PC Gaming

PC Gaming's foundation-- The OS


DOS... We all know about it, and if you are a PC gamer you probably know far more about than you want to. Can you edit a config.sys blindfolded, with one arm behind your back? I know I can. This is because DOS is the worlds most elaborate program launcher, it is not a fully featured OS. Because computer users demand more the big guns Microsoft and IBM have brought us it-- OS/2 Warp and Windows95. Both of these "new" OS platforms offer many new benefits, and new pitfalls for the typical gamer. Which one is better? I'm not going to tell you. Who cares? What really matters is which platform is better for gaming? This depends on several features that we will take a look at. Some of these include stability, speed, compatibility, support, and development ease. I don't plan to declare an absolute winner-- as only the market can decide that-- however, I hope the shed some light on which OS holds the most potential for quality gaming. And for comparisons sake, old DOS will be included in this mess.

A little background-- A lesson in OS history

Console gaming has always had one major advantage over computer gaming-- ease of use. Very few PC games can be taken out of the box, put in your PC and run. Most require special installation procedures, configuration changes, and often a boot disk. This can really frustrate many users. I have seen numerous people just give up on PC games simply because they can not get it to run. What is the source of their trouble? Simple- DOS. DOS is a command interpreter that simply gives today's games a place to start. All of the graphics calls, music reads, and hardware talk is all taken care of by the program. In fact, DOS is hardly used at all! Because of this, each individual program must be set up for your specific machine. Microsoft saw this crazy plethora of setups common on a DOS machine, and developed Windows. Windows originally started out to be a DOS shell that was supposed to provide a common interface for all programs. This was a good idea, but really was not used for gaming. This is because Windows went a little too far. In an attempt to make all programs standard, Microsoft gave Windows complete control of the video card, sound card-- and almost all PC hardware. This was fine, but to use the hardware programs could only call upon the limited windows bitmaped based graphics calls. This made any animation under windows slow, and extremely difficult to code. Because of this, gaming never took off under the older Windows.

Will this ever change? In the latest incarnations of Windows (3.1 and 3.11) have introduced some new "features" that may help to change this a little-bit. I use the term features very loosely... they are more like gaping holes punched in the OS to allow games a little more control. In particular I am referring to WING and the win32s extensions. Wing offers programmers a more direct access to the windows display adapter that will let programmers get the speeds that they need to program games and animation. However, it is still running on-top of the windows system-- so don't expect it to come without some slowdown. The other Windows addition is the Win32s extensions. It is hard to call these a real upgrade feature as well... But they are handy for development. They basically convert the high-level Windows NT 32 bit code into a 16-bit version usable by Windows. Users will not gain any speed from this patch, but they will gain lots in compatibility.

Back when Windows 3.1 was starting to rule the PC market as we know it, there was one other more powerful OS being refined -- OS/2. OS/2 is older than many may think. It was originally coded by Microsoft themselves, as the next DOS. This new OS was supposed to oust DOS from its ladder and replace it with a true multi-tasking OS. However, at that point in time there were very few PC's with enough power to handle OS/2. The market never really turned, and OS/2 started downhill. However, IBM soon took the entire project over. With a major workover, the entire OS was revamped for version 2.0. This version introduced the Work Place Shell, and true 32-bit code. OS/2 gained popularity as a server OS, and where stability was very important. This kept the still out of reach OS/2 out of the consumer market, and in the corporate one. However, it still continued to grow. When Windows was sitting on its laurels, IBM brought ought the incredibly powerful OS/2 2.1. This OS was extremely fast, and provided a new level of PC performance. By this time, the general PC was powerful enough to run OS/2, but the marketing simply was not there. OS/2 native applications were still hard to come by, and mostly catered to the corporate market. OS/2 2.1 still had a few problems rendering it out of reach for many gamers-- this included a slow 16-bit multimedia engine for sound, and graphics, as well as a low user base. However, OS/2 continued to grow in popularity. Still not content, IBM advanced OS/2 to the next level-- Warp. By this time Microsoft was placing large efforts on the OS they thought would be the future-- NT. While Microsoft was trying to enter into the corporate market with NT, IBM was moving in on home users. Warp offered totally integrated 32-bit code-- everything. It is fast, stable, and uses less resources than previous version of OS/2. Warp, or OS/2 version 3.0 was finally the product IBM was trying to get into the home market. Their advertising gurus went to work, and the Warped logo has shined across the globe. OS/2 now proudly shares a user base of over 8 million, growing daily. This is the first real taste of success OS/2 has had in a long upward battle. And IBM made sure that this success would have applications behind it, especially the growing percentage of computers used for gaming. IBM released the DIVE (Direct Interface Video Extensions) that allow OS/2 to process graphics with the raw speed of your graphics hardware. Also, IBM released a large game developers package to aid programmers in their OS/2 programming calls. OS/2 offers special benefits no other OS can match-- namely multi-tasking. This can be very important if used right. A game can begin loading off the CD while still playing an animation, or call as many instances to a sound effect as it wants. Also, since OS/2 controls the hardware devices programmers do not have to spend time writing DOS style drivers, instead they can lean on the OS to take those tasks and handle them best. This leaves programmers many more options in their code development.

Microsoft, however, has no plans on staying with their dying Windows 3.1 platform. It is still the largest installed OS by a landslide world-wide. Their Windows NT platform that they had hoped would sweep the world did not. The system resources needed are far too high (practical machine setup would require a Pentium, 32MB ram, 500MB HDD, twice that of any other OS.) So Microsoft turned to their brilliant, but young, staff and told them that they needed a killer Windows upgrade. This upgrade was promised to be a true multi-tasking 32 bit, easy to use OS/2 killer code named Chicago. It was to be released early in 1994, and promised to sweep the world in a way NT could not. This OS boosted claims of total compatibility, great tools, wide support, and an early release date. However, Microsoft failed to deliver on that promised date of release. The Chicago beta had problems with compatibility, stability, and performance-- especially in 16 bit applications. So Microsoft decided to take the intelligent route and not release a half completed project. Instead, they took Chicago back to the drawing board and revamped many items. The original Chicago plan called to completely remove its DOS heritage, and offer total 32 bit integration. However, the new design relies heavily on DOS for many calls-- including the dreaded program start call (Int 21h). Also, 16-bit code remains intact throughout many stages of the OS to ensure compatibility, and to boost speed. It seems that Microsoft just could not generate the speed that they wanted within the time and resource constraints that they were given. Now Chicago approaches release again... And what does Microsoft have? A mix of 16-bit, 32-bit and lost code-- welded together through a giant thunk layer. The OS relies on 16-bit graphics code, DOS disk access, a 32-bit kernel, and various applications. However, throughout the design process Microsoft kept one thing in mind-- Gaming! Yes... You read right, games. Microsoft knew that gaming is one of the largest reasons for gamers to go back to DOS. So to keep this from happening Microsoft put large holes, and system loops to allow game programs direct access to whatever they want. This give game programers the ability to write code that promises to run as fast as our old native DOS games. Also, like OS/2, since Chicago holds control of the actual hardware, game programmers are lifted from the task of writing device drivers. Instead, they can concentrate on game development and let the OS take the load off of them. Microsoft is currently trying for an August release of their renamed beta-- Windows95. No one know for sure if they will make that date, but if they don't be sure that the release will be only a short time after that.

What makes one better than the other?

Of the many thousand features found in a robust OS there are only a few that are of key importance to gaming. Here we will take a look at which features really matter, which don't-- and what you should look for.

First, we need to look at video speed. As of the last few years, video speed is perhaps the single most important piece when it comes to PC Gaming. Digital Video, and fast moving gameplay all depend on it. In this very important integral part, IBM and Microsoft took 2 very, very different approaches. Microsoft decided that raw video speed was the most important feature, over anything else. So they literally tore a hole in their 32 bit code, and inserted a much faster, optimised 16-bit graphics layer. This new Windows95 graphics layer is by far the fasted in GUI design yet. Some will argue that the OpenGL graphics used by SGI and Windows NT are faster, but for the average user, it is not. If all we did was jump to raw video numbers, Microsoft would absolutly crush IBM's OS/2 Warp. However, OS/2's approach is very different. Instead of raw speed, OS/2 derives extra power from its multi-tasking. With the introduction of Warp, IBM's graphics engine is entirely 32 bit. This is one of the many parts that allows OS/2 to multi-task better while displaying graphics. Whether it be decompressing, or rendering the next frame in memory, or talking to a modem, everything is a little smoother. However, for gaming we care more about Raw video speed. Until programmers learn how to take advantage of true multi-taksing, Windows95 is the big winner here. OS/2 = 0, Windows95 = 1

The next level of importance is sound. Which of the 2 OS's has an advantage here? Neither. Both OS's have good sound support integrated into them. This is the first version of both OS's to have integrated sound support (in older versions of OS/2 MMPM was a seperate application), so I would not expect either to really take any advantage here. They are both winners. OS/2 = 1, Windows95 = 2

Connectivity. Haw many popular PC games have there been lately that do not allow you to link up head to head via modem? Almost none. Whether it be Doom, Descent, the latest Mech Warrior, or your favorite flight sim. -- they all have it. Both OS's have full featured Com support. Windows95 has an immediate shock when you look at how fast com speeds it can support -- 9600000... Yes, that is incredibly high. However, although OS/2 is a little more normal with com spec. speeds, it is far better at talking to them. On our tests of the still beta Win95 code, under heavy (very heavy system loads, it would get com overruns, and other errors. OS/2 Warp did not have any. OS/2 = 2, Windows95 = 2

I am a game -- I demand you give up the entire system. Yes, we all know it. Games need/want all available CPU and Video from your machine. Windows95 does an excellent job in making huge holes in multi-tasking for games. Although on any machine used for anyhting except gaming, this would be horrible, for our purposes, it is a near miracle. OS/2 here once again stresses multi-tasking, and makes no such provisions. No arguement here that Microsoft built '95 with gaming in mind. OS/2 = 2, Windows95 = 3

Raw number crunching speed. This is another topic where much to my surprise, no real victor was claimed. I had expected Microsoft's latest offering to fall way short of the Mature OS/2, but it did not. The system was zippy, and neither had a large performace boom over the other. If you were to introduce 16 bit multitasking, that would be a different story, however. But, alas, in gaming- we are always willing to go aout and get the latest and greatest, and in this case that means new 32 bit games. That leaves us still, OS/2 = 3, Windows95 = 4

Stability. What, running an office machine?! Frankly, if it stable enough to start the game, who cares.

A little Q&A

"I work in an office, and need to run other applications." We feel for you, but Microsoft does not. I'd look towards OS/2 if you have real applications that need to run as well. However, if you can afford to dedicate your PC while you are playing a game, Windows95 is the way to go.

"I own OS/2, should I get Windows95?" Not yet. OS/2 has all the power Windows95 does now. However, OS/2's history shows that it is not likely to have a massive influx of developers, and will probably remain that way. However, the marketing brains at Microsoft are very good at pulling in developers. I would expect that in about a year, some real good Win95 applications that will only run under Win95 will be out. Around this time, I would consider making the jump. You can also hope MS cleans up the code enough to work out some more kinks.

"Which is really better?" OS/2 is far more mature than Windows95. For office, networking, and any issue where stability is a concern, OS/2 is the answer. However, gaming requirements are far different from those of a buisness machine. Microsoft has been working very hard to make Windows95 a gaming capable platform, and have been doing a good job. For gaming, Windows95 shows more promise than OS/2.

"What do you run?" Everything. I have a machine running OS/2 for all of my important applications, one for gaming with '95 on it, and an NT/Linux box for the hell of it. Both NT and Linux come in dead last for gaming platforms. Yes, Linux has its virtues, but it is really aimed at multi-user, high RAM situations. I do not expect this to change.

Closing comments

Unless IBM can find a way to stimulate developers into working on OS/2, they really can not expect to survive in the gaming market. Right now, only Stardock systems, and Psygnosis are making noteworthy games for OS/2. These new exciting games may be enough to bring in other developers, but maybe not. OS/2 is far more mature than Windows95 when it comes to multi-tasking and the user's ability to customize. However, it still remains difficult to configure, and lacks special provisions for gamers. Because of this, for raw gaming fun, I think that Windows95 is the upgrade to make. If IBM can get off there marketing slump, things may change--otherwise the Microsoft steam roller will prevail. In any cases, I think it is a safe bet that Dos is not going to be around for much longer.

- The Ferrari Man

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