Farewell to the Windows Experience Index

When the Windows 8.1 Preview appeared back in June, a few sharp-eyed souls noticed that the Windows Experience Index (WEI) – introduced in Windows Vista – had quietly vanished. Now we can see that it’s not in the RTM either. After seven years, it looks like Windows’ built-in benchmark has finally been laid to rest.

The idea behind the WEI, as originally implemented in 2006, wasn’t a bad one. After five years of XP, it provided a handy, albeit rough, guide to the hardware demands of Microsoft’s next-generation OS. A still-live page on the Microsoft website helpfully explains that Vista systems scoring 1.0 to 1.9 will support “business programs, web browsers and email programs”, with performance and graphical capabilities improving as you move up the scale.

It was also hoped that WEI would serve as a universal, easy-to-understand way for software developers to communicate system requirements. It has to be said, “this game needs a WEI score of at least 4.0 to run smoothly” would probably have been more accessible to the man in the street than a big list of GeForce and Radeon model numbers.

What was wrong with WEI

WEI never caught on, and there are probably several reasons for that. For one, the score, tucked away in the System properties window, wasn’t easy to find – at least not for the non-technical users it was primarily aimed at.

It was always doubtful how closely WEI scores reflected the user’s real-world experience

What’s more, the headline score wasn’t particularly informative. The WEI process tested five aspects of PC performance, namely 2D graphics, 3D graphics, CPU, disk and memory speed. But the “base” score – the one shown in the System properties – merely reflected the lowest of these subscores. A heavy-duty graphics workstation with a mechanical hard disk would thus get a lower score than a lightweight Ultrabook with an SSD.

For a slightly more informative overview of your system’s capabilities, it was possible to dig into the subscores. These were hidden behind a link, but they were there. However, since the exercises were wholly synthetic, and tested each aspect of performance in isolation, it was always doubtful how closely these scores reflected the user’s real-world experience.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that over time WEI quietly dropped off the radar. No one I know who’s tried out the Windows 8.1 Preview – or, latterly, the RTM – seems even to have noticed its absence.

How WEI went off-message

Pruning away an unused feature makes sense on its own terms, but I wonder whether there might also have been a strategic agenda behind WEI’s removal. Though WEI was never widely used, it represented an official acknowledgement that not all PCs are created equal, and that more powerful hardware makes for a better overall experience.

That's an idea that Microsoft now evidently wants to distance itself from. The whole Windows 8 concept hinges on the idea that one device can do it all – somewhat the opposite of the WEI message. Visit the Windows 8 website today and you'll see Atom and Core i5 systems showcased as mere variations on a theme. The huge performance gap between them is barely hinted at:

In fairness, the typical user experience differs less between these systems than a synthetic benchmark would imply. Modern high-end PCs deliver far more power than the average user will need or notice, and with the arrival of Intel’s powerful Bay Trail platform, the usability gap between low-power and full-fat systems this Christmas is going to be narrower than ever. It’s understandable that Microsoft might want to downplay the importance of sheer number-crunching power.

I would have been happier to see WEI not junked, but updated into a practical guide to the differences between Windows 8 systems, as was intended for the original Vista implementation of WEI. Precisely because the Windows platform now sees Atom processors rubbing shoulders with Core i7s – not to mention ARM-based oddities running Windows RT – there's a greater need than ever for clarity.

What we get however is an online questionnaire which walks you through five airy questions about your computing preferences before, as if by magic, popping up the single Windows 8 device that's supposedly perfect for you. In stark contrast to WEI, it's an approach that seems designed to discourage comparison, and to obscure the very different capabilities of different systems... which I guess is the point.

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