Interesting Blog on Windows 8 from Cakewalk
All the tests above were done running the current shipping version of SONAR X1 with no special Win8 tweaks. The tests ran very smoothly with no problems noted under Win8 using SONAR X1. In fact you could push the system harder under Win8 without getting glitches in audio as compared to Win7. The tests show that despite the controversial changes to Windows, there are some significant benefits even for standard Windows desktop apps running Windows 8. This is great news for existing Windows 7 users who are considering an upgrade to Windows 8.
Regarding Metro however, the jury is out on whether it will be a suitable platform for high performance music production applications. Until Microsoft addresses some of the concerns in Metro, WinRT is unlikely to be very robust as a platform for building such applications.
Windows 8 Background
There has been a large amount of interest and speculation about Windows 8, Microsoft's latest OS scheduled for release in late 2012. Windows 8 is one of the most ambitious OS releases from Microsoft since Windows 95, and is the first OS that attempts to unify the desktop and mobile user experience with multitouch support baked in across the board. A lot of attention in the media has been devoted to the new user interface and the brand new application model called Metro aka WinRT. Understandable, since changes to UI tend to attract the most attention in any software product.
After attending one of the Windows 8 developer camps and talking with some folk at Microsoft, we learned about some of the work done in Win8 to make the operating system scale better to devices with a smaller disk/memory/CPU footprint. This was done primarily to make Win8 perform more efficiently and with lower power requirements on mobile devices like tablets. I was curious if the effects of these changes would percolate through to the general OS and kernel level and benefit desktop applications as well. Let's face it, call me cynical but in the multimedia/DAW industry we're bottom feeders. Most operating systems vendors don't really care about high performance audio, so most benefits we see tend to be "happy accidents" or side effects of other more commercially viable features.
A few years ago when Win7 debuted, I wrote about Windows 7 For Music Production for Create Digital Music. Windows 7 is now widely regarded to be Microsoft's most stable Windows OS to date for music production and most Windows DAW users by now are running it. The question that many users will soon be faced with is whether Windows 8 offers any advantages for music applications. Or in other words, if it ain't broke does it need fixing?
In this article, to try and address some of the typical questions, I will primarily focus on how Windows 8 performs as compared to its predecessor Windows 7, in the context of music production applications such as SONAR X1. But first, before we get our hands dirty putting Windows 8 through its paces, here is some general information about the new operating system.
Windows 8 has two basic modes of operation - Metro mode and Desktop mode.
- Metro mode is reserved exclusively for applications built using Microsoft's new application framework called WinRT.
- Desktop mode refers to the mode that runs Windows desktop applications built with the "classic" Win32 application framework. In other words, your Windows applications like SONAR (built using the Win32 API) cannot run in Metro mode - they run as desktop applications. Only new Metro applications that have been built using the new WinRT framework will run in Metro. Interestingly, the desktop itself is a Metro application now, so to launch the desktop you have to pick the desktop tile from the new Metro task switcher.
Take the Metro?
So what's special about Metro apps? There are some important limitations, some general and some specific to music production apps that you will want to know about.
Metro apps are multi-touch enabled
Metro apps are designed to run stand alone. When you switch to another app, WinRT will unload the Metro app from memory typically. There are a few exceptions to this - a Metro app can request realtime status to tell windows that it needs to stay resident to play audio for example. It's not clear how this applies to apps that need to stay resident to respond to other realtime events such as MIDI.
Metro apps cannot communicate with Desktop apps. There is a not so invisible firewall that separates Metro applications and desktop applications preventing them from communicating with each other. Windows 8 has a nifty new sharing feature that allows any app to share data with another compatible application - a more modern evolution of the trusty clipboard. However this feature is only available to Metro applications and there is no cross communication with desktop apps. At the time of this writing there appears to be no easy way for a metro app to communicate with a running desktop application. In other words there is no direct inter process communication protocol. So doing something like rewiring one music app to another isn't easy to do in the new Metro world. (To clarify, this doesn't apply to classic windows desktop applications which can communicate with each other as before)
For applications that rely on a plug-in model for add ons support is limited. While Metro supports dll's (dynamic link libraries) these libraries must be built using only WinRT API's. As such you cannot use any of your plugins built for classic Windows. Additionally, even if you use Metro dll's there is no straightforward way for a Metro app to use plugin's built by another vendor. To be fair this scenario is common to IOS as well as Android.
For audio streaming Metro utilizes the WASAPI (Windows audio streaming api). This is the multimedia framework that Microsoft debuted in Windows Vista. WASAPI supports low latency via what is known as "exclusive mode" where an application can bypass the high latency introduced by the system mixer. However based on reports from Microsoft it would appear that low latency audio applications were not considered in the Metro application model. See this blog post where Microsoft states that 100 msec was considered to be their goal for acceptable latency!
No low level support for low level driver models. e.g there appears to be no easy way to use the low latency Windows driver access that DAW users are accustomed to, such as ASIO or WDM kernel streaming, so access to custom USB or Firewire audio interfaces is questionable.
There is no built in MIDI support for Metro applications in the current version of Windows. This is a major disadvantage for music apps. Hopefully in the near future Microsoft will rectify this problem.
Microsoft has introduced a new Windows Store exclusively for selling Metro apps. However, only metro apps can be listed in the store and not desktop apps. Additionally you can only list app's, not plugins, which could be hard for plugin vendors to sell Metro based plugins independently. Plugin's need to be distributed on a per application basis.
The good news is that despite the above limitations in Metro, which are not particularly conducive to music software applications, there has fortunately been no regression in how desktop applications work. Desktop apps still have access to low level audio and can communicate with drivers at a low level to get low latency performance. There are no changes to how drivers work as far as desktop applications go, so its very likely that your Windows 7 drivers will work on Windows 8 without modification. (unless the driver installation prevents it)
Windows 8 ships with 3 SKU's, Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro and Windows RT. Windows 8 is the standard version and Pro is the advanced version that includes some extras like drive encryption, virtualization, and remote desktop hosting. In both cases, 32-bit and 64-bit versions will be offered.
Windows RT applies to ARM based processors only and only ships with tablet hardware and with a few Microsoft preinstalled microsoft desktop apps.
Microsoft's recently announced Microsoft Surface, a Win8 tablet that is designed and sold by Microsoft. Surface will be available in a Windows RT version that runs on an ARM processor as well as a Pro version that runs on an Intel processor. The difference between the pro and RT version is especially important if you are considering a Win8 tablet, since the Windows RT version will not allow you to load desktop applications of your choosing. Only the bundled Microsoft Office apps are desktop apps in Windows RT. The Pro version looks compelling since its essentially an Ultrabook class PC containing an Ivy Bridge Core i5 processor, USB 3.0 ports, 64/128GB of storage and 1080p from a 10.6-inch ClearType display. If the system is as good as it seems on paper, this could be the most powerful tablet based solution for music production today. It should be able to run most desktop apps with ease and will be compatible with external USB audio interfaces as well.
Benchmark: SONAR X1 performance in Windows 8 vs Windows 7
So let's get to the meat of the benchmark. To evaluate how Windows 8 performance stacks up as compared to Windows 7, we ran our standard SONAR benchmarking test suite. The test suite covers common scenarios that cause performance bottlenecks in a DAW. Besides the test suite, we also included a real world test by including a couple of the sample content demo projects in the tests. The files tested were the Cori Yarkin project "Floating" and "Shifty and the big shots"
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