GeekTech: Adventures in 64-Bit Computing

I recently built my first-ever 64-bit desktop computer using Microsoft's new Windows XP Professional x64 Edition. Things went pretty smoothly overall, and the operating system seems to be running just fine. I do, however, find the 64-bit PC's inability to generate sound or protect itself from viruses a bit annoying. But hey, nobody said progress would always be pretty, right?

So why is my PC mute and open to virus attack? Two separate but equally important issues that I suspect will plague most early 64-bit Windows adopters: A lack of 64-bit hardware drivers, and a dearth of true 64-bit apps for the desktop.

Frankly, I expected to run into both issues. I can live without sound for a while--although it makes testing Apple's ITunes on the 64-bit system rather tricky. However, I didn't think I'd find myself running a PC with no virus protection for the first time in years.

The Setup

I installed the x64 Edition on a freshly built PC based upon Shuttle's powerful (but noisy) XPC SN25P barebones package and an AMD Athlon 64 3500+ processor.

Microsoft is offering the new OS for free (plus $12 shipping) to anybody who purchased the 32-bit version of Windows XP Professional for their home-built, 64-bit capable PCs between March 31, 2003 and June 30, 2005; if you're running XP Home you have to upgrade to XP Pro first to get the x64 Edition.

Sign up at the Microsoft Web site (be prepared to enter your Certificate of Authenticity code) and the company will ship you the CD. You have through July 30 to get the free update. But be warned: When you install the new OS you forfeit your license to the 32-bit software, and Microsoft deactivates its product key. Incidentally, if you bought a 64-bit-capable PC from a vendor like Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft says you'll have to get your upgrade from the PC vendor, and notes that it may void your PC's warranty.

Installing the x64 Edition is straightforward; and the OS's interface looks just like standard XP Pro to my eyes. In fact, the installation went so well I must have started to get cocky. I even made it through a few driver installations before I hit my sound chip snag.

By the way, if right about now you're wondering, "why on earth would I bother to upgrade to 64 bits?" you should check out my January column on the topic. Also read my big-picture piece on the eventual advantages of moving from 32 to 64 bits. HardOCP also posted a pretty interesting article that compares the performance of today's PC games when run on 32-bit and 64-bit systems.

Video, But No Audio

If you're seriously considering an upgrade to x64, understand this: You will have to install beta drivers on your PC. Sometimes that's not so bad: For example, NVidia's site made it remarkably easy to download and install the necessary beta drivers for the Shuttle's NForce 4 chip set. The drivers seemed to install and work flawlessly. And NVidia's graphics drivers for my 6600GT EVGA graphics card were already final when I downloaded and installed them.

Adding sound to the equation, however, proved more problematic. After only a few minutes of searching, I thought I was in luck when I turned up a 64-bit driver for the Shuttle's Via Envy audio chip. I downloaded the driver from ViaArena (Via's tech support site), and went about installing it.

The installation routine ran, appearing to load the driver. But afterwards, there was still no sound. A quick check in the Device Manager showed there was still a problem with the driver. (You can find the Device Manager by opening the Control Panel, clicking System, and selecting the Hardware tab in the System Properties dialog box.) So I ran it again--and when that failed, I tried one more time for good luck. No go.

I contacted Via about the driver: The company says it's actually a beta version, though it should work. The final driver is ready to go, but Via is currently awaiting WHQL Certification for the driver before releasing it sometime in May. I can't blame the company for waiting, but I sure could go for some music to cover up the roar of the Shuttle's numerous system fans.

The AV Issue

After conceding temporary defeat regarding the Via drivers, I went about my typical new-PC routine and installed the smattering of small, downloadable apps I use on a regular basis. Everything seemed to run fine--from my favorite little password program, Anypassword; to ZoneLab's ZoneAlarm firewall; to Mozilla's Firefox browser. My semi-enlightened observation is that the x64 Edition seems quite adept at running most 32-bit applications.

The key word here is most.

For example, the new OS will not run today's 32-bit antivirus apps. In fact, it won't even let you install them. When I tried to install the free beta version of Symantec's Norton Internet Security 2005 Spyware Edition, I received a dialog box that kindly explained I would be doing no such thing. That's because an app like this requires real, honest-to-goodness 64-bit drivers--Windows can't fake it with emulation.

Fine, so I'll just go out and buy the 64-bit version of Symantec's latest home office/small office virus buster, right? Wrong. It turns out that Symantec is currently offering 64-bit support only in version 10 of its new AntiVirus Corporate Edition. As an individual, that does me little good.

I asked a Symantec spokesperson when the company might get around to offering a 64-bit app for the rest of us. She said, "Symantec has not announced its plans yet. The company will be monitoring the adoption of x64 very closely and will ensure that it delivers the right solutions at the right time to meet its customers' security needs."

And Symantec isn't the only company dragging its feet on the 64-bit question. According to Vnunet.com, other vendors are taking a wait-and-see attitude, too.

In the meantime, I guess I'll just have to bank on my good looks and unstoppable charm to keep viruses off this spankin' new desktop.

I think I'm in trouble.

Tom Mainelli wonders if his 32-bit quips will still run in a 64-bit world. Drop him a line.
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