When a Community Technology Preview (CTP) build of Windows Vista was released to the public earlier this year, it contained a new tool called Windows Performance Rating, designed to analyze your computer’s various subsystems and return a performance rating between 1 and 5 that indicated how well Vista would run on that machine.
Feedback and criticism of the first iteration of this tool has caused Microsoft to implement changes in the way the utility works. Firstly, the app has been renamed “Windows Experience Index,” which for some reason makes me think of Jimmy Hendrix, but the name change is designed to make it clear that it is less of a benchmarking suite that tells you how fast your computer is, and more of an indicator of how well Vista will work.
The final result has also been renamed “Base Score” to clarify that it represents the lowest score of the series of benchmarks, rather than an average result. The base score is still a number from 1 to 5, but in theory, faster computers available in the future will be able to score a 6 or even a 7. In the first version of the tool, the final score was rounded to the nearest integer, but fans of decimal places will be pleased to know that the new version retains both significant figures.
Reaction to the new tool is mixed. Intel is apparently less than pleased with the utility, stating officially that they “continue to work closely with Microsoft to shape and influence [the tool], but have no further comment at this time.” Unofficially, however, an Intel source has complained that the WEI is “very heavily focused on graphics performance.” That’s bad news for the maker of integrated graphics chipsets, which typically score poorly on these sorts of benchmarks. The fact that the base score is the lowest of the bunch means that a beefier CPU or faster RAM won’t show up on the final tally. While Intel’s latest chipsets are perfectly capable of running Vista even in its most advanced graphics modes, nobody wants a computer that scores a 3 when your neighbor has a 5.
Computer manufacturers also have some reservations about the tool. According to one source, “one problem area makes an entire machine look like it has problems, which will have manufacturers confusing the issue by spec-listing sub-scores for each component or engineering computers to play well to this test.”
Companies like ATI, on the other hand, are pleased with the tool. “It should be very clear to everyone how important graphics are,” said Andrew Dodd, a software product manager at ATI Technologies. “As long as Microsoft makes it clear what each rating means and why they are getting that rating, it is a very good thing for end-users.”
So will the Windows Experience Index boost sales of graphics chips from companies like ATI and NVIDIA, while harming integrated graphics chips from vendors like Intel? It doesn’t seem terribly likely. The big selling point of integrated graphics is the lower price they bring to the computer, and price-conscious customers are not likely to care about whether Vista gets a 3 or a 4. Still, one wonders if the WEI rating might start showing up on retail displays as an additional selling point once Vista ships. The fact remains, however, that one low score in the series of benchmarks will still negatively influence the final rating number, which is a concern for manufacturers.