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When Windows Vista launched back in January 2007, the 64-bit edition was clearly not ready for primetime. The driver and compatibility issues that mired the early days of the OS were even worse on the 64-bit side, and for most users Vista x64 was completely crippled or in some cases, wouldn’t install at all. Hardware manufacturers struggled to release stable device drivers but because 32-bit and 64-bit editions both required radically different drivers, Vista x64 just wasn’t a priority. Coming up on two years later, 32-bit Vista’s issues seem to have calmed down, but what about Vista x64? Well according to Microsoft, usage of the niche OS is on the rise, but is it finally ready for prime time?
The jump from 16 to 32-bit computing in Windows 95 went mostly un-protested. But then again, back in 1995, computer instability was pretty much expected. PC pioneers put up with a lot of driver issues, and punishing blue screens. Today, PC operating systems have a much larger audience to impress, and most of its users have a very low tolerance for instability. For mainstream users, and those with older hardware, 32-bit is still the way to go. But chances are if you are reading this article, it’s because your not mainstream, and your ready to risk a few orphaned devices in pursuit of something better.
The obvious reason for transitioning to a 64-bit OS is the increased RAM capacity which technically could be as high as 16 Exabyte’s. Vista x64 however, only supports 8 GB for home premium, and a not too shabby 128 GB in the ultimate and business editions. And while this might sound a bit extreme, this extra RAM actually comes in quite handy even today. Microsoft claims Vista can make use the increased RAM capacity using a new feature called Superfetch. Using this technology, the OS is able to pre-load commonly used applications into memory, and even makes use of historical access patterns to predict a user’s needs. The more RAM present in the system, the more applications Vista can prefetch. This is an excellent example of how extra RAM can improve performance, but won’t necessarily show up in traditional benchmarks. This feature alone represents a huge benefit for heavy multi taskers looking for ways to improve overall system responsiveness.
One of the most common myths about 64 bit operating systems is that old software doesn’t work. What you lose in stepping up a 64-bit OS is in fact, only 16-bit program support. This includes items from the DOS / Windows 3.1 era, but not much else. 64-Bit copies of Windows implement a technology called WOW64 (Windows-on-Windows) to enable backward compatibility with 32-bit applications that been emerging since the mainstream adoption of Windows 95 more then a decade ago. WOW64 creates a 32-bit environment that allows older applications to run unmodified in a 64-bit OS. Backwards compatibility with 8 & 16-bit applications isn’t impossible under Vista 64, but it requires a bit of creativity. An excellent choice for working with very old applications is Microsoft’s free Virtual PC 2007. This utility allows you to install a virtual copy of any Microsoft operating system including Windows 95, 98, or even MSDOS. You can then run it in parallel just like any other application.
To make life even simpler, If DOS compatibility is your only concern, DOSBox is an excellent free 32-bit alternative that will have you chasing Vorticons as Commander Keen in no time flat. Here is another important tip for 64-bit gamers. The Games for Windows brand might not add up to a lot, but for x64 users it signifies that the game was tested for compatibility in both 32 & 64-bit environments. Some games even ship with a native 64-bit executable, such as Crysis, and Devil May Cry 4 which in my case, greatly improved CPU efficiency. Many popular mainstream applications have gone 64-bit as well including, Adobe Lightroom, ESET NOD 32, and even Apple iTunes. Veteran Photoshop users can also look forward to 64-bit version that will substantially benefit from the additional RAM capacity.
Working around software incompatibilities can be challenging, but at least workarounds exist for almost any scenario. Drivers on the other hand are a different story. 32-bit drivers are not compatible at all, and for the most part security improvements which will be detailed in the next section are to blame. While it safe to assume in advance that your 10 year old parallel port scanner won’t work, how will you know if your 2 year old USB printer is compatible? For that Microsoft has launched the Vista Compatibility Center. Simply browse the categories, click the 64-bit system filter and learn what hardware is, and is not compatible before you take the plunge.
Here is another Microsoft specific tip. When seeking out new hardware look for the “Works with Windows Vista” or “Certified for Windows Vista” logo’s. Hardware devices baring these badges have undergone testing in both 32 & 64-bit OS’s. Only a small number of devices bother to file for this certification however, so in most cases the Compatibility Center or the manufacturers website will be your best bet. Drivers have come a long way in the past year and I have yet to run into a device I couldn’t get working, though I must admit, I don’t tend to keep hardware for more the a few years. Nvidia, ATI, and even Creative Labs all have mature and stable x64 drivers at this point as well.
Oddly enough, one of the biggest improvements in Vista x64 bit is actually the enhanced security features that go far beyond what is offered by Vista 32. Microsoft has been able to utilize the lesser used 64-bit editions as a way of putting software developers on notice. They are attempting to encourage less destructive software/operating system interactions. Initiatives such as Kernel Patch Protection were implemented to help keep the Windows core operating system safe from threats that come from both Malware, and sloppy applications that like to plant their roots deep in the OS. It prevents kernel-mode drivers and 3rd party software from interfering with critical Windows services, a defiantly plus. Sadly, this feature is no longer enforced post SP1, but many developers were forced to find workarounds during the delay and Microsoft isn’t making it easy.
Additionally, new security features such as Address Space Layout Randomizer and Data Execution Protection both help thwart hacking attempts to which 32-bit OS’s are still somewhat vulnerable. Other stipulations such as the requirement for signed drivers has also been dropped, but Microsoft is clearly using the OS as a way of previewing security features that make life difficult for programmers, but will benefit users in the long run.
Ultimately, the decision will be up to you. Some compatibility sacrifices may need to be made, but the price of transitioning to 64-bit Vista today is much less painful then it was a year ago. It probably isn’t a good solution for casual users who only want to surf the web and watch Youtube on 5 year old hardware. But it is the future of operating systems, and it is finally stable enough to give a reliable user experience with most modern hardware. Microsoft has publically stated that Windows 7 will be the last 32-bit operating system, and if memory prices continue to crash, 32-bit Windows 7 may not even be a popular choice. OEM Vista 64-bit machines are also finally beginning to appear at retail, and within a few years it is not hard to image even mainstream users wanting 4GB of RAM or more. A new chapter in PC history is about to begin.