XP Goes to 64 Bits

XP X64 Has Familiar Look, Feel

Windows XP Professional X64 edition looks like Windows XP, but note the two versions of Internet Explorer in the Start menu.
Windows XP Professional X64 edition looks like Windows XP, but note the two versions of Internet Explorer in the Start menu.
In use, XP X64 feels quite similar to 32-bit versions of Windows--with a few noteworthy exceptions. The Start menu, for example, has two renditions of Internet Explorer: a new 64-bit version and the same 32-bit version that Microsoft shipped in XP SP2. Why? Since 32-bit plug-ins for IE won't run in the 64-bit version, Microsoft had to retain the 32-bit version for people who want to keep using legacy IE add-ons, such as QuickTime or Google Toolbar.

From a performance perspective, XP X64 appears to work as well as 32-bit Windows XP Professional on the same hardware. With the OS and beta 64-bit drivers loaded on an Athlon 64-based Micro Express PC, 9 of the 13 tests in our WorldBench 5 benchmark suite ran without a hitch, and the other four failed to run only because of minor issues (most of them relating to license key validation). Results were generally close to those achieved by the same desktop running XP Pro: In some cases XP Pro was a bit faster, and in others XP X64 was quicker.

In my informal tests, however, a number of applications wouldn't install, including several programs from Microsoft. Some of these were applications that historically have been written for specific versions of Windows, such as PowerToys for Windows XP (including the highly practical Tweak UI) and most major antivirus and security packages. I also couldn't install the beta of MSN Toolbar Suite and the finished version of Photo Story 3. Office 2003 SP1 did install, but only after displaying a confusing error message.

How About Apps?

Of course, the biggest benefits of 64-bit computing can be realized only when applications capable of taking advantage of its huge memory resources appear. Several companies have offered vague promises about developing native 64-bit programs, but concrete plans are rarely available. NewTek says it will port its Emmy Award-winning LightWave 3D graphics and visual effects package to X64 sometime this year. Epic Games has pledged to release a 64-bit version of its Unreal Tournament 2004, but this has not yet materialized. Still, the crucial factor is mainstream application support from Microsoft, Adobe, and other top-tier vendors--and they're not talking on the record (though sources at Microsoft claim that a 64-bit version of Office will appear in 2006).

Hardware device drivers are another problem. Today's 32-bit drivers won't install on XP X64; and even though RC1 includes a wide range of drivers for popular devices, the absence of third-party drivers will torment many users of the new OS. I managed to find beta 64-bit drivers for my NVidia graphics card and for my Creative Labs sound card. But 64-bit drivers for other hardware, such as an HP scanner, simply aren't available.

Generally, XP X64 shapes up as a solid addition to the XP product line. But given the problems that many users are likely to encounter when attempting to install applications and drivers on XP X64, we advise caution to owners of 64-bit PCs who are thinking of getting the new OS. As the adage goes, if you need it, you probably already know that you need it. This year, the most likely beneficiaries of the transition are software developers, video professionals, designers, people who use scientific applications, and others who can take advantage of X64's large memory capacity. Even they may not see much of a performance boost, however, since most current 64-bit systems support the same amount of RAM as today's x86 PCs.

For people who do want to migrate to XP X64 when it ships, Microsoft plans to offer a Technology Exchange Program that will let customers who bought 64-bit PCs with Windows XP Pro swap that OS for XP X64. Details are still in flux, but Microsoft's Marr says the company intends to supply new Product Keys with the new OS and then deactivate the 32-bit Product Keys.

Note, though, that you will not be able to upgrade an XP Pro PC to XP X64: You can acquire XP X64 only as a clean install, which entails backing up your existing data, installing the OS from scratch, and then reinstalling your apps.

Chips: 64-Bit Milestones

Illustration by Randy Lyhus.
Illustration: Randy Lyhus
The road to 64-bit desktop computing started with AMD's introduction of the Athlon 64 CPU, but the software to make it meaningful has been slow to arrive. Here are some past and projected future highlights:

  • AMD Athlon 64 desktop CPUs (September 2003)
  • Windows XP Professional X64 Edition (Spring 2005)
  • Intel X64 Pentium 4 (Spring 2005)
  • AMD Turion second-generation 64-bit notebook CPUs (Spring 2005)
  • Longhorn X64 (2006)

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