A Whirlwind Tour of Windows Editions

I picked up a new system this week, an Athlon 64 X2 based system. 

I’ve been planning to buy a new system for a while now, and major criteria were 64 bit, and dual core.  AMD’s offering seems to be a bit ahead of what Intel has today, so while an Intel Pentium D 820 system would have cut it, I decided to go for the Athlon.

Costco has a deal on an HP Pavilion system, that comes pretty close to what I was looking to build myself.  The a1357c-b system comes with an Athlon 64 X2 4200+, 250 gig disk, 1 gig RAM, a DVD burner with LightScribe (which I’ve always wanted to try), a 19” LCD monitor, and a few other goodies, for $1399.  Pricing out an equivalent custom-built system from a local PC builder’s online pricing tool shows that buying HP’s preconfigured system is actually cheaper than building it from parts, so I went that route.

One of the things I wanted in a PC is a quiet case, like the Antec Sonata cases.  The Pavilion case is definitely quiet – in fact, in the room where I have it set up, there is also a Sonata based system, and the Pavilion is actually quieter.  I attribute some of this to the more aggressive power management in the newer systems.

Part of this power management actually threw me for a loop when I first checked out my new system:  Running the systeminfo.exe command in Windows XP reported that I had a ~984 Mhz processor.  But as it turns out, the processor just runs slower when it can, so giving the system some work to do and running systeminfo again showed me ~2188 Mhz, the correct number.

Anyway, the point of this post is the Windows tour I went on with this new system. 

Windows XP Media Center Edition

The system came with Windows XP Media Center Edition, which is a fine OS.  It’s basically Windows XP with a number of extra tools and the Media Center application that lets you watch TV and browse your media.

I never understood why MCE was a whole separate OS release rather than a pack of stuff you install on top of XP.  The underlying OS is simply XP, but one of its limitations is that it cannot join a domain . I have a domain at home, so this meant installing a new OS. 

The first OS I tried to replace it with is….

Vista

The current Vista build I tried on it installed no problem, but when it booted up, there was no video.  The system was actually alive – I could use the keyboard to do things and I could see disk activity when I was doing them, so I know it was responding, but I couldn’t see anything.  Booting into a command prompt worked, but Safe Mode didn’t work.  I don’t understand that..

I’m guessing there’s an incompatibility between Vista and the ATI Radeon X200 motherboard chipset that this system uses, but I don’t really know.  I did manage to download and install ATI’s Vista-compatible Catalyst driver, but that just led to a bluescreen on boot.

The HP comes with System Restore support in the BIOS and a 10 gig partition that holds a recovery image.  Presumably the BIOS knows how to restore the original XP MCE from this image, or launch some software on this image that does the restore.

I say presumably because installing Vista apparently broke that capability.  The BIOS still tells me to Press F10 at boot for System Restore, but pressing F10 doesn’t do anything.  I have no way of getting back my original OS, the XP MCE license that I paid for with my system.  The system didn’t include any CDs, nor a product key. 

Oh well.  Moving on…

Windows 2003 Server R2, 64 Bit Edition

One of the joys of MSDN Universal is access to every edition of Windows.  My new system has a 64 bit CPU, so why not try a 64 bit OS?

Turns out that’s an easy question to answer.  Win64 installed no problem, but once the installation was complete, and I started configuring the system, I realized the pickle I was in.

Turns out you need 64 bit drivers for things like printers in a 64 bit OS, and support from hardware manufacturers is spotty.  Quite a few of the peripherals and gadgets I have around here don’t have 64 bit drivers. 

On top of this, benchmark sites that compare Win32 and Win64 generally find that Win64 is a bit slower than Win32 except in cases where you’re running software that’s specifically designed to take advantage of the 64 bit architecture.

On top of that, there’s this segregation of Program Files on the x64 OS that I didn’t much like:  “Program Files” is for 64 bit programs, and “Program Files (x86)” is for 32 bit programs.  This just makes finding things more difficult when you’re hunting down the EXE to open a particular file with – you have to know whether it’s a 32 bit or 64 bit app.

So really, there isn’t much reason to stick with a 64 bit OS.  So after a couple of days, I moved on to…

Windows XP Professional

Yes, back to the old standby.  I am looking forward to upgrading to Vista at some point, but I think I’ll wait until my hardware actually shows up on the compatibility list for Vista.

I still had to play hunt-the-driver to find drivers for the hardware in the box that were included in the preinstalled OS but aren’t available separately.  Fortunately HP’s online support has a “chat with a technician” option that worked, and the technician gave me links to the drivers I needed.