October 09, 2008

Should You "Go 64-Bit" with Vista or Windows 7?

I subscribe to Windows Secrets, a weekly tech newsletter by industry veterans that usually provides good technical information on all things Windows. However, last week I read a column by Stuart J. Johnston that recommends that you don't "go Vista" unless you implement the 64-bit version instead of the more common 32-bit version. My take is that sounds great if you're ready to buy all new hardware and software, have the expanded budget to do so, don't have a lot of critical-use 32-bit software, including drivers, and don't mind creating additional tech support issues.

That's a lot of "if's", isn't it? The catch is that it would require you to buy a PC with a 64-bit compatible BIOS, CPU, chipset, OS, device drivers, and the programs you use. Lack any one of those, and you could experience problems that range from mildly annoying to very serious.

This is borne out by Mr. Johnston's follow-up column where he received very negative real-world feedback from some 64-bit Vista users. You can click through to the article so I won't repeat here all the problems encountered. While 64-bit Vista can run a number of 32-bit programs in a 32-bit compatibility mode, you could experience some quirks and problems with them, as several Windows Secrets readers reported. My favorite was the poor guy who found this out the hard way:

Another glitch Heiker continues to confront is a real doozy: with no explanation in sight, his 64-bit Vista PC has accumulated some 23 million Registry entries. No, that's not a typo - 23 million.

"I brought this to Microsoft's attention and there's no solution to it," he said. "Apparently, a Registry entry is made each time a 32-bit application tries to update the Vista-64 Registry ... duplicating Registry entries a huge number of times."

Despite Heiker's long list of complaints and multiple contacts with Microsoft support, little has changed. "They haven't fixed a single problem that I've reported," he adds.

23 million registry entries would likely result in a very large registry database that would become fragmented and would probably slow down your PC where you'd notice it.

By the way, this isn't just another negative issue tied to Vista. Windows XP's 64-bit version has its issues too, and it wasn't even as refined as Vista's 64-bit incarnation. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for improving our computing capabilities and 64-bit systems look promising when all the right pieces are in place. We're getting there.

However, while the hardware world has been catching up with 64-bit components over the past year or so, the software side has definitely lagged behind in this regard. Nearly two years after Vista was released, and definitely many more years since Windows XP 64-bit came out, a significant number of programs and device drivers still are only available in 32-bit versions, including Office 2007, arguably the most common group of business applications used daily by millions of people (I'm including all its prior versions still in use today). From the 2007 Microsoft Office system requirements web page:

Note: The 2007 Microsoft Office system programs client is a 32-bit application and can run on a Windows 64-bit platform (Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, and Windows Vista) but there may be some feature limitations as noted in the system requirements below.
In theory, the biggest improvements from installing the 64-bit version of either XP or Vista on a compatible 64-bit computer platform is increased speed in calculations/processing, some security improvements, and the ability to access more than 3GB of memory by the OS. Notice that I said by the OS, because some of those who have gone 64-bit early on have found that 32-bit programs lack this ability. You see, 32-bit computing is limited to accessing a maximum of 4GB of RAM. Furthermore, roughly the last 1GB is not usable by programs, but is shared by the system with other devices. So even on a PC with 4GB of memory installed, you might only get to use somewhere between 2.7GB and 3.5GB for your OS and software.

For most users, this is not a problem. For instance, I'm running the 32-bit version of Vista Ultimate (the one with all the extras), and even when I have lots of open programs, including photo editors and media players, I haven't seen it come even close to maxing out the 2GB on my laptop. Now if you're running some really big bloated apps simultaneously (games, multimedia development, video processing, etc.), then I can see where you'd want more. However, most legal and business users are not in that category. And regarding the 64-bit speed increase mentioned above, some experts have said that regular users may not notice it all that much, as it's likely to benefit those who are doing some serious crunching with their PC. DBA's, data and financial analysts, and those working with large multimedia apps would all likely fall within the group who would probably experience the most benefit from running a 64-bit OS.

But again, for most users, the ability to have some likely modest speed increases and more usable memory is going to greatly pale against the need to be able to install legacy programs and drivers, have them run without compatibility problems, and without having to shell out a lot more money to buy all new 64-bit versions (if they even exist).

The bottom line is that 64-bit processing is the direction the industry has been heading. Over time, regular end users will likely find it to be a better experience overall as applications and drivers are either updated or recoded from the ground up. However, I've been running Vista Ultimate 32-bit well over a year now with precious few issues, none of them serious (I'm as surprised by that as anyone), and have found that it is by far the more compatible way to run Vista with legacy apps and drivers.

So my best advice, today, is that if you're buying a new PC, you'll want to keep your options open. The good news is that a new 64-bit PC should be able to run a completely 32-bit software platform (OS, drivers, programs, etc.). This provides the option to upgrade to a 64-bit OS and other software later while maintaining compatibility with your current apps and drivers today. The downside is upgrading later involves some additional time and expense, but it also gives you the most flexibility. Personally, I wouldn't move to a 64-bit desktop Windows OS just yet because of the mix of software that most people and organizations have accumulated over time, and can't afford to part with yet -- at least until they can find suitable 64-bit replacements for the most critical ones. This is particularly true for anyone using legacy peripheral devices and their accompanying drivers. Another key point is that as we continue to move to web-based apps and working in the cloud, I'm not sure that the pain and costs associated with going all 64-bit are justified, at least not yet.

64-bit computing is certainly being touted as the way to go, we'll get there eventually, and it certainly has some notable advantages. However, as a practical matter the existing 32-bit Windows OS platforms will serve the average user for the foreseeable future (meaning the next 2-3 years, which is what the average PC lifecycle is). Many new dual- and quad-core PCs are pretty fast already. Notice I'm only talking about the choice to use 64-bit Windows, and not the hardware. I agree buying an all 64-bit hardware system that's backwards compatible makes a lot sense these days.

Perhaps by the time Windows 7 gets released the software world will have evolved to update most of our apps and new hardware drivers to 64-bit. That would be very nice indeed, but until then I think most people and organizations will choose the OS version that best fits their user base, tasks, applications, and driver mix. If that can be achieved with a 64-bit OS without creating lot of support headaches and additional costs, great. But if not, I think they'd be wise to stay with a 32-bit OS until that changes. This is an area where the best fit and mix today will certainly change with advancements in the hardware and software industries, so we'll just need to remain informed to be best prepared in making various tech choices.

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets
Posted by Jeff Beard