Vista SP1 vs Server 2008 as a desktop OS: more comparisons

I’ve been intrigued by reports that Server 2008, suitably configured, makes a better desktop OS than Windows Vista. In my previous post on the subject, I reported some observations by others, suggesting that Server 2008 performs better than Vista with Service Pack 1, even though it is meant to have the same core components. I though it was time I took a look myself.

I have some free space on my usual desktop box, so I created two new partitions and installed Vista 32-bit with Service Pack 1 on the first, and Server 2008 32-bit on the other.

Aside: Both installs were smooth. The integrated Vista SP1 install works nicely, and few updates were required after the first boot. It is remarkable how much more pleasant it is to install Vista from scratch, instead of dealing with an OEM pre-install. Surely it should be the other way round?

I tried to make both installs usable desktops. On both operating systems, I installed the driver for my Terratec soundcard, along with Intel’s .INF installer for the motherboard, Management Engine Interface, and storage driver. I also installed a recent NVidia driver. The result was that all devices were enabled in device manager.

On Server 2008 I also installed the Desktop Experience and .NET Framework 3.0. I enabled the network, the audio engine, the Themes service, Windows Update, and Aero graphics. I created a new user account and logged in as that user, so that UAC (User Account Control) was active. I set it to optimize performance for programs rather than background services.

Next I ran the PassMark performance tests I’ve used before. Advantage Server 08 – but not by much. It scored 1118.3 vs Vista’s 1102.3. I doubt this is significant; there is also small variation between different runs, which could account for a difference like this.

Looking at the detailed results shows something intriguing though. On the Graphics 2D GUI test, which exercises Windows controls like listboxes, checkboxes and dropdowns, Server 2008 scored 149.8 operations per second, vs 119.2 on Vista – more than 25% faster. I hesitate to attach much significance to my simple tests, but that might account for a snappier feel in the user interface. I repeated this particular test several times; Vista never scored higher than 123, and Server 2008 was consistent too.

There was also a notable difference in the “Memory – Large RAM” test. Vista 32-bit performed 802 operations per second, Server 08 1074: just over 33% faster.

On most tests, Vista was slightly slower, though on the disk tests it was fractionally faster. There were no other differences as big as the above.

I thought it would be interested to compare the list of running services on the two machines, after the changes mentioned above. Here are the services I spotted running on Vista but not Server 2008:

  • Computer Browser
  • Offline Files
  • Portable Device Enumerator
  • Program Compatibility Assistant
  • ReadyBoost
  • Security Center
  • SSDP Discovery
  • Superfetch
  • UPNP Device Host
  • Windows Connect
  • Windows Image Acquisition
  • Windows Search

and on Server 2008 but not Vista:

  • Remote registry
  • SL UI Notification
  • Windows Remote Management

So how would it be if Vista did not have the burden of these additional services? I stopped them. Result: no significant difference; the overall score was 1102.

Tentative conclusions

Benchmarks are not always a good measure of real-world performance. There are aspects of performance which the benchmark does not measure. In addition, some of the perceived advantage of Server 2008 is likely to be the effect of a new clean installation – never forget Windows Cruft.

Even so, on my particular system (Intel board, Core 2 Quad Q6600 CPU, NVidia 6800 graphics) Server 2008 does measure better. I’m particularly intrigued by the Graphics 2D GUI results. I do not know why Server 2008 is faster; but look forward to the same improvement appearing in desktop Windows in due course.

Update – 2D performance difference solved

I’ve worked out the reason for the difference in Graphics 2D GUI performance. It is because Server 2008 defaults to different settings for visual effects. You can see these by right-clicking Computer in the Start menu, choosing Properties, Advanced System Settings, Advanced tab, Settings, Performance options. I am sure there are other routes to the same dialog, some of which may be less arduous.

If I set these to Adjust for Best Performance on both systems, Vista actually goes ahead of Server 2008, with a score of 180 vs 172 on Graphics 2D GUI. That’s not much to worry about.

I’m satisfied that the performance differences between Server 2008 and Vista are mainly about configuration, rather than core components. If you want to speed up your own desktop, these settings are a good candidate for experimentation.

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11 comments to Vista SP1 vs Server 2008 as a desktop OS: more comparisons

  • black mamba

    this is very interesting, because I’ve used server 2008 and vista and fell in love with server 2k8 due to the speed of the UI. Now, to see that I can speed up vista by just some configuration is quite nice.

  • Clive

    As has been shown, there is a 33% speed increase in memory operations which isnt accounted for by services. Mabe its because Server 2008 dosnt have DRM or Media Centre?

  • Narg

    Clive, if you want Vista to have better memory performance, use the 64-bit version.

  • Clive

    That will give me more but not faster. I have played with all oses including 64 bit. Some stuff wont run on Vista 64 bit. Ill stick with Server 2008 32 bit as workstation.

  • Check out my website for I/O benchmarks that use the memory subsystem a lot. 2008 was significantly faster than Vista SP1 (both 64-bit). I haven’t figured out what causes the difference.

  • Kirk

    I know a few companies now are running and selling dedicated windows 2008 servers. Server Intellect even has a fully managed solutions which we run. It is a good core OS and will get strong over time like all the other pryor OS’s I mean look at XP it is now a very stable OS.

  • Dale

    According to win2008workstation.com, you should actually enable Superfetch on Workstation 2008 to enhance performance of your desktop applications (since most servers run just a single application, I wouldn’t think Superfetch would be necessary in that mode). Did you run any tests with that enabled?

    BTW, one additional benefit of running Server 2008: built-in hypervisor. I use it to run WinXP x86 for apps that won’t run in x64 (like the f#@%$^+! CheckPoint VPN client I need for work).

  • Dave

    Have you checked for differences in these keys?

    HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Session Manager\Memory Management

  • nice review and comparison. thanks. i was confused over it and wanted to decide…

  • Great review. Thanks for the info!

  • Jon

    Clive: I think you meant “faster but not more”. I just finished benchmarking my Vista64 install to a Vista32 install on the same drive, Vista64 came out ~18.5% ahead of Vista32. It is indeed true that there are less drivers though.