Understanding Windows Vista Compatibility Issues

Any discussion of PC compatibility, of course, encompasses two very different but related topics: hardware and software. In order for a given hardware device—a printer, graphics card, or whatever—to work correctly with Windows Vista, it needs a working driver. In many cases, drivers designed for older versions of Windows will actually work just fine in Windows Vista. However, depending on the class (or type) of device, many hardware devices need a new Vista-specific driver to function properly on Microsoft’s latest operating system.

Software offers similar challenges. While Windows Vista is largely compatible with the 32-bit software applications that Windows users have enjoyed for over a decade, some applications—and indeed, entire application classes, such as security software—simply won’t work properly in Windows Vista. Some applications can be made to work using Windows Vista’s built-in compatibility modes, as discussed below. Some can’t. A final compatibility issue that shouldn’t be overlooked is one raised by the ongoing migration to 64-bit (x64) computing. Virtually every single PC sold today does, in fact, include a 64-bit x64-compatible microprocessor, which means it is capable of running 64-bit versions of Windows Vista. However, virtually all copies of Windows Vista that are sold are the more mainstream 32-bit versions of the system

Hardware Compatibility
One of the best things about Windows has been that you could go into any electronics retailer, buy any hardware device in the store, bring it home, and know it would work. Conversely, one of the worst things about any new version of Windows is that the previous statement no longer applies. I recall wandering down the aisles of a Best Buy in Phoenix, Arizona, over a decade ago when Windows NT 4.0 first shipped, with a printed copy of the Windows NT Hardware Compatibility List (HCL) in my hand. I needed a network adapter but had to be sure I got one of the few models that worked in the then new NT 4.0 system. (In the end, I bought the side model that was compatible.)

Windows Vista users face a similar problem today, though there are some differences. First, there’s no HCL available anymore, at least not a public one, so you’re a bit more on your own when it comes to discovering what’s going to work. Second, Vista is already far more compatible with existing hardware than NT was back in the mid 1990s. Indeed, Microsoft claims that Windows Vista is actually more compatible with today’s hardware than Windows XP was when it first shipped back in 2001. Based on my testing and evidence provided by Microsoft, I believe this to be the case, though overblown tales of Vista’s compatibility issues burned up the blogosphere during its first year on the market.

I’ve tested Windows Vista over a period of years on a wide variety of systems, including several desktops (most of which use dual-core x64-compatible CPUs), Media Center PCs, notebook computers, Tablet PCs, and even two Ultra-Mobile PCs. Windows Vista’s out-of-the-box (OOTB) compatibility with the built-in devices on each system I’ve tested has been stellar. (In this case, OOTB refers to both the drivers that actually ship on the Windows Vista DVD as well as the drivers that are automatically installed via Automatic Updating the first time you boot into your new Windows Vista desktop.) On almost all of these systems, Windows Vista has found and installed drivers for every single device in or attached to the system. So much for all those storied compatibility shenanigans.

How about those fears that Vista’s high-end Windows Aero user interface requires hardware upgrades? Balderdash. On every single one of my systems, except for a 2002 era, first generation Toshiba Tablet PC that was slow the day it came out of the factory, Windows Aero is enabled by default and works just fine. This even includes systems with integrated graphics, the very types of systems that were supposed to cause all kinds of problems.

Where you might run into hardware issues is with older scanners, printers, and similar peripherals. My network-attached Dell laser printer wasn’t supported by Windows Vista– specific drivers until Service Pack 1 shipped. (It’s really a Lexmark printer in disguise, so I was able to get it up and running just fine using Lexmark drivers previous to SP1.) Ditto with an older HP Scanjet scanner: It wasn’t supported with Vista-specific drivers immediately in late 2006, but HP has since shown up with updated drivers that work just fine. An Epson photo printer has always worked just fine, and even uses Epson’s bizarre configuration utility—though I’ve never had to install the software manually myself.

TV-tuner hardware? It just works. Zune? Done. Apple’s iPods? They all work (even on x64 systems). Windows Media–compatible devices? Of course; they all connect seamlessly and even work with Vista’s Sync Center interface.

Software Compatibility
I regularly use and otherwise test what I feel is a representative collection of mostly modern software. This includes standard software applications—productivity solutions and the like—as well as games. I run a standard set of applications across most of my desktop and mobile PCs. I’ve also tested numerous video games to see how they fare under the initially shipped version of Windows Vista, as well as Vista with Service Pack 1. The results were largely positive: Not only do most Windows XP-compatible applications and games work just fine under Windows Vista, many pre-Vista games also integrate automatically into Vista’s new Games Explorer as well. Unless it’s a very new game designed specifically for Windows Vista, you won’t get performance information as you do with built-in games, but the game’s Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) rating is enough to enable parents to lock kids out of objectionable video games using Vista’s parental control features. It’s a nice touch.

Software-compatibility issues in Vista are likely to appear with very old applications that use 16-bit installers and with classes of applications—especially antivirus, antispyware, and other security solutions—that need to be rewritten to work within Vista’s new security controls. By mid 2007, compatibility issues with security software had all been resolved.

x64: Is It Time?
The one dark horse in the Windows Vista compatibility story is x64, the 64-bit hardware platform that we’re all using today (though few people realize it). The x64 platform is a miracle of sorts, at least from a technology standpoint, because it provides the best of both worlds: compatibility with virtually all of the 32-bit software that’s been created over the past 15 years combined with the increased capacity and resources that only true 64-bit platforms can provide.

When Windows Vista first debuted, x64 compatibility was a mixed bag. Hardware compatibility, surprisingly, was excellent, and virtually any hardware device that worked on 32-bit versions of Vista also worked fine on 64-bit versions. Software was another story. Too often, a critical software application simply wouldn’t install or work properly on 64-bit versions of Windows, making these versions a nonstarter for most.

Time, however, truly heals all wounds. A huge number of compatibility issues were fixed over Windows Vista’s first year on the market, and x64 versions of Windows Vista are now largely compatible, both from a hardware and software perspective, with anything that works with 32-bit versions of the system.

So, is it time? You’re getting there. And if you’re adventurous enough and technical enough, I think Vista x64 may be the right solution if you’re hamstrung by the 4GB memory limit of 32-bit versions of Vista. That said, even Microsoft has been surprised by the slow uptick of 64-bit versions of Windows Vista, so much so that the company reversed course and announced that the next version of Windows, dubbed Windows 7, would ship in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Originally, Windows 7 was going to be 64-bit only. Maybe it’s not time after all.

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