In Theory: Windows 8 and the Future of PC Gaming

Digital Foundry on what Microsoft's next OS means for video games.

This week, Microsoft unveiled its new vision for its next-generation operating system, Windows 8. It's an intriguing concept where the desktop with the ubiquitous mouse pointer has been relegated to legacy status in favour of a tile-driven, touch-based "experience". The writing is on the wall for the traditional point-and-click: according to Microsoft, and indeed Apple - who will probably get there first - the future is all about gestures, taps, swipes and multi-touch, with the mouse well on the way to being jettisoned in favour of a new control interface.

It's all about convergence too. Based on the hugely intriguing Windows 8 demo, it's clear that Microsoft has serious designs on the mobile market - it wants to unify desktop and mobile operating systems. While Apple maintains an OSX/iOS divide, Microsoft's approach is to bring the same operating system to all platforms. The new OS will be released for both the traditional x86/x64 microprocessors but will also support ARM too, the aim being to bring a fully formed version of Windows to mobile devices such as smartphones and especially tablets.

There are big questions still to be answered about this hugely important phase of transition. First of all, is Windows 8 actually a new OS or is it merely a shell sitting atop the traditional desktop interface and all the baggage of the Server 2003/Vista/7 codebase? Is this shell robust enough to be as flexible as the legacy versions? Can Windows 8 be sufficiently miniaturised and "debloated" to run on a smartphone or tablet?

In some respects Microsoft is lucky, in that the OS won't launch until 2012, and the mobile sector is currently experiencing what you might call a technological arms race: both CPU and GPUs are transitioning to dual core architecture, with Apple's A5 processor in particular raising the bar of mobile processing and graphical performance to new levels. This is just the beginning: by the time that Windows 8 launches (believed to be towards the latter end of next year), the game will have moved on again to quad core components.

Microsoft's first preview of Windows 8 reveals a touch-driven interface designed for tablets, but we should expect to see a new range of interface controllers coming along for desktop users too.

Indeed, Microsoft has already demoed Windows 8 running on an NVIDIA Kal-El powered quad core tablet. In this Engadget report we see the same tech running a bunch of reasonably impressive games, including a fairly convincing version of Lost Planet 2 - yup, the MT Framework engine-powered Xbox 360, PC and PlayStation 3 title - running on a tablet.

Lost Planet 2 on Kal-El looks short of effects and rather low poly compared to the game we are accustomed to on our consoles, but let's remember, this is just the beginning: it's still early days for mobile gaming in the greater scheme of things. Indeed, Sony's NGP may well be a better indicator of the level of gaming quality we can expect by the time Windows 8 launches for tablets.

In terms of how scalable Windows is, and the inevitable questions about "bloat", it's reasonable to assume that RAM and storage will be getting cheaper, making the transition less painful - and Microsoft does have some experience in paring down its operating systems: it's believed that the Xbox 360 kernel is based on Windows code and that occupies less than 32MB. Clearly, Windows 8 will be significantly larger but the point is that Microsoft can retarget its OS dependent on the size and scale of the resources it believes will be available in next-gen mobile tech.

Indeed, while the chances are that scaled down/optimised mobile versions will be the norm, you may be able to run traditional PC games on your next-gen tablet. While ARM is deservedly the focus of mobile tech right now, Intel simply cannot be discounted. Its Atom technology is set to be revamped to directly address ARM's dominance in the mobile market. While a traditional x86 chip may seem somewhat inefficient comparison to ARM's recent CPUs, the fact is that nobody can match Intel for its fabrication technologies - by 2014, Atom will be on a staggeringly miniscule 14nm process with power efficiency and long battery life built-in simply through virtue of the way the chip was physically produced.

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