This is the last post in my series about Windows 7 x64 and Windows 7 x86. Like Windows Vista x64 Windows 7 x64 comes with some features that are meant to improve its reliability and security. Since memory was not really an issue when Vista was released, some considered these enhancements as the major advantage of 64-bit. In this article, I look at reliability and security, and also address some issues regarding licensing.
You probably know that 64-bit device drivers for Vista have to be signed. You can disable signed driver checking for the next session in the boot menu by pressing F8. This allows you to install unsigned drivers on Vista x64. Windows 7 x64 will behave the same way. Microsoft introduced signed driver checking to improve reliability. I don’t know how successful this approach was. However, based on my own experience, I can’t really say whether 64-bit is more reliable than 32-bit. I had four driver issues on Vista x64, (Bluetooth, WIFI, graphics card, and sound system). I even saw a blue screen once or twice. The fact that these drivers were signed didn’t prevent them from crashing.
Signed driver checking improves security, because it makes it a bit more difficult for malware, in particular rootkits, to infect a system. Windows 7 x64 (like Vista x64) will also have two other security features that the 32 bit edition lacks: Kernel Patch Protection (PatchGuard) and hardware-based Data Execution Protection (DEP). To be honest, I have never heard of a case where malware or hackers were deterred by these features. However, this might be simply due the fact that the vast majority of Windows systems are still 32-bit. Therefore, I think these are nice-to-have features, but on their own not reason enough to move to 64-bit.
The 32-bit license keys for Vista don’t work for Vista x64 and you have to order the 64-bit DVD separately if you want to switch from 32-bit to 64-bit. Only Windows Vista Ultimate comes with a DVD and product key for both editions.
One thing that shows that 64-bit is now ready for prime time is that Microsoft treats both editions alike. All Windows 7 customers will get a 32-bit edition and a 64-bit edition. There will be only one product key type for both Windows 7 editions. At least that is the case for the keys on Technet. I suppose it will be the same for volume license customers and consumers.
This is certainly a good thing, because it makes switching from 32-bit to 64-bit easier. If you run into really unsolvable problems you can move back to Windows 7 32-bit without the licensing hassle. Of course, you then have to re-install everything.
When Vista first came out, I was already considering 64-bit as an option. However, after reading more about the topic, I changed my mind and opted for 32-bit. The main reason was that Vista by itself had already caused enough compatibility issues. Every time I ran into problems I would wonder whether it was just a Vista issue or if 64-bit was the culprit.
The situation has fundamentally changed. I think, netbooks are the only reason that 32-bit will survive for some time. Some of these little toys’ CPU types simply don’t support 64-bit. I don’t expect any serious compatibility problems with Windows 7 x64. 64-bit is much more widespread than it was two or three years ago. The fact that Windows 7 x86 only effectively supports up to 3GB RAM is a knockdown argument against 32-bit, in my view. The future certainly belongs to 64-bit. Therefore, in my opinion Windows 7 64-bit is in most cases the better choice. Only if you know that some devices or applications you desperately need are not supported in 64-bit does it makes sense to deploy Windows 7 32-bit. However, even in those cases, you could still consider solving the problem by using Windows 7 XP Mode instead.