Compatibility of 32-bit Programs on 64-bit Vista

Compatibility of 32-bit Programs on 64-bit Vista Windows Vista 32 64-bit Compatibility

One nagging worry with installing the 64-bit version of Windows Vista is will it run old 32-bit programs.  I would like to reassure you that in 99% of cases the answer is, ‘Yes you can run your much-loved applications on a 64-bit processor’. 

Topics for 32-bit 64-bit Vista Compatibility


History of WoW (Windows on Windows)

Old-timers may remember similar compatibility concerns when transferring 16-bit programs from WfW (Windows for Workgroups) to Windows 95.  Indeed, the 32-bit emulation layer provided by Vista’s WoW64 (Windows on Windows 64), is remarkably similar to WoW32 used a generation earlier by Windows 95’s 16-bit emulation.

Incidentally, while Microsoft released a 64-bit version of XP, it was really a novelty edition that few people actually installed.  What’s different about Vista is the greater availability of 64-bit hardware, and there are more 64-bit drivers.

Advantages of 64-bit Vista

As of the summer of 2008, there are not very many advantages of a 64-bit desktop for ordinary users.  Programs that rely on intensive calculation will benefit, but even there, 64-bit applications run only 10% faster than their 32-bit counterparts.

The main reason for investing in a 64-bit processor is that it makes your new computer future-proof.  32-bit operating systems can only address 4 GB of address space, whereas 64-bit can address at least 128 GB and maybe as much as 16 Terabytes.  It is only natural that in the next few years more and more software will be released to take advantage of this extra address space. 

Strangely, I cannot see a 64-bit version of Microsoft Office on the horizon; however, the 32-bit version runs fine on 64-bit Vista (or XP).  This just re-enforces the view that the real beneficiaries of a 64-bit platform are database servers.

Disadvantages of 64-bit Vista

In 2007 manufactures seemed in no hurry to compile 64-bit drivers for their hardware.  However, in 2008 they realized that 64-bit drivers are the way of the future, and more and more 64-bit drivers are appearing on the web. 

Some of us have made mistakes through buying non-certified kit, and consequently have suffered compatibility problems, for example, the BIOS does not support Hyper-V.  Many of us, including me, should have known better because we fought similar battles when transitioning from WfW to Windows 95.  The reason so many get ambushed is because ordering CERTIFIED hardware has become less important in the intervening years, as a result, we have forgotten those old compatibility lessons. 

What happens is that battle lines are drawn up, the manufacturers blame Microsoft, and Microsoft will tell you to badger the hardware supplier for the drivers.  You will be stuck in the middle.

The only way to win these driver wars is to avoid them.  I’ know it’s easy to say, but the answer really is to buy new kit only if it has the ‘Certified for Windows Vista’ sticker, if possible avoid the ‘Works with Vista’ logo, that translates to:  ‘Runs Vista but you don’t get the Aero graphics’. 

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64-bit Programs and Drivers

 Programs cost money, come on a CD, and usually have product keys; whereas drivers are free, and are best downloaded from the hardware manufacturer’s site.

When in comes to interacting with a 64-bit operating system, programs and drivers are like chalk and cheese.  Although I keep saying most 32-bit programs do work on 64-bit operating systems, many software companies will tell you, ‘Our utility is not supported on 64-bit systems’, and give the impression that it won’t work.  Whereas most hardware companies pretend their is no problem with a 32-bit driver for a 64-bit operating system, or they say a new driver will released next week, oh sorry next month, Ok maybe next year.  Incidentally, 32-bit programs or drivers are often referred to as x86.

Drivers are like jockeys, they ride the hardware devices.  Just as flat jockeys dislike jumping over hurdles or fences, so 32-bit drivers complain about driving 64-bit hardware.  Printers, graphic cards, and sound cards all need special 64-bit drivers.  When I installed a 64-bit version of Vista I was able to keep my old printer and my old monitor, but I did have trouble configuring the correct 64-bit drivers.

Software programs are shielded from the 64-bit architecture by the operating system; consequently, thanks to WoW64, there is a good chance of compatibility.  Guy bets your old 32-bit program will work on 64-bit Vista.  However, I did lose a foolish bet that Edlin would run on my 64-bit Windows Server 2008.  As Edlin is a 16-bit program that it failed should have been surprise.  As I write this, my old fiend ‘Barking’ Eddie is working on a compiler to get this 1980’s command-line editor working on 64-bit systems.  Why is Eddie doing this? – Nobody knows!

The Secret Compatibility Factor

Programs must be installed afresh on your 64-bit Vista computer; just copying and pasting an application’s files from an old 32-bit computer gives the illusion of incompatibility.  What I find is that if you let the 64-bit operating system handle the installation from scratch, then its built-in emulation deals with 32-bit programs easily. 

The secret factor is that when 64-bit systems were designed, they knew that 32-bit compatibility would be an important requirement, thus the operating system is literally programmed to deal with installing programs that were designed with 32-bit operating systems in mind.  One encouraging sign is that Vista has a special folder called ‘Program Files (x86)’.  This is an addition to the plain ‘Program Files’ folder for 64-bit programs.

Vista 64-bit Practicalities

When you buy Microsoft’s Windows Vista, there are just two species of DVD, what could those be?  Home and office?  No.  Basic and ultimate? No.  One DVD is for 64-bit processors, while the other is for 32-bit processors.  Which of the six edition you end up with depends solely on the Product Key you type in during setup (or when upgrading).

To illustrate the point, I ordered a 64-bit 120 day evaluation copy of Windows Server 2008, just because it was on a bootable DVD.  On installation I typed in a genuine Product Key which I obtained from my MSDN subscription, now I have a fully functional, legitimate Windows Server 2008 operating system.

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Case Study

Compatibility of 64-bit Printers with 32-bit Clients

I had enormous difficulties with 32-bit clients connecting to a printer shared from 64-bit Windows server.  In the end I got the drivers to work, but it was a tortuous route.

Problem.  While the Windows Server 2008 server appeared to allow me to install additional 32-bit drivers, the procedure to ‘Copy files from:’ just would not complete.  This maybe because I pointed the installation at 32-bit drivers, which were not digitally signed.

Solution.  I solved this bizarre problem from the client side.  Firstly, I installed the exact same LaserJet printer locally on the 32-bit Vista client.  Then on that client, I added the 64-bit driver from the properties of the printer object.  This worked, even thought the mirror image of installing the 32-bit driver would not work on the 64-bit Windows Server.

The miraculous part was when I created a network printer on the 32-bit client.  What seemed to happen was that at that instant the 64-bit drivers were copied up to the server from the client.  As a result, all the other 32-bit clients could now map to the exact same LaserJet printer on the 64-bit Windows Server.  In the process of mapping the 32-bit drivers were copied from the 64-bit print server locally to the 32-bit client.

Apologies if I am losing you in the fine details here, but my point is that while it was challenging, I managed to get 32-bit clients printing on a 64-bit server.

Summary of Windows 64-bit Vista Compatibility

The key factor with 64-bit Windows operating systems is drivers for the hardware.  To avoid pitfalls, make sure that your new computer is ‘Certified for Windows Vista’.  Reassuringly, 99% of your 32-bit programs will run without a problem thanks to the Wow64 component.  However, 32-bit drivers have no chance of working on a 64-bit processor. 

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