Suddenly, 64-bit Windows is mainstream

Summary:Last year, x64 editions of Windows Vista were hard to come by and seen as mainly for early adopters. This year, with little warning, the tide seems to have shifted dramatically. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, at least 20% of all Vista PCs sold in the second quarter of this year came with 64-bit editions of Windows Vista preinstalled. By fall, it’s possible, even likely, that we’ll reach a tipping point, with more than 50% of new PCs sold at retail coming with 64-bit editions of Windows Vista preinstalled. So why the sudden shift? And what's in it for you?

Last year, x64 editions of Windows Vista were hard to come by and seen as mainly for early adopters. This year, with little warning, the tide seems to have shifted dramatically. I noticed the first hint three weeks ago, when I visited HP’s website to check the specs of the new TX2500z notebook and saw that a 64-bit upgrade was available for all models. When I looked at the flyers in last Sunday’s paper, I saw several PCs at Best Buy with 64-bit Vista Home Premium Edition installed, including notebooks from HP and Toshiba and quad-core desktops from Gateway and Dell; the former came with 4GB of RAM and a 19-inch LCD monitor for $750, while the latter had 6GB of RAM  and a 19-inch monitor for $830.

Microsoft noticed the sudden shift as well. According to stats I received yesterday, the installed base of 64-bit Windows Vista machines in the U.S. has more than tripled in the last three months. Using data from its Windows Update servers, Microsoft calculated that 1.45% of all Windows Vista machines were running x64 Vista editions in March of this year. By June, that figure was up to 5.18%. That number is actually more impressive than it sounds: by my back-of-the-envelope calculations, making that shift in total market share means that at least 20% of all Vista PCs sold in the second quarter of this year came with 64-bit editions of Windows Vista preinstalled. By fall, it’s possible, even likely, that we’ll reach a tipping point, with more than 50% of new PCs sold at retail coming with 64-bit editions of Windows Vista preinstalled.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve been running Vista x64 on my main desktop PC since February, with no issues whatsoever. In May, I converted a year-old ASUS Tablet PC to Vista x64 and was astounded at how easy it was. Finding 64-bit drivers for virtually every mainstream device is easy, and I have yet to see a 32-bit Windows program that won’t run on an x64 system.

So why the shift now?

First, RAM is cheap. With the exception of low-end loss leaders, most new PCs in the retail channel these days are equipped with 4GB of RAM or more and cost under $1000. If you want to actually use that RAM, you need to move to a 64-bit code base. Looks like the major OEMs figured that out, too.

Second, a new wave of applications is going to debut in the fall, Most are aimed at digital media enthusiasts and professionals, including Adobe Photoshop CS4 and Lightroom. (In fact, the next version of Photoshop will be 64-bit native for Windows 64-bit OSes only.) Adobe’s John Nack says “the speedup due to running in 64-bit mode is around 8-12%” and that opening a 3.75 gigapixel image on a suitably equipped machine (quad-core, 32GB of RAM) is “about 10x faster.” Sony’s long-awaited 64-bit Vegas Pro 8.1 video editing program (announced and demoed at NAB in 2007, demoed again at NAB in 2008) should be available around the same time.

Update 31-July: Well, that was fast! Around the time I was writing this post, Adobe released Photoshop Lightroom 2, with full 64-bit support for Windows Vista. Details here.

For consumers, there’s certainly potential for confusion, especially given that most systems sold in the past few years have combined 64-bit CPUs with 32-bit Windows. Microsoft has prepared some guidelines for hardware and software vendors and for consumers. The most likely point of confusion comes when downloading drivers; I was pleased to see that HP is delivering its drivers and software updates with both x86 and x64 versions in the same downloadable package, allowing the installer to decide which one to use based on the system’s specs.

The biggest sticking point continues to be legacy hardware. OEMs delivering new machine configurations can ensure that every included device works properly, but plugging in an older device might not work. My three-year-old ScanSnap scanner finally has 32-bit Vista drivers, but Fujitsu has announced that it has no intention of producing x64 drivers for that series.

Ironically, one of the most high-profile laggards is from Microsoft itself. As I noted last December, Microsoft’s fingerprint readers, included with some mice and keyboards, don’t offer 64-bit support. Since then, UPEK has released x64 drivers and control software for its devices (I have one on my desktop and one an the ASUS Tablet). Ironically, the fingerprint reader in my new x64-based HP notebook works perfectly with its Digital Persona software. The Microsoft devices use that same software; alas, the new Windows Vista Compatibility Center still lists those devices as “not compatible” with 64-bit Windows Vista.

So, how many of you are running 64-bit Windows? Any problems to report?

Update 30-July 10:00AM: In the TalkBack section, several commenters have noted the absence of a 64-bit Flash player. I've addressed that issue in a follow-up post: Dear Adobe, can we please have a 64-bit Flash player?

Topics: Software, Hardware, Microsoft, Networking, Operating Systems, Processors, Windows

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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