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Windows Vista x64: One Year Later

When I began preparing my Windows Vista review one year ago this month, I wasn't sure how it was all going to turn out. But after looking at Vista with what I hoped were fresh eyes, I discovered that the new OS was quite good in fact; not perfect, no, but a dramatic and worthy upgrade for Windows XP users. I still like Vista quite a bit, and I could never return to XP, which seems antiquated and slightly dysfunctional to me now.

In that review of a year ago, I had one major qualm about Vista. While Microsoft had gone to great effort to the make 64-bit x64 variants of Vista the functional peers of the more mainstream 32-bit versions, I discovered that life in 64-bit lane circa late 2006 wasn't so hospitable. Yes, the hardware and software compatibility of Vista x64 was much better than I had anticipated, and certainly much better than that of Windows XP x64 Professional Edition. But there were niggling issues. A fairly unscientific run-through of the applications, games, and hardware I used regularly found a number of incompatible stumbling blocks.

The problem with this sort of thing is that it only takes a single important incompatibility to ruin an OS. If you can't get your most-often-needed application or game to work, why even bother upgrading? And if it can't configure half your hardware devices, how could you even use such a system? Vista x64, I opined, just wasn't ready for prime time, despite the many advances Microsoft had made.

Well, now it?s a year later. What's changed?

You've come a long way, baby

My, what a difference a year makes. Whereas the x64 versions of Vista were essentially non-starters a year ago for all but the most technical users, a huge amount of compatibility issues have since been fixed, making it far more of a mainstream solution. Well, not quite mainstream. But certainly something that's applicable to a much broader audience than I was comfortable recommending a year ago.

To test Vista x64, I first wiped out my main desktop, a system that had been running the 32-bit version of Windows Vista Ultimate since early December 2006 without a hitch. During most of that time, this PC performed double-duty as a Media Center PC, connected to a cable box here in the home office and remotely serving content to an Xbox 360 Media Center Extender in the den. It was, therefore, my family's primary television interface for about 9 months and it worked wonderfully. In early October 2007, I installed Vista Home Premium on an extra PC, tossed in a TV card, and pushed the Media Center duties over to this machine. I then backed up all my important data, wiped it out, and installed Vista Ultimate x64.

My experiences with x64 on this PC have been fantastic overall. By the end of the first run of Windows Updates after installing the OS, every single hardware device attached to the system had been correctly identified and supplied with the appropriate driver: A perfectly clean Device Manager that is the goal of every Windows install. Heartened by this early success, I then began running through my list of "always install" applications, which I'll document below. The result, again, was excellent: Virtually everything installed and runs perfectly. Very impressive.

So impressive, in fact, that I decided to wipe out my main notebook, a beloved widescreen Lenovo ThinkPad T61, and install Vista x64 on there as well. The process was a bit more troublesome, but still satisfactory, barring one huge problem that I'm not quite ready to blame on x64 quite yet. Here's what happened: First, I installed Vista Ultimate x64 and discovered a number of hardware devices that needed drivers. Fortunately, Lenovo supplies a System Update application, which you can download from their Web site, which will install these drivers as well as related ThinkPad-specific utilities. System Update works perfectly on x64 and installed all the appropriate drivers, as well as the few utilities I wanted (things like Access Connections for networking, an Easy Eject utility for the drive bay, Power Manager, and a few others).

The early prognosis was excellent, so I began installing applications and once again ran into the same success as I had witnessed on the desktop: Everything seemed to work just fine. There was just one problem: The ThinkPad started crashing, hard, when coming out of sleep. After mucking around with the power management settings and even testing the memory just in case, I decided to turn off Sleep mode and see if using Hibernation would fix the problem. Nope. The thing would randomly crash--often with a blue screen, which is actually quite rare on Vista in my experience--almost every time it returned from a power management state.

Concerned because I was taking the ThinkPad on a long weekend trip to Washington D.C., I tried to isolate the issue. To this date, I never have. I'm not sure if it's machine-specific, driver-specific, or literally confined to x64. The blue screen says that the culprit is clfs.sys, a new component in Vista called the Common Log File System Driver. (More info here.) I never did figure it out, and for the record, the notebook did survive the trip to DC without suffering any major mishaps.

I recently installed Vista in a dual-boot with Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard on my Macbook and was hoping to test the x64 install there as well, but Apple only supports 32-bit versions of Vista. I'm kind of running out of machines here, though I do have another ThinkPad I could probably press into service. I will definitely test x64 on at least one other notebook, but for now I'm not sure how to attribute the problems I've had on the ThinkPad.

32-bit applications in an x64 world

On a traditional 32-bit Windows Vista system, the root of your C: drive will be divided into three main folders: Program Files, Users, and Windows. The 64-bit variants add a fourth folder, Program Files (x86), which is used to house any 32-bit applications you install--most of them these days--while Program Files is reserved for true 64-bit applications.

Aside from the built-in applications, which are mostly 64-bit (Vista x64 does, however, include 32-bit versions of Windows Media Player 11 and Internet Explorer 7 for compatibility reasons), precious little got installed in the Program Files folder on either system. Some notable exceptions include RealPlayer 11 Beta (which is actually a 32-bit application), and some bits of Office 2007 and Visual Studio 2008 Beta 2.

Everything else was installed in Program Files (x86), which makes sense, since these applications are all 32-bit. Here's how things went with these applications...

Application Works normally? Notes
Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0 Yes  
Adobe Premiere Elements 4.0 Yes  
Adobe Reader 8.1 Yes  
Apple iTunes 7.4 Yes* I encountered some problems with this application on the desktop, but not the notebook. It appears to work correctly with Vista x64. Note, however, that the iPod touch and iPhone are not compatible with Vista x64.
Apple QuickTime Pro 7.2 Yes  
Apple Software Update Yes  
Google Picasa 2 Yes  
Grisoft AVG 7.5 Free and Professional Yes  
Half-Life 2 Episode 2 Yes  
ImgBurn Yes  
Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006 Yes* I did encounter crashing issues with this application when resizing certain JPEG images only. Otherwise, it works fine.
Microsoft Office 2007 Professional and Ultimate Yes  
Microsoft Office Outlook Connector Yes  
Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 Beta 2 Yes  
Microsoft Windows Home Server No Because the client application is artificially incompatible with Vista x64, you cannot use WHS to backup the PC or manage the server.
Microsoft Windows Live Mail Beta Yes* Currently available only as part of the Windows Live Suite Beta, which is artificially incompatible with Vista x64.
Microsoft Windows Live Messenger Beta Yes* Currently available only as part of the Windows Live Suite Beta, which is artificially incompatible with Vista x64.
Microsoft Windows Live Photo Gallery Beta Yes* Currently available only as part of the Windows Live Suite Beta, which is artificially incompatible with Vista x64.
Microsoft Windows Live Writer Beta Yes* Currently available only as part of the Windows Live Suite Beta, which is artificially incompatible with Vista x64.
Movielink Yes  
Mozilla Firefox 2 Yes  
Nero 8 Ultra Yes  
RealNetworks RealPlayer 11 Beta Yes  
Skype Yes  
Slysoft AnyDVD Yes  
Slysoft CloneDVD Yes  
Slysoft CloneDVD Mobile Yes  
Steam Yes  
Unreal Tournament 3 Demo Yes  
uTorrent Yes  
VMWare Workstation 5 Yes  
Wakoopa Tracker Yes  
WinRAR 3.70 Yes This one surprised me, as 32-bit applications that provide shell extensions often don't work properly in 64-bit environments. However, WinRAR works perfectly.

As you can see, the list of 32-bit software that just works on Vista x64 far outweighs those that don't. Yeah, this is my own personal little subset of software, but I feel it's pretty representative of what's being run out there.

There are some weirdisms, of course. One thing I've noticed is that Open With--that list of options you get when you right-click a shortcut and choose Open With from the pop-up menu--defaults to the Programs Files directory, and not to Program Files (x86), where most of the applications actually are. No biggie, but if you don't know where to look, it could be confusing.

I'm also shocked how many of Microsoft's own products don't work with Vista x64, and really, shame on them for that. Windows Home Server is, perhaps, the most pointless example, since the client software's biggest bit of functionality is just a remote desktop-based console that's really running on the server anyway. There's absolutely no reason for that not to work.

The new and still-in-beta Windows Live suite is also a non-starter on x64 right now, though I'm told that Microsoft will fix this in the final release. For now, I've had to turn to some enterprising hackers, who have separated out the individual applications from the suite installer. And go figure, all of them work just fine in x64, except for Windows Live Family Safety, which I wasn't interested in installing anyway. That we're still dealing with unintelligent and x64-unfriendly installers at this point in time is astonishing to me.

Some hardware notes

For the most part, my hardware compatibility across two distinctly different systems with a variety of add-on hardware was exemplary. As is always the case, however, there were exceptions.

The worst one involves Apple's iPod and iPhone products. While the "traditional" iPods--iPod shuffle, iPod nano, and iPod classic--all work fine inside of Vista x64, syncing with iTunes as expected, the touch-screen iPod touch and iPhone are completely incompatible. That's a shame, and it forced me to maintain my music collection and other information on a separate 32-bit desktop just to keep the products in sync.

That said, hardware products that didn't work with x64 last year--like my HP scanner--work just fine now, thank you very much, giving credence to Microsoft's claims of ever-improving compatibility. The x64 compatibility picture, over time, has simply gotten a lot better.

Final thoughts

Unfortunately, I have to give the same basic advice about Vista x64 that I provided last year: If you have to ask, if you're unsure whether you should be using Vista x64, then the basic conclusion is still the same: You shouldn't be running Vista x64. That said, Vista x64 is considerably more viable now than it was a year ago. And it's moving quickly into the mainstream, though it's not quite there yet.

For the coming year, gamers, digital content creators, CAD-CAM workers, science and engineering users, and other power users who will run into the 4 GB ceiling in 32-bit versions of Windows are ideal candidates for Vista x64. These types of users understand the risks and the limitations of the x64 platform and don't really need my advice anyway. Enjoy the headroom.

Typical consumers, however, should stay away from Vista x64 for now. Though hardware and software compatibility has improved dramatically in the past year, normal users will get frustrated by the one or two incompatible applications or devices that are likely to occur. It's just not worth it. Not yet.

Maybe next year.

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