This is the third post in my series about the Windows 7 64-bit vs. Windows 7 32-bit series. In the last two posts in this series I shared my experiences with Vista x64 and I discussed the arguments with regards to RAM and performance. In the past, the main reason that many admins were afraid to deploy a 64-bit operating system on desktops and laptops was due to compatibility concerns. In this article, I will discuss whether this is still an issue.
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When Vista was released, many independent software vendors (ISVs) were not prepared, even though, it was the longest beta phase in the history of Windows releases. Because of the huge structural changes, quite a few applications didn't run properly on Vista. I think, this was the main reason why Vista x64 was not really an option for most organizations that were planning an upgrade, as the move to 64-bit would have only caused additional headaches.
This will definitely be different when Windows 7 comes out. Windows 7 doesn't introduce significant under-the-surface changes. Therefore, almost all applications that work on Vista will work on Windows 7. Meanwhile, all software vendors have already changed their focus to Vista, which means software compatibility problems will no longer be an issue, as far as Windows 7 x86 is concerned.
However the risk of running into software compatibility problems is still bigger with Windows 7 x64 than it is with Windows 7 x86. But, I am sure that it is now significantly lower than it was when Vista first came out. The good thing is that Vista requires a lot more RAM than its predecessor, which has already forced many users (me, for example) to move to 64-bit, thereby increasing the likelihood that ISVs have fixed possible 64-bit issues in their applications as a result of customer feedback.
If you are uncertain if software will run on Windows 7 64-bit, then you can try it first in a virtual environment like VMware Workstation or Oracle's free VirtualBox. Of course, if you plan to deploy Windows 7 in your network, then you will have to test all your applications anyway. Just make sure that not only the application itself but also its setup programs run on 64-bit, because some legacy apps still use 16-bit installation programs. 16-bit and MS DOS binaries won't run at all on Windows 7 x64.
The hardware compatibility situation is quite similar. All Independent Hardware Vendors (IHVs) support Vista now and I suppose most of Vista's device drivers will work properly on Windows 7. Microsoft is quite aware of the fact that Vista's marketing disaster was mostly caused by compatibility issues. Rest assured that they won't make the same mistake twice. This why they have pushed IHVs harder this time. Most beta testers’ reports that I've read have confirmed that the transition from Vista to Windows 7 will also be smooth with respect to device drivers.
Only very old hardware whose device drivers are no longer updated will have problems. The risk of not being able to find device drivers for old pieces of hardware is a little higher for Windows 7 x64 than it is for Windows 7 x86, since 32-bit device drivers don't work on 64-bit systems.
As for new hardware, it seems that all vendors delivering devices for corporate environments now support 64-bit. IHVs are aware of the fact that many of them will be forced to move to Windows 7 64-bit because they need more than 3GB of RAM. Support for 64-bit is no luxury like it was two or three years ago. It has become an absolute must.
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In the last article in this series, I will focus on reliability, security, and licensing.