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Windows 7 HD and SSD Performance Analyzed
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Date: May 28, 2009
Section:Storage
Author: Chris Connolly
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Overview

Windows 7 is undoubtedly the most exciting new operating system to come out of Microsoft within the past decade--and with good reason. The user interface is superb, gone are many of the oddball Vista quirks, and the operating system is light and snappy, marking a massive 180 degree shift away from the heaviness and bloat of Vista. Despite the fact that it's based on many of the same core Vista elements, Windows 7 is a different beast, and should be looked at in a fresh new light.



Windows 7 RC gets ready to take on a a pile of really fast drives.

As with any new operating system release, there are a lot of questions with regards to how it will perform on various hardware configurations--one of the more interesting ones being related to disk performance. One of Windows Vista's cardinal sins, in our opinion, was that the operating system was constantly thrashing the system's hard disk. Whether it was trying to do some sort of smart caching or indexing files for searching, it never felt like the operating system would settle down.  The disk was always active and performing reads or writes, which meant that whenever you had to actually run a program, you had to fight for disk resources.

This was noticed fairly early on, by large swaths of users, who complained about slow disk performance. Microsoft would eventually release an update to their disk caching algorithms embedded within Windows Vista Service Pack 1, which dramatically helped performance and snappiness of the operating system. However, the problem never felt completely resolved, and in the minds of most users, the damage was done. Windows Vista was, and still is, perceived as a slow operating system in the minds of most power users. One of the first things which most notice about Windows 7 is how "light" the operating system feels. It's quick to load up, it does not spend much time thrashing the hard disk once you're inside the interface, and your hard drive quickly settles down and lets you start working. It feels quicker, due to this fact, and as such, the entire computing experience on Windows 7 is much more enjoyable. All users, from those who use low-end netbooks to high-end workstations, will immediately benefit from Microsoft's new, more lightweight disk usage algorithms.

Today we're going to look at how various types of disks perform under Windows 7, both of the traditional platter based variety and new solid state disks. We're not only curious about how disk performance changes between the operating systems, but if Windows 7's new solid-state specific optimizations and tuning give you even greater performance compared to Vista.
 

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Windows Vista vs. Windows 7 - Hard Disk
Windows Vista vs. Windows 7 - Traditional Hard Disk


Western Digital Raptor 74 GB (10,000 RPM, SATA)

For our first test, we wanted to compare performance numbers between Windows Vista and Windows 7. Our Windows Vista configuration is using Vista Ultimate Edition x64 SP1, whereas our Windows 7 configuration is using Windows 7 Release Candidate x64 (build 7100). Our hard drive of choice is Western Digital's 10,000 RPM Raptor 74 GB, still considered one the faster platter-based SATA hard disk on the market today. Here's how the two operating systems stack up.



Traditional hard drives don't see much of a performance boost with Windows 7, as our tests show. Both read and write speeds are about the same for our Raptor drive, although burst transfer rates see a slight performance boost on Windows 7. Fair enough, let's move on to something more exciting, SSDs.

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Windows Vista vs. Windows 7 - Solid State Disk

Windows Vista vs. Windows 7 - Solid State Disk


Intel X25-M 160 GB (MLC Solid State, SATA-II)

Our second test features performance numbers between Windows Vista and Windows 7 with something a little faster, a new solid state hard drive from Intel. The solid state hard drive which we're looking at here is Intel's "consumer-level" X25-M drive, which features 160 GB capacity and read speeds of over 200 MB/s. This is roughly two to three times the bandwidth of a traditional SATA based hard disk today, so it will be a good showcase of if Windows 7's SSD support is improved.



As you can see, Windows 7 is much more efficient when it comes to making use of a solid state drive's speed. While under Windows Vista, our X25-M SSD averaged between 171 MB/s to 206 MB's, whereas under Windows 7, that jumps to 223 MB/s to 234 MB/s. Simply swapping out Vista to Windows 7 allows for a sizable performance increase in read performance. Write performance does not showcase a large jump, although write burst transfer rates do show an improvement under Windows 7 as well. Impressive indeed, but this isn't all Windows 7 has to show in the SSD department, there is also an additional variable called TRIM, which you might want to know more about.

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Windows 7 - TRIM
Windows 7 - TRIM *important update below



OCZ Vertex 120 GB (MLC Solid State, SATA-II)

When Microsoft was developing Windows Vista, SSDs were still extremely niche, but they have since exploded in popularity due to their wide-scale usage in netbooks and overall massive price drops, along with disk and memory manufacturers putting substantial effort into making them a mass-market item. While they aren't quite a mass market item yet, the market has acted favorably towards them, and it's quite clear that in a few years, they will be commonplace. Microsoft realized this and built some SSD-specific tricks into Windows 7 which help these drives perform better and last longer.

If the drive broadcasts itself as a solid state drive (which can be done through the latest ATA specification), Windows 7 can make adjustments to ensure that the drive performs at its best. For example, if Windows 7 can verify that you're running a solid state disk, it will disable defragmentation for that drive (as defragging puts un-necessary wear on SSD's and doesn't help performance). Windows 7 will also enable support for "TRIM", also known as DisableDeleteNotify, an add-on to the ATA specification which allows for enhanced performance and decreased strain on the drive. According to Microsoft, here's what TRIM brings to the table.

  • Enhancing device wear leveling by eliminating merge operation for all deleted data blocks
  • Making early garbage collection possible for fast write
  • Keeping device‚Äôs unused storage area as much as possible; more room for device wear leveling.

Basically, Windows 7 will send TRIM commands down the storage chain, but it's up to the drive to accept the commands and utilize them. In order for TRIM to work, you not only need Windows 7, but you'll need a solid state hard disk which has support for TRIM via its Firmware. Currently, these drives are few and far between, but we were able to test OCZ's new Vertex 120 GB SSD, which has support for TRIM in its latest firmware. We ran benchmarks with an older, non-TRIM supported firmware along with the latest version with TRIM support. Here's what we saw.



When Windows 7 detects a proper SSD and treats it as such, we see improvements in both read and write performance. Most notably, we see minimum read/write transfer speeds improve, and burst transfer rates also see slight bumps as well. TRIM is not designed as a performance improving feature per se, but we are seeing performance improvements here. TRIM is more designed for SSD device longevity, but a side effect of its garbage detection and early deletion feature does improve write performance in some circumstances.

* TRIM is not properly supported in the OCZ Vertex series firmware at this time. The performance differences seen here are likely due to changes made to different firmwares more than anything else.  We'll update this page when proper support is implemented.

Of course, we would urge all SSD manufacturers to get on the TRIM bandwagon before Windows 7 is released later this year. Microsoft has also put forward an initiative to label TRIM-enabled SSDs as Windows 7-ready with a special logo, but we have not seen any forward momentum with this initiative yet.

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Testbed and Windows 7 Overall Performance

Now that we know Windows 7 is a better choice when it comes to disk performance, we ran an array of benchmarks on various  drives within Windows 7 to showcase how the operating system responds to disks of all shapes and sizes. Enjoy.

Test System Details
Specifications and Revisions

  • Intel Core i7 920 Quad-Core (2.66 GHz) Processor
  • Asus P6T Intel X58 Motherboard
  • 3 x Kingston HyperX DDR3-1333 Memory (3 x 1 GB)
  • 1 x Nvidia GeForce GTX 260 896 MB
  • 1 x Plextor PX-755SA DVD+/-RW Drive
  • 1 x Corsair HX620W 620W Power Supply
  • Windows 7 Ultimate Edition Release Candidate (Build 7100 x64)

  • Western Digital Green 1 TB SATA-II
  • Western Digital VelociRaptor 300 GB SATA-II
  • Western Digital Raptor 74 GB SATA
  • OCZ Vertex 120 GB SSD SATA-II (1.10 Firmware)
  • Intel X25-M 160 GB SSD SATA-II (04098820 Firmware)
Windows 7 Performance
Windows 7 Ultimate Boot Time



Windows 7 definitely shows better overall operating system performance when using a solid state disk compared to a traditional platter-based hard disk. Even the high-end VelociRaptor drive trails our two SSD drives across the board. These SSD drives can boot up Windows 7 in roughly 30 seconds from hitting the power button, which is pretty impressive. Our traditional hard drives take roughly 20 seconds longer to get to the login prompt, which frankly, isn't too bad either. Windows 7 boots very fast, even on slower hard drives.

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HDTune Pro 3.1
HDTune Pro Storage Benchmark - Read/Write Performance
Version 3.10 Pro



Not surprisingly, our SSD drives dominate our Windows 7-based disk performance graphs, delivering dominating read and sometimes write performance numbers. The OCZ Vertex drive shines here, delivering 230 MB/s read and almost 200 MB/s write, whereas the Intel X25-M kicks down to about 80 MB/s write speed.

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PCMark, Photoshop CS4, Crysis
PCMark Vantage Benchmark
Final System Score


Adobe Photoshop CS4
Loading 1.5 GB+ PSD into Scratch Space


Crysis
Level Load Time


Dropping an SSD into your new Windows 7 box will help performance across the board, as all three of the above benchmarks show substantially better performance with an SSD. Loading a huge file in Photoshop will be quicker, as will loading levels in Crysis. We're seeing performance gains of about 2x over a 7,200 RPM hard disk, roughly 1.5x over a high-end 10,000 RPM hard disk.

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IOMeter
IOMeter
Workstation and Database File Patterns (IO's per Second)




No contest here, Iometer is simply dominated by the solid state drives. Whereas traditional hard drives are limited to the range of 100-200 I/O's per second, our solid state hard drives are pushing up to 10x+ the speed, ranging from 2400 - 13,000 IO's per second. Win7 can make for a great workstation/server/database operating system as well, which isn't surprising as Microsoft is basing their upcoming Windows Server product on the same Windows 7 core.

We would also like to make note about these Iometer scores.  We are currently working with Intel in regards to our X25-M Iometer numbers, which were sporadic across the board throughout our testing.  The numbers seen here are benchmarked directly after a secure erase, which allows the drive to run at peak capacity.   We encountered significantly lower Iometer performance numbers after several rounds of testing--so take our X25-M numbers with that grain of salt.  We'll update this article when we hear back from Intel on the matter.

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Conclusion

Performance Summary: Our performance numbers verify our initial impressions of Windows 7. Platter based hard drives and high-end solid state drives, all run faster on Windows 7. Solid state drives see the largest performance boost, which showed up to a 35% improvement in read performance and up to a 23% boost in write performance. The performance difference for platter based hard drives is admittedly smaller, but even though the numbers don't showcase it, there is a definitely smoother, snappier feeling to running Windows 7 compared to Vista, which can be perceived even on traditional hard drives.



 

Windows 7 does a lot to un-do the damage that Microsoft did with Windows Vista. Windows 7 feels lightweight, fresh, and far more intuitive. Sure, lots of the new user interface elements are pulled from the Mac OSX design guidebook, but they are implemented well in the Windows environment, and the whole thing feels polished. Even in a release candidate (i.e, non-final) state, the OS is quick, solid, and feels production ready. For the first time in years, we are anxiously awaiting an operating system release from Microsoft. 


Windows 7 is shaping up to be an improvement over Windows Vista in almost every meaningful way. At this point, everything seems like it's moving in the right direction with this new operating system, and Microsoft is finally showing that it can better compete in terms of usability and user-experience in today's computing environments against OSX and Linux, providing a compelling case why the Windows operating system is such a dominant force. Those who like to bash Microsoft at every turn will have to find some new reasons to hate on Windows 7, as low, machine-halting  performance won't likely be a factor when Win7 comes into the mix.

 



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