Are You Singing the Windows 7 64-Bit OS Blues?

Have you noticed that the 64-bit version of Windows 7 seems to have become the dominate offering by computer manufacturers? Small business computers with a 64-bit OS can now be equipped with six, 12 or even 16GB of memory. This is a big improvement over the 32-bit version of Windows 7, which has a maximum memory cap of 4GB. In addition, applications written to take advantage of the new 64-bit architecture, such as Photoshop, should be noticeably faster.

In spite of these improvements, however, the leap to a 64-bit platform isn’t necessarily going to be a smooth one. Some older hardware and software might not run on the 64-bit version of Windows 7. Perfectly good equipment, such as printers and scanners, can suddenly become useless, and software packages that have been running reliably for years could become incompatible or unstable overnight.

While there are definitely advantages to using a 64-bit OS, for many small business that rely on older equipment and out-of-date or specialized applications, resolving these issues can become incredibly frustrating and expensive.

Compatibility Glitches in Windows 7 64-Bit OS

A client contacted me recently to install two new PCs to replace his Windows Vista systems. The system was equipped with an Intel Core i3 processor, a 1TB hard drive, Gigabit Ethernet and 8GB of memory (expandable to 16GB) and of course, the 64-bit version of Windows 7.

During setup, we discovered that the proprietary software he uses to manage patients would not run under the 64-bit OS. Plus, HP did not offer any native 64-bit print drivers that would enable all of the functions of his two HP LaserJet 3055 all-in-one network printers. The machines could print, but they would not scan or fax.

Unfortunately there’s no elegant solution to this dilemma. I know of only three ways to resolve this issue, and each involves throwing various amounts of time and money at the problem. You’ll have to decide which works best for you.

A 64-bit Upgrade: Hardware and Software

The most obvious (and expensive) solution is to replace the hardware or software in question. If you have an old parallel printer or some outdated piece of software like Office 2000 or Print Artist 4.0, then maybe you should take this opportunity to look into an upgrade. It will cost you a few bucks now, but in the long run you’ll be ahead of the game.

However, if you have a situation like my client who uses multiple printers or proprietary software, then this option isn’t practical. Replacing the two printers would cost more than $800. Plus, specialized applications are not only expensive, but transferring them to a completely different system can be a tremendous undertaking.

The 32-Bit Downgrade: Losing your Memory

The next option is to downgrade back to a 32-bit version of Windows. On the surface this might seem like the best solution, but this isn’t as easy as it sounds. First you’ll need to purchase a 32-bit copy of Windows and depending on which version you want, it could cost you a few hundred dollars.

What’s more, you can’t go from a 64-bit OS to a 32-bit OS. So if you choose to downgrade, you’ll need to redo the entire system. The biggest hindrance is that many of the new systems that ship with the 64-bit version of Windows 7 preinstalled don’t have 32-bit drivers available for download.

So after the downgrade, there’s a good chance that some of your new PC’s hardware, like the network or audio adapters, might not work. In some cases though, you might be able to locate compatible drivers from the part manufacturer or perhaps even swap out the problem part altogether.

Even if you succeed in downgrading your unit to 32-bit, it’s still something of a shallow victory. Since the 32-bit version of Windows can only address 4GB of memory, any additional memory included with your PC will now be unavailable. If you need more then 4GB of ram, the 64-bit version is your only option.

Create a Virtual Machine

If replacing the problem hardware and software isn’t an option, if you’re unable to downgrade your system, or if you want to use all the memory you paid for, then the only option left is to create a 32-bit Windows virtual machine (VM).

A virtual machine is a computer system that is implemented in software rather than hardware; it runs its own operating system in an isolated environment that behaves like a separate computer. Or to look at it another way, it’s a technique that lets you operate two or more completely independent PCs, simultaneously, on one physical computer. 

There are a variety of ways to create a virtual machine. Some versions of Windows even have this capability built-in. Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate support a feature called Windows XP Mode, which runs in a separate window on the Windows 7 desktop, much like a program, except it’s a fully functional version of Windows XP.

In Windows XP Mode, you can access your physical computer’s CD/DVD drive, install programs, save files and perform other tasks as if you were using a computer running Windows XP. My colleague Joe Moran wrote an article describing how to install and use Windows XP mode in Windows 7 If you’re interested in this approach, I recommend checking it out.

If you’re not using one of the aforementioned versions of Windows or would like to run an operating system other than Windows XP, then you’ll need to create your VM using a third-party application. For home users, I recommend VMware Player. This software lets you easily create and run virtual machines, using almost any operating system available.

The VMware Player is free for personal and non-commercial use, so small businesses need another solution. I recommend VMware Workstation. It’s a bit pricey at $189, but it’s one of the best, feature-rich VM applications available. Another outstanding package is the more reasonably priced Parallels Desktop for $79.99. Both of these products offer free trails for evaluation.

As with the other options listed here there are drawbacks to using a VM. The VM is essentially a second computer, you need to boot it up before you can use the device or application you need. This makes a simple process like scanning a document feel overly arduous, especially if you happen to be in a hurry. In addition, your regular desktop might start to feel a bit sluggish while the VM is running, since your sharing memory and processor cycles.

Ronald V. Pacchiano is a systems integrator and technology specialist with expertise in Windows server management, desktop support and network administration. He is also an accomplished technology journalist and a contributing writer for Small Business Computing.

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