Microsoft intros Windows XP Pro 64-bit, offers free upgrade

Seattle (WA) - Microsoft officially launched the 64-bit client version of Windows XP professional today at WinHEC and announced that it will offer users of 64-bit processors and the 32-bit XP Pro a free upgrade to the new operating system. Chairman Bill Gates will open the conference today and provide updates on the next-gen Windows Longhorn.

It took Microsoft more than ten years to move its consumer desktop operating system from 32-bit to 64-bit, but today the wait is officially over. With the arrival of the "Windows XP Professional x64 Edition", users are able for the first time to take advantage of their Athlon64-based PCs, if they have not been using one of the numerous pre-releases of the operating system. Bill Gates will introduce the client software as well as the server versions 2003 Enterprise x64 and 2003 Datacenter x64 during his opening keynote today at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC).

Microsoft will not be offering the new Windows in a typical retail box, but rather sell the software to system builders and distributors in an OEM package that simply comes with a CD and a certificate of authenticity and carries a price that is on par with the 32-bit software. However, the big surprise is that Microsoft will offer users, who own a PC with a 64-bit processor and run the 32-bit Windows XP Pro, a free upgrade from the old to the new software . According to product manager Brian Marr, users will just have to pay for shipping and handling.

If you are already thinking about dumping your old XP from your PC, hold on. Of course, there is a reason why Microsoft offers the software for free. According to Marr, Microsoft intends to "honor the early adopters with the program" - those people who purchased a 64-bit PC during the past two years. Here’s the catch : First, you are giving up your right to use the 32-bit operating system in exchange. Second, if you were in the first wave of users making the switch from Windows 3.11 to Windows 95, you probably remember those nasty driver problems haunting users for months. The same can be expected this time : "Drivers out there are not yet mature enough for 64-bit in the mainstream," Marr said. So, if you are running a range of peripherals on your PC and depend on them, you may want to think twice, if you switch right away. According to Microsoft, the new XP does not support 32-bit device drivers and will not run any 16-bit applications that may be left on your desk from the ages of Windows 3.1.

This also explains why there is no 64-bit Home XP at this time and why Microsoft keeps the 64-bit version away from retail stores : "We do not want folks to walk into a store and buy and install this software just because they think 64-bit is better than 32-bit," explained lead product manager Greg Sullivan in a conversation with Tom’s Hardware Guide. Accordingly, the software is aimed initially at high-end users, including enthusiasts, decision makers, IT professionals and developers. Sullivan believes these user groups represent about four percent of the client market, which translates in about six two eight million users worldwide.

If you belong to one of these user groups or have been running one of the pre-releases of the software anyway, then taking advantage of Microsoft offer makes sense, of course. Microsoft promises performance enhancements that can reach up to 40 percent with native 64-bit applications. 32-bit applications typically are a few percent faster or slower running under the 64-bit operating system. Marr also said the software would deliver a reliability of 99.999 percent - or about five minutes of downtime during continuous operation per year. Other advantages include up to 16 TByte memory addressability and support for up to 128 GByte physical memory. Microsoft’s expects mainstream adoption of the 64-bit Windows to happen in 2006 with the release of Longhorn.

Despite the release of the 64-bit software, WinHEC will mainly focus on Longhorn - that will make its debut as 32-bit and 64-bit version. Attendees will receive not only an updated roadmap, information on new functionality, but also an up-to-date developer preview of the software. A beta 1 of Longhorn is expected by summer of this year, September will see a PDC and the second beta will follow shortly after that. Sullivan declined to comment on a final release date, but mentioned that a release candidate would be published in 2006 before the software’s debut.

Gates will use his keynote to highlight some of Longhorn’s features, include a system, assessment tool that scans hardware in a system and configure the operating system itself accordingly. For example, "cool graphics" will be offered when a capable graphics card is available, otherwise graphics and animations are scaled back. "So far an operating system is more like an all or nothing experience. Longhorn will configure itself more like the games do it today," Sullivan explained. For the first time, Microsoft will also outline the hardware that it feels is best suited for running Longhorn in the framework of the "Longhorn Ready PC Program". This program for example calls for a fairly new discreet graphics card and 512 MByte main memory. This for example excludes notebooks with integrated chipset, but Sullivan said these devices will still run the operating system.

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Windows XP Pro x64 hits Japanese store shelves

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