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Windows Vista and hardware drivers: Beware the 64-bit hardware barrier

When Windows 3.1 gave way to Windows 95, one of the things Microsoft agonized over was how to handle hardware drivers. In the end, the company compromised and allowed older 16-bit drivers to be used in Windows side-by-side with the newer 32-bit drivers. The move was technically questionable, but it allowed for a more graceful transition from one platform to the next.

By the time XP rolled around, 32-bit drivers had become a standard-issue item, so moving to an all-32-bit edition of Windows wasn't much of a stretch. Now comes Vista, in both 32- and 64-bit editions —a move that also has profound implications for how device drivers are handled in both operating systems.

Vista can accept XP-style 32-bit device drivers for many pieces of hardware, especially hardware that doesn't explicitly have a Vista driver. For instance, my Canon N1240U consumer-grade USB scanner didn't have a Vista driver, but I was able to get it running fine under Vista by adding the Windows XP 32-bit Windows Image Acquisition driver for it. I just had to make sure that when I installed the driver, I did so with administrative permissions.

The caveat here is that I was using the 32-bit version of Vista. If I'd elected to use the 64-bit edition of Vista, I would have run into a problem: the 32-bit and 64-bit editions of Windows cannot use each other's device drivers. This was and still is one of the stumbling blocks preventing widespread acceptance of 64-bit Windows -- XP in particular -- because 64-bit drivers are still scarce.

If 64-bit Vista (and XP) are so problematic with their hardware support, why use them? For one, only 32-bit Windows can comfortably make use of up to 2GB to 4GB of memory. And 64-bit Windows can make use of 4GB, 8GB, 16GB and upward, without suffering from the same constraints.

People doing more than the usual word processing or data entry are going to benefit more in the long run by going 64-bit. Also, there are 32- and 64-bit sets of the drivers that come shipped with either operating system, so it's possible to get drivers for a fair amount of generic hardware out of the box. But the driver situation is, admittedly, nowhere near where it needs to be for 64-bit XP or Vista right now.

In short, if you're planning to make the leap to Vista -- or even 64-bit XP -- be doubly mindful of the hardware-driver issue. Many legacy devices will simply not have 64-bit drivers issued for them at all. My Canon scanner isn't being supported in this fashion. One way to work around this is to set up one machine with a 32-bit edition of Vista or XP as a device host, plug any unsupported devices into that computer, and use them there.

About the author: Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the Windows Insight, (formerly the Windows Power Users Newsletter), a blog site devoted to hints, tips, tricks and news for users and administrators of Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 and Vista. He has more than 12 years of Windows experience under his belt, and contributes regularly to SearchWinComputing.com and SearchSQLServer.com.

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