Don’t go from XP to Vista unless you go 64-bit

Stuart johnston By Stuart J. Johnston

Early indications are that Windows 7 won’t be a major upgrade from Vista.

But the real choice isn’t between Vista and Windows 7; it’s between moving to a 64-bit version of Windows now or later.

The bottom line is that if you’re using XP, there’s no point in upgrading to 32-bit Vista. It doesn’t make sense to upgrade your operating system without upgrading to 64-bit hardware and software in order to get the most out of both. Allow me to explain.

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Despite Microsoft’s best attempts to keep a lid on the next version of Windows — code-named Windows 7 — details about the new OS’s features are slipping out. The early word is that the successor to Vista, which is due to ship in early 2010, won’t be much different from Vista Service Pack 1.

To date, Microsoft has said only that the next version of Windows will launch within three years after the consumer release of Vista, which debuted officially in January 2007. A recent report by InternetNews.com pegs Microsoft’s current schedule as having the OS ready for PC manufacturers in June 2009, substantially earlier than advertised.

Microsoft executives have kept mum not only about the when of Windows 7 but also the what: specifically, what features will and won’t be in the next release. Significantly more information regarding Windows 7 will be available in late October at the company’s Professional Developers Conference (PDC) and in early November at its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference. Late word is that PDC attendees will receive a pre-beta of Windows 7 on a 160GB external USB hard drive.

Early testers of the new release indicated recently to All About Microsoft blogger Mary Jo Foley that a public beta of Windows 7 is due around mid-December 2008. Microsoft has said it will sign up beta testers via its Connect site.

That would be the right time frame for Microsoft to get the final release to PC makers in time for the 2009 Christmas sales season — a critical mistake Microsoft made with Vista in 2006, say analysts.

Windows 7 emphasizes performance, stability

Testers of early preview releases indicate that Windows 7 will provide greater stability, reliability, and performance than Vista. The most recent of the three prebeta releases reportedly delivered all three of the promised benefits.

One of the three biggest complaints about Vista — or more specifically, the 32-bit version of Vista — is performance. (The other two big Vista problems, application incompatibilities and the lack of device drivers, have been solved over the past year and a half, with a few noteworthy exceptions.)

The 32-bit edition of Vista supports only 3GB of memory, a limitation that the 64-bit edition doesn’t have. How much memory can 64-bit Vista address? The range is from 8GB for Vista Home Basic to 128GB for the Ultimate, Enterprise, and Business editions.

All 32-bit operating systems, not just Vista, have greater memory restrictions than their 64-bit versions. At this point, if you’re considering buying new systems, you should be looking at setups that use 64-bit hardware and software. After all, what good are all those lightning-fast processor cores if the system runs low on memory to support them?

While there will be a 32-bit edition of Windows 7, the writing is on the wall: the future of desktop computing is 64-bit.

“The 64-bit editions support more than 3GB of RAM, which removes the headroom limit that 32-bit editions have,” principal anaylst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group told Windows Secrets.

Some users echo that sentiment.

“I installed a full 64-bit copy of Vista six months after release and it runs great,” said a user who goes by the screen name Darkest Daze on one user forum.

“I love my Vista 64. I would never go back to XP,” said a posting by another user who goes by the screen name Ike_Skelton.

While there is a 64-bit release of XP, Microsoft plans to end free support for XP on April 14, 2009, although the company will continue to issue critical bug fixes. After that date, you’ll have to pay per incident for support from Microsoft.

One big reason why Microsoft should have no problem meeting its shipping deadlines for Windows 7 is that the OS will not be much different from Vista Service Pack 1, which shipped last spring. For instance, screen shots of the latest pre-beta that were briefly posted to the Web last week (until Microsoft’s legal department got involved) showed a user interface that is suspiciously like Vista’s aero look.

Windows components are moving to the cloud

As part of Microsoft’s broad initiative to evolve its product offerings to embrace its emerging software-plus-services vision, some features and programs that had previously been included with the operating system will become Windows Live services, residing in the cloud while remaining tightly integrated with Windows 7, the company confirmed this week.

“Starting with the next release of Windows, Windows Mail, Windows Calendar, Windows Contacts, Windows Photo Gallery, and Windows Movie Maker will no longer be available in the Windows operating system,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement e-mailed to Windows Secrets.

Instead, those capabilities will be provided via Windows Live services, the statement continued. Moving those features out of Windows 7 may also help improve performance.

“The whole idea is to have Windows Live be a piece on top of the Windows 7 platform,” Kip Kniskern, staff writer for Windows Live enthusiast site LiveSide.net, told Windows Secrets. Beyond that, however, he too views Windows 7 as a relatively minor release.

“I don’t think Windows 7 is much more than Vista SP2,” Kniskern added. “The code base isn’t much different.”

One feature that will be new in Windows 7 is support for multi-touch displays, which Microsoft’s Surface computer pioneered. Chairman Bill Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer demonstrated Windows 7′s support for that feature at the Wall Street Journal’s D: All Things Digital conference in May.

As cool as this feature may appear, it’s unlikely to be reason enough for the millions of XP users in the world to postpone their next system upgrade for more than a year. When you’re ready for a 64-bit desktop PC, it’s ready for you.

Stuart Johnston is associate editor of WindowsSecrets.com. He has written about technology for InfoWorld, Computerworld, InformationWeek, and InternetNews.com.