Vista x64 Tipping Point

I have recently built a new development machine and had a difficult decision to make in regards to whether to go with x64 Vista or x86. It wasn’t an easy decision, or a particularly obvious one.

Vista x64

The Pros

  • Large memory support

    The biggest advantage of going x64 is the ability to make use of more memory, potentially up to 128+GB. 32 bit version of Vista has a limit of 4GB, but in practice you will only get to use about 3GB as RAM). Having more memory should allow for better performance, as well as opening the doors for better VPC usage.

  • Improved Stability

    Due to Vista x64 demanding only signed drivers can be installed, there OS should potentially be more stable than its 32 bit sibling.

The Cons

  • Poor Driver support

    All x64 drivers have to be signed. This isn’t such a problem for new hardware/software but legacy support for existing devices would be limited compared to x86.

  • Software compatibility issues

    Some older software (and computer games) will still have problems running under Vista x64

  • Lack of true 64 bit software

    Most software that is currently available is 32 bit, and does not have a 64 bit alternative. This isn’t going to change quickly, and it is difficult to foresee when it is actually going to change wholesale. In Vista’s lifetime would be nice, but it is not guaranteed.

The decision

In the end I went for Vista x64, mostly because I wanted to make use of more than 3GB of memory. Had it been a year earlier, I would definitely have gone 32 bit. The landscape has dramatically changed over the last year, and driver support has come on leaps and bounds.

If you have a reasonably new PC, and recent hardware you probably won’t run into any show stoppers. Also on the software front, a lot more has been done to ensure computability with x64. All said and done, I only really gained enough confidence* in 64 bit Vista because of Scott Hanselman’s well documented 64 bit journey with a very similar specced quad core PC. It was clear that, although I may have some teething issues, all the core tools for software development should work fine. Jeff Atwood goes into more detail in regard to whether 64 bit is ready in his recent post Is It Time for 64-bit on the Desktop?.

*And if there were any major problems, I would have Scott Hanselman to nag 😉

Real world experience

In the first few weeks of running Vista I have had no real issues at all. Everything has worked, and it’s been a much smoother experience than I anticipated. I would have no hesitation in recommending x64 to any other software developer who is considering making the leap to 64 bit -as long as they require >3GB memory.

The only vague disappointment I have had is that I wasn’t quite aware just how many applications out there don’t have a 64 bit version available. If I open up Task Manager, I can see a good 1/3 of the processes are running in 32 bit emulation. This is a little disappointing, and is mostly down to how Microsoft is bringing in 64 bit so slowly. 32 bit is still going to be recommended Vista edition for the foreseeable future.

Microsoft has an interesting page on which edition of Vista to choose.

In the consumer market, Windows Vista 64-bit editions are for serious gamers, high-quality media creators, and enthusiasts who demand the most from digital media and are running computer systems with 64-bit processors.

The 64-bit editions of Windows Vista are not for everyone, and require a system with a 64-bit processor and 64-bit system drivers. Please confirm that your system, applications, and devices are compatible with a 64-bit edition of Windows Vista before installing.

It is clear Microsoft do not want to encourage anybody other than enthusiasts and professional to go 64 bit, as it’s not going to be plain sailing by any means

Tipping Point

So, when will x64 become mainstream? Will it be in Vista’s lifetime?

I have my doubts. For your average non-techie user, Vista runs okay on 1GB and runs very well on 2GB. I don’t see this changing over the next 2-3 years. Professionals and enthusiasts are bound to move across to 64 in large numbers as driver support continues to improve, but this is still such a small user base for Vista.

Vista x64’s tipping point will never be reached organically, so the question is will Microsoft decide to push Vista x64 over the next couple of years? Or will they wait for the next OS release, and make it a x64 only release. Seems to me like the latter is more likely.

In the meantime, I will continue enjoying the solid experience of developing software on a 64 bit OS, but I won’t be expecting to fully wave goodbye to 32 bits for a good few years.