Windows 7 will be more than just a better interface. Under-the-hood changes will allow chips from Intel, Nvidia, and Advanced Micro Devices to ratchet up Windows 7 performance above previous Microsoft operating systems.
Microsoft on Wednesday said it has finalized the code for Windows 7, set to ship with new PCs starting October 22. Improvements will include how Windows handles multitasking, graphics acceleration, and solid-state drives.
Microsoft is working closely with Intel, whose chips will power the vast majority of PCs running Windows 7. A July 22 post from Intel's Joakim Lialias, Alliance Manager responsible for Microsoft, described how Microsoft and Intel "saw unique opportunities to optimize Windows 7 for Intel processor technology" in the areas of performance, power management, and graphics.
In his blog, Lialias focused on improvements to multitasking based on "SMT Parking," which provides additional support to the Windows 7 scheduler for Intel Hyper-threading Technology. With Hyper-threading, the operating system sees a single processor core as two cores. For example, a quad-core system would be seen as having eight cores, thus potentially improving multitasking--or doing tasks (threads) simultaneously.
Hyper-threading is back in vogue at Intel after being pulled from Intel Core 2 chips (it debuted in the Pentium 4 processor). Nehalem Core "i" series processors use Hyper-threading, as do Atom chips. Intel, in fact, now includes Hyper-threading as part of a chip's core specifications. The Core i7-975 processor, for example, is listed as "4 Cores, 8 Threads."
Lialias also mentioned enhancements to boot and shutdown times. "Our mutual goal was to provide the most responsive compute experience possible." (Lialias' blog was cited in a PC World article.)
Windows 7 will also do more than previous operating systems with graphics--and here, DirectX 11 stands out as the most highly anticipated technology. A recent AMD blog describes a "beast called the tessellator...which enables games developers to create smoother, less blocky and more organic looking objects in games." The blog discusses how DirectX has been redesigned "to ensure that it is much more efficient" at using multicore processors, such as the AMD Opteron chip.
Beyond games, Windows 7 has the potential to turn a graphics processing unit (GPU) from AMD or Nvidia into a general-purpose compute engine, used to accelerate everyday computing tasks like a CPU. Specifically, "the compute shader" can be used to speed up more common computing tasks. The buzz word used to describe this technology is a mouthful: GPGPU or general-purpose graphics processing unit.
In an April interview, Sumit Gupta, product manager for Nvidia's Tesla products, described GPGPU in some detail. "What that essentially means to consumers is, if your laptop has an Nvidia GPU or ATI GPU, it will run the operating system faster because the operating system will essentially see two processors in the system. For the first time, the operating system is going to see the GPU both as a graphics chip and as a compute engine," he said.
Gupta gave an example of launching an application. "For example, when you launch (Google) Picasa, that is completely run on the CPU. (But) the minute you choose an image and apply a filter, that filter should run on the GPU," he said.
Another beneficiary of improved Windows 7 technology: solid-state drives, which are typically faster than hard-disk drives and gaining ground in niche markets such as high-end laptops, gaming PCs, and servers.
SSDs will be able to take advantage of Windows 7 technology called the Trim Command. In a recent interview, Troy Winslow, marketing manager for the NAND Products Group at Intel, explained the significance of the Windows 7 Trim Command, which clears up free area on a solid-state drive.
Even when blocks of data get deleted on a solid-state drive, the drive still looks like it's full, according to Winslow. "Trim allows you to release those blocks for reuse and maintain the performance. Every drive will degrade somewhat over time. With Trim, you're able to stay more in that the virgin state," he said.