dell and MS, or something similar.

    I heard a lot of talk about Microsoft's iPod Killa coming out soon, not sure these aren't just baseless rumors but... let's imagine for a sec MS is going to try and kick Apple a little in DAP market - how'd they do that? Obviously by cloning and amplifying strengths of iPod. What are these? Tight integration and control of course, especially on Macs - on Mac the OS itself plus iTunes/iPod/iTMS work seamlessly together. Maybe MS can leverage some of that by creating its own PC brand (together with Dell would be the best) so that when there's someone thinking about bying a Mac just because it's so noob friendly, he/she can reconsider - hey, wait, don't buy a Mac - see, there's similar MS PC, which also accepts a subset of certified hardware, just like Mac and because of that is as easy and stable as a Mac - this is its strength, this is why it can compete with Macs on their turf.

    In other words, if Apple pushes personal computers as easy to use, utility devices, and if MS also kind of succeded with its console (which is also utility device - plug and enjoy) then, maybe, it's time to attack CORE Apple market - those utility PCs called Macs. MS has attacked Sony market with game console - why not attacking Apple market at some point by creating similar PC clone of Mac, which is also controlled by one company and hence easy and stable etc.

    Seems like a viable business idea to me, well meybe not at this point in time, maybe we should wait till Apple share of US home computer market grows to, say, 10 or 20% - but EVENTUALLY MS might be just FORCED to go Apple way - tight control over hardware and such - while leaving current free PC market intact of course - as I said it should be just another PC brand, nothing more.
  • stash - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link


    6. Instead of asking for permission all the time, why not allow the control panel to open, then ask, then do not ask again when using anything in it?

    Because that is a nice gaping vulnerability.


    7. Like mentioned, why make it so hard to hide the turn off button? Stupid.

    If you notice, there are two large buttons (sleep and lock) and a menu containing restart, logoff, shutdown, hibernate, etc. Sleep is a faster and more efficient method to shut off a computer, since it combines standby with hibernation. So machines will shut down much faster and startup nearly instantaneously, right where you left them. They will also use less power, since resuming from sleep uses far less power than a cold boot.


    11. Usual Microsoft behavior: Change for the sake of change (that damn power button!)

    This is not MS's behavior at all. All of these things are tested extensively in useability studies by thousands of (non-Microsoft) users. The UX and UI changes in Vista are a result of these studies, not some artibrary decision.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    Sleep and standby are not "more efficient" as they continue to draw power. (If fact, even shutting down will still leave the PC drawing 5-10W on most desktops.) The best way to totally shut off a computer is to shut down Windows and unplug the PC (or turn off the PSU switch). If by more efficient you mean that it starts up faster, then yes, but that's really more convenient, not more efficient. Reply
  • Locutus465 - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    So far, sleep doesn't start up my computer any faster than a cold boot with vista. In fact... Some times it doesn't start up my computer at all! I do like the general idea that you can put your computer into a sleep mode and still have it continue downloading data etc. Hopefully MS will get this worked out. Reply

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