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volume 1, issue 14

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NT + Gaming = ???




By Jeff "nonick" Solomon



irst of all, if you haven't seen the trailer for Star Wars: Episode I yet, turn your computer off and get over to the closest theater as soon as possible! You've got better things to do. Once you've done that, read on for a discussion about Windows NT, the successor to Windows 9x and the platform that many of us will be using for gaming a short time from now, on a system that's not too far away...

Five years ago, amidst the sweltering heat of late summer, Microsoft began to slowly pull the rug out from beneath DOS and Windows. With the introduction of Windows NT 3.1- the first version of Microsoft's "New Technology" operating system- a foundation was laid that was designed to ultimately replace the DOS underpinnings that had been present in Windows, and remain to this day in Windows 98.

Windows NT was designed from the ground up to be a fully "modern" operating system, with support for 32-bit applications, preemptive multitasking, multithreading, multiprocessing, enhanced stability, and security. Compared to DOS and Windows, NT meant business, both in terms of its architecture and its market positioning.

The first incarnation of NT went partway toward fulfilling these goals. It was technically more advanced than DOS and Windows in regard to its kernel and core OS services, but was very large (requiring 16 MB of RAM to run, which was four times the average PC's capacity at the time), ate up a tremendous amount of disk space (well over 100 MB- again, very large for the time), and was excruciatingly slow, especially for graphics-related functions.

NT 3.1 was the first step in what has become a lengthy growing process for NT. In the years since its introduction, NT has matured into an OS that provides performance, stability, compatibility, and ease-of-use that put it on the same playing field as Windows 98. For many business users, NT is now mature enough to replace Windows 98 in most situations, and Microsoft has stated that it plans to cease development of the Windows 9x product line and build all future versions of Windows- starting with Windows 2000 (formerly titled Windows NT 5.0, due out next year)- around NT.

To make it simple: DOS and Windows are dead. NT has become Windows. All future versions of Windows will be based on NT.

The implications this change has in store for gaming are significant, as the Windows platform- the current OS standard in the PC segment of the gaming industry- will change from being DOS-based to NT-based when this switch occurs.

What does this mean for gaming? Will we suddenly be forced to play games on an OS that was designed for business users? How does NT compare to Windows 98 in regard to speed, compatibility, and features? Basically, how will the transition from DOS-based Windows to NT-based Windows affect PC gaming?

I'm going to break the issue down into sections that compare NT to Windows 98. The key question is, will we lose gaming capabilities by changing from Win98 to NT? And, assuming we don't lose anything, what will we gain?

First, some ground rules: When I refer to Windows 98, I'm generally referring to the entire Windows 9x platform, which starts with the original release of Windows 95 and includes all service releases and upgrades up through Windows 98. I'll use the term NT to refer to Windows NT in general, and Windows 2000 to refer to the next version of NT that is due out in 1999, which was previously referred to as NT 5.0. It's also important to keep in mind that Windows 2000 is currently in the beta testing stage of development, with at least one more significant beta release to come, so its feature set and capabilities may change before the product is finally released.

The Big Picture

Until very recently, Windows NT had never been positioned as an OS for gamers. It was designed to eliminate many of the shortcomings in the DOS/Windows combination that were preventing the Windows platform from providing serious, business-oriented capabilities such as enhanced reliability, longer uptimes, easier and more powerful networking, and fault tolerance.

Many of the qualities needed in a gaming OS- raw speed, extensive device support, end-user simplicity- have never been associated with NT. Rather, they were provided, more or less, by Windows 98. With NT taking over for Windows, and all of the strengths that the Windows platform has accumulated over the years suddenly gone, there is a very real fear that gaming on Windows will lose its luster.

Clearly, Microsoft knows that it can't replace Windows 98 until NT is ready to cover all of the features that users have come to expect. Up until now, NT has lagged behind Win98 in several areas, including device support, ease of use, and support for gaming-related features like DirectX.

Windows 2000, however, appears to have bridged the gap in regard to nearly every aspect of Windows 98 that has been crucial to gamers. For starters, I'll compare the two systems in regard to hardware and software support.

Hardware and Software Support

Windows 98 has been very successful as a gaming platform for several reasons. First off, it's the no-holds-barred industry standard operating system, which means that it receives the majority of support from hardware and software companies. Win98 may not be the most technologically advanced OS available (we'll save that debate for the newsgroups), but it's the most widely used, and that translates into near-universal title and driver availability.

In addition, Microsoft has gone to great pains to position Windows 98 as a gaming-friendly platform. It's learned from past mistakes that it can't ignore the gaming community, so every corner of Windows 98- including the tagline ("Works better, plays better.")- has been optimized for gaming. Win98 ships with full support for DirectX 5.0 (6.0 is now available on the Web), as well as advanced support for devices like force feedback joysticks, USB, and FireWire peripherals. This high level of device support allows Win98 to interact with virtually any kind of device imaginable, which is necessary to provide a competent gaming platform.

Win98 is also extremely comprehensive in regard to driver and software compatibility. Because it is designed to be as compatible as possible with previous Microsoft operating systems, Win98 can support a wide range of hardware and software that were designed for older versions of DOS and Windows. Devices that do not have Win98-specific drivers will usually still work with Windows 98, albeit not at optimum performance levels. This is a good thing for people who have older hardware that they rely on for gaming, and for those who have a collection of old games that they still enjoy playing.

Win98 also supports programs that directly manipulate hardware, a technique where programs bypass the operating system and interact with the hardware directly. While this opens up the possibility of a single program monopolizing a system resource and causing other programs to fail, it results in increased speed and responsiveness.

This high level of compatibility comes at the price of stability, however. Because it relies on DOS as an underpinning, and since its architecture has to allow for many forms of older device drivers and programming techniques, Windows 98 has an Achilles heel that is due to its reliance on old technology. Older drivers are not optimized to take advantage of Win98's most advanced features, and they're not isolated from themselves or the operating system. If one of them goes down, it can bring the entire system to its knees.

In short: Windows 98 is extremely well suited for gaming, since it comes packaged with support for a wide range of gaming devices and is compatible with older hardware and software. This translates to the availability of a wide range of available devices, with the downside being a greater potential for conflicts and crashes.

Compared to Win98, NT's attitude toward hardware and software support is very strict. Because it's designed to be as stable and fault tolerant as possible, it can't provide far-reaching support for eccentric hardware and software that could potentially lock up the system.

NT only supports device drivers that have been designed specifically for it- no DOS or older Windows drivers need apply. NT-specific drivers go through NT's hardware abstraction layer (HAL), which prevents them from directly accessing the hardware on a machine. As a result, NT arbitrates all access to hardware, and programs that attempt to bypass the OS will fail to run.

Until fairly recently, NT's level of device support has lagged far behind Windows. Companies that were forced to chose between developing Windows drivers and NT drivers had to go for the more popular platform.

Now, however, things are changing. For one, NT has come into its own as a popular OS, and as such receives dedicated attention from much of the industry. In addition, Windows 2000 will offer significantly expanded driver support in the form of a common driver model with Windows 98 for several types of devices (the Win32 Driver Model, or WDM), so drivers of this class that function under Win98 will also run under Win2000. Win2000 will also support the plethora of gaming-related input devices that Win98 supports.

Finally, since Win2000 is now positioned as Microsoft's preeminent operating system, it will begin to attract the majority of Windows developers, and systems dealers will need to make sure that everything they sell is fully compatible with Windows 2000.

So, it seems that with Windows 2000, NT has finally caught up with Windows 98 in regard to support for current hardware. Just about the only area where Windows 98 still comes out ahead is in its level of support for older hardware, but, ultimately, this will become less and less of a necessity.

As far as software support is concerned, Windows 2000 will run the vast majority of programs and games that have been designed for Windows 98 and DOS, with the notable exception of those that directly access hardware.

Graphics Features

Graphics performance is crucial to a system's ability to run games, and until recently, NT's graphics performance had been excruciatingly slow, which made it almost unusable as a gaming platform. A few years ago, for example, I loaded Doom onto NT 3.51, and, while it ran, it was unplayable. This was on a relatively fast system that had little trouble running Doom at ideal speeds under DOS.

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Credits: Illustration © 1998 Mike Sanzone. NT + Gaming = ??? is © 1998 Jeff Solomon. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, dangit.