Thursday, October 05, 2006

A 64-bit Future ?

Last year our friends at Microsoft released a 64-bit version of Windows XP in order that those of use with Itanium PCs (not many, I suspect !) and those of us with 64-bit AMD chips (most of AMD's current customers.

This version of Windows XP was based upon Windows Server 2003 SP1 as that was the latest version of Microsoft Windows during the operating system's development, but takes Windows XP as its name. It is designed to use the expanded 64-bit memory address space provided by the AMD64 architecture; Intel refers to its implementation of the technology as EM64T. So much for the technical details, how has it fared ?

I installed it about a year ago on a new AMD Athlon-64 3200+ machine with no problems and I've lived with it ever since. Yes, I have a copy of VMWare's software hosting a virtual Windows 2000 sitting on it awaiting problems, but I've had very few. I use quite a few programs and do a bit of development on it too, so I should be a good test for it, I thought as I started out.

My heart started to sink when I tried to install Corel's Ventura Publisher 8, and it failed with the (now familiar) message that the executable was fine, but not for this cpu. Bad message, that, as I'd seen exactly that cpu running 32-bit Windows XP run the same program flawlessly just two weeks before. Still, after asking around on the Ventura UseNet, I realised that it was the install program and not VP that was the problem, and that was soon fixed. Not so the next problem, which was with VP's fonts - they wouldn't scale properly. I really needed the facilities that VP had offered me, so I bought a copy of Serif Software's PagePlus, installed it, and got on with my work. No blame really on Corel - I was using software designed for Windows 9x and NT on a radically different OS.

Then I decided to burn some CDs of music that I had ripped from LP. Blaze Audio's software works fine on XP/64, by the way, and is great for recording a whole side of a disc and then chopping it back up into tracks. Normally I used to use Nero 6 Ultra Edition with Windows 2000 and XP/32, but it has proven rather unstable with XP/64. In fact, it's the only program that has managed to totally bomb the system back beyond a BSOD to the point where the only thing to do is to power it down and up again with the hardware power switch ! If I have just rebooted anyway (not a frequent occurrence) then using Nero 6 seems ok; using it after playing with things for weeks isn't such a good idea. I'll be trying out Nero 7 soon.

Finally, with this litany of problems, Apple's iTunes 6 has proven a little fallible. Once (but only once!) it managed to crash itself in a very weird way. It stopped producing music and it's screen image froze. I killed the iTunes processes supporting it, but that area of the screen was locked by the program so that other programs could leave "droppings" on it, but I just couldn't get rid of it. A reboot was required :( iTunes has also had problems seeing my CD/DVD burners, claiming that they are just readers (one is a BenQ internal and the other an HP external, on either FireWire or USB).

Now for the good bits. Reliability has been a great improvement. I skipped the entire Windows 9x series, on the principle that I was already suffering several hundred known bugs in Windows 3.1 and didn't need a few hundred new and unknown ones! I went straight to Windows NT and found that I could expect a BSOD or a required reboot about once a fortnight. Much better than twice daily! Windows 2000 extended that to about monthly, although none of my machines ever actually go that far as I'm always installing and upgrading. Windows XP/32 hasn't improved much over Windows 2000 for me, for just those reasons. However, my copy of XP/64 has been rebooted involuntarily three times because of Nero in 14 months and about 6 more times while I have added software. Personally, I think that this is getting very good; Vista has a very high bar to exceed.

One thing in passing: when I started out with it only one company (www.avast.com) made a complete range of anti-virus software that included 64-bit versions, so that's what I'm using, and I'll recommend it. It's easy to use and, to all appearances, very effective. I've deliberately imported infected files onto my system and it has found them all. Note, though, that I'm not in the testing business - I'm just a consumer.

Some more mixed news is that while Microsoft has included a lot of hardware drivers and some companies, like Brother and Konica-Minolta, have gone to some trouble to produce 64-bit drivers, others have studiously ignored this market. The most conspicuous of these is HP. In the 90s HP moved towards using a common PDL for all its printers, with one version for inkjets and another for laserjets. This meant that, so far as the user was concerned, if you didn't have the right driver for your new HP you could always get by with something like a LaserJet Series II driver. You wouldn't be able to get it to do anything more than the old Series II, but at least you could use it.

These days, however, HP driver sets weigh in at about 50MB and are very OS-specific. They also seem to be abandoning old printers, so that the release of a new version of Windows will mean sales of a lot of new printers, as there'll be a lot of orphaned HPs around. Personally I consider the other brands to be of equal quality to HP,so I've left the HP fold already.

There are always nice surprises, though. Like getting my Wacom Serial/keyboard Graphire Mk 1 to work. I just plugged it in to try it with the virtual Windows 2000 and it kind of worked. Later, after a reboot, I was moving it before unplugging it and realised that the mouse was moving too! I call that a gift :) Audiotrak's Maya EX is a USB audio I/O device. For output it powers my Monsoon speakers but on input I can plug my Thorens turntable into it and record vinyl. This was a 32-bit beast too - it has 32-bit drivers - but works without any drivers at all with XP/64.

How cool is that !

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