64-Bit Takes Off

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Sneak Peek: Windows XP 64-Bit Edition

64-bit Windows XP keeps some of 32-bit XP's look, such as a two-column Start menu.
64-bit Windows XP keeps some of 32-bit XP's look, such as a two-column Start menu.
Although the first 64-bit Athlon PCs will ship with a standard Windows XP (a 32-bit operating system), a version of the OS that can fully harness the new chip's power is on its way: Windows XP 64-Bit Edition is in beta testing, and Microsoft expects to ship the OS in the first quarter of 2004.

(Note: Although the new OS bears the same name as the 64-bit version of Windows for Intel's Itanium platform, the two OSs are not interchangeable and do not have the same features.)

But upgrading to XP 64 could mean giving up functionality without getting much in return. In fact, XP 64 looks like a throwback to Windows past: Its interface mirrors that of Windows 2000 or even Win 98. Microsoft has not disclosed what else will be in the OS, so it is possible that you'll still get most of XP's other features.

XP 64 won't have the 32-bit XP's support for DOS apps at all, nor will it run 16-bit apps (but it should have no trouble with 32-bit software). More important, 64-bit drivers for common hardware, such as printers, will be scarce when the OS debuts.

"People should not expect to take all of their existing hardware, get one of these 64-bit systems [both OS and PC], and get everything to run," says Greg Sullivan, Windows XP lead product manager. However, as with previous Windows releases, there will be some drivers bundled with the OS.

Expect no big marketing displays at your local CompUSA for this Windows' debut: It will be an option for new PCs once it ships, but it won't be offered at retail. Sullivan says Microsoft is working on ways to distribute it to users who buy early 64-bit PCs (most likely via a CD, and not free).

What about the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn? When it arrives (unlikely before 2005), Longhorn will also come in 32- and 64-bit flavors, but even then the 64-bit version may not be offered at retail.

After the new OS launches, the transition to full 64-bit computing will likely take far longer. That's because XP 64 will benefit only those users who have 64-bit applications--which won't be in great supply, at least for the next couple of years.

Among the first 64-bit consumer apps will be high-end games such as Unreal Tournament 2003 (via a patch developer Epic Games planned to make available at Athlon 64's launch) and video encoders such as DivXNetworks' Dr. DivX (due shortly after the Athlon 64 launch; it should be bundled with higher-end Athlon 64 PCs). Accordingly, Microsoft is working hard with video-capture-card and joystick vendors to develop 64-bit drivers for their gear.

But even users who get XP 64 and the Unreal patch won't see much of a difference from the 32-bit version of the game. Tim Sweeney, Epic Games' founder and lead programmer, says the true benefits of 64-bit computing will be fully exploited only in a new generation of games (including the next Unreal) that won't ship until 2005.

IDC analyst Roger Kay says it will take at least 18 months for new apps and lower hardware prices to make a 64-bit desktop OS mainstream. "Give it time," he counsels.

Yardena Arar

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