Microsoft Windows XP x64 Edition review

It seems like it’s been an age coming, but Windows XP x64 Edition for the AMD64 platform (and Intel equivalent) has finally reached the RC1 (Release Candidate 1) stage. We’ve been anticipating it for well over a year now, but there’s a good reason for the delay.

Microsoft Windows XP x64 Edition review

It can all be blamed on XP Service Pack 2. Getting such a monster upgrade/bug fix out of the door consumed all resources. The test teams were flat out doing all the testing, the coders were nailing down bugs in the code, and the marketing department went into overdrive. And then the whole, formidable Microsoft machinery went into a deathmarch to get it shipped.

As a result, a number of important releases got pushed to the back burners for many months – not just 64-bit Windows XP, but the 64-bit versions of Windows Server 2003, and the Server 2003 SP 1 release as well. For anyone on the various beta-test cycles, it was a galling experience to see new builds of XP x64 and Server 2003 SP 1 simply dry up for most of 2004.

However, having got XP SP 2 out of the door, the focus has moved back to the XP x64 and Server SP 1 releases, and work has recommenced. This is likely to be a relief to AMD, the supplier of the AMD64 and Opteron 64-bit processors, but the delay has actually been to the advantage of Microsoft.

By delaying, Microsoft has had more time to persuade third-party driver vendors that they really do need to release 64-bit drivers to support the XP x64 platform.

At the end of the day, XP x64 is identical in every way to the current version. Sit in front of it, and you won’t see the difference unless you go digging around for some small subtle changes. Your existing 32-bit applications install and work just fine. If you have some 64-bit applications, then these will install and work fine too. You can mix and match to your heart’s content; it simply won’t be obvious as to whether an application is 32-bit or 64-bit.

So why bother? Is it worth the effort? Well moving to 64-bit allows you to make best use of the latest technology in the 64-bit chipsets. Killing off buffer overruns by using the processor and memory architecture is a snap, although some of this is in the 32-bit version too now, courtesy of SP 2’s Data Execution Protection (DEP). The real win comes with huge applications needing vast amounts of memory. Obvious targets are heavyweight Photoshop application users – those who work in 3D CAD and model visualisation. The availability of a handful of key applications in this space will make a huge difference in those vertical markets.

For more mainstream users, it’s hard to get overwhelmingly excited in the short term. On the one hand, you do gain some technical niceties, but the downside is that hardware driver support still isn’t complete. On our test AMD64 desktop machine, fitted with the Gigabyte K8NNXP-940 motherboard and an AMD64 FX processor, there was no driver support for the onboard sound chipset. It was the same story with the SATA RAID controller – the Gigabyte website shows no signs of any Windows XP 64-bit drivers yet.

Gamers may be interested in XP x64, as it gives them a chance to cram their machines with vast quantities of RAM, enhancing playability and graphics performance. It isn’t yet a pressing reason to upgrade though – how many gamers currently have more than 2GB of RAM in their desktop machines? That, and the small number of titles supporting 64-bit (although, notably, Far Cry is among them) makes it somewhat less than vital.

For the average office user too, there’s little or no benefit. Office 2003 32-bit works just fine on XP x64, but brings nothing special to the party. A 64-bit port would be interesting, but wouldn’t actually bring any meaningful benefit. Excel could easily use 64-bit power and memory addressing, but there are fundamental issues with the row/column limits at present before this could become a workable upgrade.

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