Virtuous Vista – Taking the x64 Plunge

Some recent hardware upgrades left one of my PCs in a fragile state: While I had managed to avoid the time sucking irritation of an OS reinstall over generations of hardware changes, the latest hardware swaps — or rather wholesale migrations — pushed the crufty stack of refusing-to-vacate legacy drivers and confused minibuses over the edge.

It had become a fragile platform, with frequent crashes and unexplained behaviour.

Not surprising, given that the OS install had seen the platform go through a myriad of trasitions, including from a VIA chipset to an nforce chipset to a VIA chipset and then back to an nforce chipset; from nvidia to ATI to nvidia graphics.

Really it had dealt with change remarkably well, at least relative to the tradition of Windows being tightly bound to the installation hardware, with the slightest deviation demanding a reinstall.

Like many users, I’d been avoiding Vista. Actually that isn’t entirely true: It wasn’t that I was avoiding Vista, but rather that the benefits it offered just weren’t compelling. Not compelling enough to reinstall a working system, or even to deal with the inevitable dev team just had to move stuff around to set their fingerprint search for traditional features.

When Flip 3D is a highlighted feature, you know that things can’t be that great.

Nonetheless, given that a rebuild was in order anyways, and given that a professional in this field should generally ride the leading the edge of technology (though nothing like the days of old — once upon a time we had to eagerly consume every Microsoft beta as a necessity for job security, whereas nowadays technologies like WPF are a complete and utter non-issue in the general tech industry), I figured I’d force myself to embrace Vista, warts and all.

I’d eat my industry’s dog food.

To make things more interesting, I decided to go full bore and install the x64 version of Vista. I had a fully 64-bit capable processor, and despite only having 2GB of RAM (with two slots eagerly waiting to be populated), it would nonetheless allow me to start playing around with the extended x64 instructions and registers.

x64 is much, much more than just bigger pointers, so I wanted to play around with them in my favourite development environment (like many such transitions, it will take a few years before the benefits of x64 are fully realized, though in the .NET world the 64-bit runtime immediately takes advantage of the new features for platform neutral assemblies.)

The install and transition went very well. While I had to disable UAC quickly to make the experience marginally pleasant (I’d experienced Vista enough in dual-boots and virtual machines to quickly learn to despise this security “feature”), generally it just went well.

On the modern nforce4-based motherboard (featuring onboard sound and networking, all drivers installed by the single package of nvidia drivers), with a Q6600 quad-core processor and contemporary nvidia video card, everything simply worked after running a couple of driver packages. Even my dual-layer DVD burner just worked. All of the attached Canon printers, including the multifunction with faxing and scanning, auto-installed and immediately worked. Visual Studio 2005 worked great with the Vista patch, and while it’s a 32-bit app it capably generates great 64-bit builds. Awesome!

Now I had IIS 7 to play around with, getting ready for the same in the server sphere. The integrated pipeline and web.config based configuration really is a wonderful step forward for the platform.

Several things didn’t work. CameraWindow won’t work with my Canon Digital Rebel XT, though by switching to PictBridge on the camera I found that Vista itself did a great job downloading and organizing the photos (and Windows Photo Gallery is a universe better than the terrible “Picture and Fax Viewer”, not just for navigating and organizing photos, but moreso because the venerable XP viewer did a horrible job resizing photos for display at monitor resolutions, managing to make great shots look terrible). The bundled burning software that came with my DVD drive wouldn’t install, but I was delighted to find that Vista actually had pretty decent burning capabilities built in, competently writing 9GB backups to my DL discs.

I hadn’t really exploited the benefits of the 64-bit address space at this point, but then I booted up a copy of Battlefield 2 for some late night mental-diversion fragging.

Imagine my surprise when this game that ran very well on a vastly less powerful 1GB XP system now yielded frequent stutters while significant memory paging occurred. Despite having twice the RAM to draw from in the rebuilt machine (if you add in the system baseline, it really had about 2.7x as much RAM to draw from), somehow it was now hitting the ceiling on a machine that was almost completely dedicated to it.

So I grabbed 2GB more PC6400 DDR2 from a local retailer, plugged it in, and with 4GB everything is running pretty smoothly. Another $120 to upgrade the memory to have the same experience that I had with 1/4 the memory in XP.

Vista was hardly a surprise to me given that I’d been playing with it in various forms since the Longhorn days, and the technical feature list is entirely underwhelming compared to the early vaporware promises, however it isn’t the travesty many are making it out to be. While it definitely needs work, it isn’t going anywhere, and Microsoft isn’t going to rollback to XP.

If you have modern, supported hardware, Vista x64 is a solid choice.