Windows 7 Release Candidate 1. That's as close to fully baked as it gets, so we're finally comfortable pitting it against Vista for some good ol' fashion benchmarking. Windows 7 feels snappier. Is it?
We used 32-bit versions of both Vista and Windows 7 on the same machine for testing: 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM (but really 3GB available cause of the 32-bit issue), 256MB Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT. We tested 32-bit because that's the official RC1 disc we were sent. We'll be doing a follow up with 64-bit, don't worry.
The first series of tests are the "everyday" ones—stuff you'd run into sorta daily, where taking less time is more better. Vista punked 7 out twice here, shutting down a bit faster applying a filter to a 16.6MB (9764x3720 pixel) photo in Adobe Photoshop CS4 with more haste. When we played Left 4 Dead using the recommend settings, Vista also seemed to deliver ever-so-slightly better performance, more consistently keeping the frame rate near 30 frames per second, though you'd have to be watching the FPS numbers rise and fall to really tell the difference between the two in gameplay. But you should keep in mind Nvidia's Windows 7 drivers are still in beta, and haven't been updated since March, while fresh Vista drivers came out a couple weeks ago, and drivers make huge differences with gaming performance.
This second series is pulled from PCMark Vantage and 3DMark Vantage—more traditional benchmarks, designed for Windows Vista. Here, Windows 7 came out ahead, only losing to Vista on a single test in 3DMark.
The overall takeaway sounds like a mixed message: Windows 7 RC1 consistently beat Vista in raw benchmarks by a small margin, and lagged slightly behind Vista in some very real world measures. What's really interesting is that in regular usage, Windows 7 still feels faster and more responsive than Vista, even though the objective numbers say otherwise. It's more than just a simple "hey it's not Vista" placebo effect: It points to a slicker, refined user experience that makes you feel like the OS responds more hastily or smoothly to your whims. And that's what really matters, more than the numbers.