Vista x64 vs. Vista x86 – 32 bit or 64 bit Vista edition?
Update: I am working on a new series about the Vista x86 vs. Vista x64 issue. The first one covers the speed issue. The other article in this series will follow soon. You might also be interested in my post about the 3GB barrier. The discussion there is interesting. But now go ahead and read this one first.
Sometime ago, I published an article about a performance comparison between 64-bit and 32-bit editions of Windows. This post got quite a few hits, recently. Meanwhile, it has rank 8 of all posts here on 4sysops (see right sidebar). Obviously, many seem to be undecided which Vista edition they would like to use. In this post, I summarized the pros and cons of Vista x64 and Vista x86.
Vista x64 Pros
Security: Kernel Patch Protection (PatchGuard) is probably the most interesting security-related feature of Vista x64. It prevents unauthorized software from modifying the kernel. This reduces the risk that malware, especially rootkits, infects your system.
Reliability: In Vista x64 only signed drivers can be installed (Mandatory Kernel Module and Driver Signing). This means that kernel mode software requires a digital signature from Microsoft. Buggy drivers can make a system very unstable. But what’s the use of a reliable OS , in the face of a third party driver crashing your PC once a day? I had this experience with Vista x86, already.
Performance: A computer with a 64-bit CPU is supposed to be more powerful than one with a 32-bit processor. Of course, you need a 64-bit OS to utilize its 64-bit capabilities. The problem is, not only that the OS, but also the applications must support 64 bit to improve performance. Since 32-bit is still predominant in the Windows area, Vista x64 won’t speed up your system in most cases. Here are some benchmark tests comparing Vista x64 and Vista x86:   .
Memory: The 32 bit editions of Vista only support 4 GB RAM. With Vista x64, you can use up to 128 GB , if your hardware supports it. However, there are differences between the different editions of Vista x64. Check out this comparison table for more information. Note that many applications have limitations with respect to the amount of RAM they can use. Hence, you usually only need more than 4 GB RAM, if you are using many apps with high memory consumption, simultaneously. If you are working with VMware Workstation, you might be interested to know that version 6.0 supports Vista x64, and that’s up to 8 GB RAM.
Vista x64 Cons
Hardware compatibility: This certainly is the number one caveat in using a 64-bit Vista edition. 32-bit drivers don’t work. Therefore, hardware manufacturers have to produce new ones for every piece of hardware. The fact that drivers have to be signed can also be a disadvantage since it is more time-consuming for hardware vendors to deliver new drivers. Thus, before you can move to Vista x64, you have to check if your hardware is supported. Don’t forget your peripheral devices like printers and scanners.
Software compatibility: Most 32-bit software should be running on Vista x64. However, 16-bit programs are not supported, anymore. Note that some 32 apps still use 16-bit installers. Even though the program itself might work under Vista x64, you might not be able to install it. Another problem is that Vista x64 doesn’t support registry and folder virtualization. Some legacy apps need to write in security sensitive areas like C:\Windows or C:\Programs and Files. Vista x86 can present a virtual version of these folders to apps for compatibility reasons. Essentially, this means that some 32-bit apps might not work properly if you run them with standard user rights in Vista x64. There are workarounds, though. By the way, even 64-bit apps that were developed for the 64-bit version of Windows XP might have problems under Vista x64 if they have conflicts with Vista standards.
Price: You can only upgrade the Windows XP x64 edition to Vista x64, but not from the 32 bit version of Windows XP. So moving to Vista x64 might cost you more if you have already Windows XP licenses with an upgrade option.
Deployment: Vista images are hardware independent, which probably is the most important new feature from a system administrator’s point of view. However, this doesn’t apply to 32 and 64 bit images, i.e. you’ll need different images for Vista x86 and Vista x64. If you can’t move entirely to the 64 bit edition, then this might double your workload.
Problem diagnosis: Even though, all your hardware and software supports Vista x64, you’ll always ask yourself if a certain problem is 64-bit-related. After all, Vista x64 is a different OS than Vista x86. The same applies to applications which were specifically developed for the 64-bit editions. Thus, solving a problem might often be more time-consuming.
Conclusion: In my view, for the overall majority Vista x86 is the better choice. Even Microsoft writes that “the 64-bit editions are not for everyone.” Only if you have very high security demands or work in fields like engineering (CAD/CAM) or digital content creation, then Vista x64 might be an option for you. I suppose that 64-bit will only play a major role when Vienna, the next Windows version, comes out. There are even rumors that Windows Vienna will only support 64-bit. So perhaps it makes sense to wait a few more years before jumping into the 64-bit bandwagon.