Windows 11 could be stealth-nerfing graphics cards – even the RTX 4090
You may recall that when Windows 11 first emerged, late in 2021, there was quite a fuss about VBS (Virtualization Based Security) slowing down games – and heads up, here comes some more controversy around this security feature.
Enter stage left (accompanied by a rumble of thunder, perhaps) a report from Tom’s Hardware, with our sister site having recently done a whole load of graphics card benchmarking, making a realization afterward: namely that VBS was turned on.
Here’s the thing, the senior editor at Tom’s who wrote the report, Jarred Walton, had previously disabled VBS, but at some point, a Windows 11 update (presumably) had reverted the feature and turned it back on without Walton noticing. (Windows 11 has VBS on by default now for new installations of the OS).
Walton further observes that Tom’s Editor-in-Chief, Avram Piltch, runs Windows 10 Home and hadn’t touched VBS since clean installing the OS last summer – but VBS was switched on with that system, too. Again, we can guess this happened via an update at some point (though note, we don’t know this for sure).
The long and short of it is, Microsoft wants this feature on for tighter Windows security – clearly – and is seemingly defaulting to turn it back on with all PCs (during major updates, most likely). But if users aren’t aware that VBS is being reenabled, and it can have a negative effect on gaming frame rates, well, that’s a bit of a pickle, to put it mildly.
Back at the launch of Windows 11, we heard tales of VBS hamstringing frame rates in some cases, with frame rate drops of up to 30%. Now, that turned out to be very much a worst-case scenario, with Tom’s doing its own testing at the time which revealed that the drop, on average, was more like 5% (still an appreciable decrease in frame rate).
Bearing that in mind, what kind of impact does VBS have these days? Walton was curious, so ran a battery of tests to find out using an Nvidia RTX 4090 graphics card (at different resolutions and graphics settings over 15 games).
Would VBS have any noticeable impact on gaming performance with a new processor – Intel’s Core i9-13900K – and a cutting-edge GPU?
Apparently, performance drops remain at about the same level as seen with previous testing a year and a half ago, with VBS taking performance down by around 5% overall. At higher resolutions, the impact was less: only 2% when running ultra settings in 4K.
There were some games that fared worse, as you might imagine. Tom’s Hardware highlights Microsoft Flight Simulator which experienced average frame rate drops of around 10%. Far Cry 6 and Control also exhibited 10% or so drops (at 1080p resolution with certain graphics settings, anyway). Other games were much less affected, or saw no difference at all in some cases.
Analysis: A difficult choice, perhaps – but one we should get to make ourselves
It appears that VBS is still pretty much the same as it was when Windows 11 first launched in terms of slowing down games by an average of around a 5% drop in fps (frames per second).
Nothing has changed in the broad overarching picture, then, but what has changed is that Microsoft is now apparently turning on VBS post-updates, at least in some cases (and this could be true for Windows 10 systems as well as Windows 11).
That’s worrying, because the choice of ‘VBS or no VBS’ should be yours – and you shouldn’t have to worry about the operating system maker deciding that you mustn’t be without this security feature, and turning it on without your knowledge. At the very least, if this is the route Microsoft feels it must take, the move should be documented in patch release notes somewhere, or some effort made to inform the user.
The question of whether or not you should disable VBS is a thorny one. On the one hand, it’s a security feature, and clearly one Microsoft believes that you’d be silly not to use; hence the switching back on. Arguably, too, the impact is fairly minimal for a lot of games (as we can see with Tom’s testing).
However, there is some impact, and a 10% slowdown in outlying cases is quite a penalty to pay. Particularly for keen gamers who are obsessed with tuning their PCs to eke out every extra frame – a drop of a tenth in fps is akin to a lead weight being tied to that kind of enthusiast’s feet.
Furthermore, while VBS might be indisputably important in business PC scenarios, for the average home user, there are those who argue it’s overkill – and indeed probably not even necessary. Again, on the flip side though, Microsoft has pointed out in the past how VBS can be a useful extra line of defense against some malware attacks.
Ultimately, this decision comes down to you, the types of games you play, and whether you play them competitively – and also how cautious you might be on the security front, too. But frankly, what is rather mystifying here is Microsoft seemingly making these decisions for users, as is apparently the case now.
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