An old Windows myth looks to (finally) become reality in Windows 8

For the better part of my adult life, I’ve been dealing with the myth that if there were certain settings that could speed up Windows, Microsoft would make those settings the default for the operating system. The pundits who perpetuate this myth have their reasons for doing so, but that didn’t make them true.

Now, the difference is harder to notice today than it was when I started my career. There are things I can do to make Windows 7 run better on my 4-core, 3.1 GHz AMD64 box with 8 GB of RAM and a 100 GB SSD. But I won’t notice the cumulative effects of a few 5% improvements on that box. Not the way I did on 50 MHz 80486-based PCs in 1997.

Microsoft’s philosophy for 22 years, from Windows 1.0 in 1985 to Windows Vista in 2007, was to write the software, and if it takes a few years for the hardware to catch up with it, so be it. Windows 7 changed that–for the first time, the actual requirements for running a new version of Windows went down–and, with Windows 8, it looks like CPU requirements will hold steady, and memory usage will actually go down.

The big reason driving this is power requirements. People want longer battery life in their laptops, and they don’t want their desktop PCs to consume as much power as their refrigerator. As a result, today it’s easier to find out the wattage a CPU runs at than its clock speed.

And Microsoft realized that if they can reduce Windows 8’s memory usage, systems will become more power-efficient. Systems can ship with less memory, which saves power, or they can cache more aggressively and use the disk less, which saves power. Or to a certain degree, a combination of the two.

A screenshot in the blog entry linked above shows Windows 8 using 12 percent less memory than Windows 7 running under the same conditions. On a 64-bit desktop PC, that 128 or so megabytes of RAM is negligible, but on an ARM-based tablet or netbook, which may not even be expandable, that 128 MB could be the difference between a tolerable user experience and an intolerable one, as we learned from the experience of half-gig Vista laptops.

Some of the change is architectural. Some is from running services just on demand, rather than all of the time. Windows 8 also introduces memory combining; storing just one copy of duplicate data in memory, to free up dozens or hundreds of megabytes.

Although I’m still skeptical of some of the changes Windows 8 is introducing on the user-interface side, it looks like there’s a lot of good stuff going on below the surface, in the nuts and bolts. And user interfaces are changeable, anyway. If Metro gets in my way too much, I’ll just go back to launching everything from a command line.

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