Making sense of Vista's Windows Experience Index

Learn what Microsoft's Windows Experience Index scores mean, and how understanding them can help ensure better system performance of machines running Windows Vista.

Every time Microsoft creates a new operating system, the company first does research to find out what kinds of issues are bothering its customers. While doing research for Windows Vista, Microsoft found that the average consumer is often confused by the minimum system requirements listed for various applications. In order to help both consumers and systems administrators make sure that the underlying hardware was up to the job of running various applications, Microsoft created the System Performance Rating Tool.

On the surface, the System Performance Rating Tool is pretty simple. It tests various system components and assigns each one a numerical score based on its performance. Windows then takes the lowest score and lists it as the Windows Experience Index. You can view the Windows Experience Index by right-clicking on the Computer option on the Start menu and choosing the Properties command from the resulting shortcut menu. The Windows Experience Index is displayed on the system properties sheet, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A (click to enlarge)

When you click the Windows Experience Index link, you will see a breakdown of all of the individual scores, as shown in Figure B. As you can see in the figure, my system scored a 4.9 for both processor and memory. Therefore, Windows uses 4.9 as that System Experience Index number, even though there are other components in my system that scored much higher.

Figure B (click to enlarge)

I had some questions the first time I saw these scores. First and foremost, I wanted to know why my hardware was rated so low. I also wanted to know how the scores were calculated.

The main reason I was curious about my machine's low score had to do with the intended purpose of these scores. Like I said, Microsoft envisioned the Windows Experience Index taking the place of minimum system requirements. The idea was that you could walk into a software store and all of the boxes would be labeled with a number. This number would reflect the lowest Windows Experience Index score that could run the application. Of course, that never really happened. Both the hardware and the software industry have largely ignored the Windows Experience Index (I'll talk about why in a moment).

I was bothered because I was getting relatively slow scores , even though I had purchased a pretty high-end workstation.

Note: If you're looking at the screenshots wondering how I can possibly consider this system to be high-end, you have to remember that I bought it two years ago.
After doing some research, I discovered that the scores are not rated between 1 and 10 as I had assumed. In actuality, the highest you can currently score is 5.9. So when you consider that 5.9 is the highest achievable score, then all of a sudden the scores on my system don't look too bad.

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So why is 5.9 the highest achievable score? Microsoft did this to leave room for future growth. Look at the screenshot in Figure B and you can see that my graphics card scored a 5.9. Although my workstation has some really nice graphics hardware installed, there is no way that it can possibly measure up to the graphics adapters that will be available a year or two down the road.

Earlier I wrote that Microsoft created the Windows Experience Index to take the place of minimum system requirements. Well, it would completely defeat the purpose if Windows were to lower index scores as better hardware was released. Imagine the chaos if you went into a software store and found an application that required a minimum score of 3.0 and you had to figure out if the machine had scored 3.0 today or back when Vista was released.

To avoid putting users in this position, Microsoft made the decision to never lower hardware scores. Instead, they left room for future growth. So as hardware improves over time, the maximum attainable score will likely be raised.

If you're curious about how the scores are calculated, open Windows Explorer and navigate to\Windows\Performance\WinSat\DataStore. This folder contains XML files that are created every time you perform a benchmark on your system. If you open the most recent XML file, you will see that the scores are displayed in plain text near the top of the XML file, as shown in Figure C. Also, in case you were wondering, you can change your scores. The maximum score that you can use is 9.9. If you want to learn more about how the scores are really calculated, though, I suggest taking some time and going through the XML files. They contain a wealth of information about the tests that were performed.

Figure C (click to enlarge)

One last thing I want to talk about is why the Windows Experience Index has been so widely shunned by hardware and software manufacturers. The word on the street is that hardware manufacturers don't like it because it's based on the lowest score. After all, most hardware manufacturers want their systems to score well, and they probably don't want to see their scores brought down just because one component out of the entire system didn't quite measure up.

Still, I can't really say for sure why software manufacturers haven't embraced the Windows Experience Index. It seems as though having such an index would be really helpful to them. Nevertheless, I have seen posts on the Internet by a couple of different software manufacturers that described the way the heat index was calculated as "misleading."

Brien M. Posey, MCSE, has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional Award four times for his work with Windows Server, IIS and Exchange Server. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities, and was once a network administrator for Fort Knox. You can visit his personal website at www.brienposey.com.


This was first published in June 2008

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