Microsoft Windows: An Overview
This page contains general information about Microsoft Windows including some of the technology common to most Windows versions. You'll find information about specific versions in the Windows section of the Self-help Resources index page as well as in the Related Resources section of this page.
New Windows User?
If you are new to Windows, you might want to have a look at the Windows Basics page to learn more about some of the terminology used on this site and others.
A Short History
The first widely-used version of Windows was Windows 3.1, which was a DOS (command-line operating system) add-on.
The Start Button Appears
Windows 95 gave us the Start button and most of the layout features that show up on Windows until Windows 8.
Windows Vista introduced Windows Aero transparency with larger icons, a result of more powerful hardware displaying on larger flat screen monitors.
Windows Vista greatly increased the security of Windows with bitlocker drive encryption, encrypting file system, shadow copy and the notoriously annoying User Account Control.
Windows 7 refined those security improvements and introduced new productivity features, restoring confidence in Windows for many users.
These units were largely 32-bit computers built for Windows XP and therefore unable to support the more demanding 64-bit Windows Vista. They suffered from poor performance and had a very limited lifespan.
Mobile Computing Emerges
Windows 8 saw Microsoft attempt to integrate the desktop operating system with a mobile computing environment. By offering poor support for the keyboard and mouse, they ignored the bulk of their previous client-base.
Modifications in Windows 8.1 restored some functionality, but it was too little, too late for many people who clung to Windows 7 until support expired.
Software as a Service
Microsoft took a different tack with Windows 10.
Realizing that much of the world was now using mobile technology, Windows 10 brought the mobile concept to desktop operating systems including the ability to move your work to and from mobile devices.
Windows 10 is Software as a Service rather than a traditional operating system and the licence is tied to the life of the device (much like cell phones).
Windows 11 is mostly like Windows 10, with a few improvements. The huge system requirements related to the need for a TPM and recent CPU. These appear to have more to do with forcing you to buy a new computer (vendors miss the “good old days” when you bought a new computer every 18 months or so) than providing a truly improved experience.
Windows comes in several versions, usually separated by chronological release date.
Windows 10 Editions
There are also Windows versions aimed primarily at the corporate world (enterprise) including Windows Server which was designed for small networks of computers sharing the same information.
Downgrade rights is the terminology Microsoft used to allow users to run an earlier version of Windows using the licence for the current version.
Determining which version of Microsoft software you have a right to run, known as your downgrade rights, depends on the channel through which the software was purchased; Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), Retail (FPP), or Volume Licensing (VL) and also when it was purchased.
— Microsoft TechNet
Only currently-supported versions of Windows are eligible for downgrade rights.
A device may not be able to run prior versions of Windows if the device hardware is incompatible, lacks current drivers, or is otherwise outside the original equipment manufacturer's (OEM) support period.
- Downgrade rights for Windows 10 — licensing how-to.
- Understanding downgrade rights.
- Downgrade Rights — Microsoft Download Center is a direct PDF download from the Microsoft Download Center.
Each generation of Windows is more demanding of hardware. Recent hardware is usually going to outperform older (legacy) hardware.
- All recent computers are capable of running 64-bit versions of Windows (or other operating systems).
- 64-bit hardware is capable of addressing vastly larger amounts of RAM so data is processed without storage of volatile information on the hard drive.
- Intel and AMD processors have multiple cores (mini-processors). These provide faster computing without huge increases in heat (a critical problem in laptops).
- Newer, more powerful, hardware is much more energy efficient.
- Display adapters have become much more powerful and capable of running much larger displays in brilliant colour — even modern digital TVs.
- Newer RAM is more efficient and less expensive than legacy models.
- A shift in boot environments from BIOS to UEFI sped up boot times.
New Hardware Performs Better
Windows 8 and 10 enhance touch capabilities (like on tablets and smart phones). Computing has become more tactile and less dependent upon mice and external keyboards.
We're not quite at the point where voice command is common as is showcased in Star Trek but Windows 10's Cortana has made voice commands much more practical in computers.
Earlier computers lacked built-in cameras and microphones, but these have become more common even in desktop systems.
32- or 64-bit?
Both current hardware and software is broken into 32- and 64-bit classes. The larger the number of bits the more information that can be simultaneously transferred.
32-bit software can run on 64-bit systems, but slows down processing. Think of the traffic slowdowns when a 4-lane highway merges into a 2-lane roadway.
With the demise of Windows XP and the proliferation of 64-bit hardware, the market for 64-bit applications and drivers has greatly improved. Only legacy hardware is 32-bit.
Not Everything Works in 64-bit
Most modern hardware is 64-bit running 64-bit versions of Windows. This means it requires 64-bit device drivers (software that talks to hardware devices) so a lot of older 32-bit hardware won't run in 64-bit environments at all.
Support for 32-bit software and drivers are fast disappearing and many legacy 32-bit programs no longer run in the 64-bit environment.
True 64-bit Computing is Here
Most modern software is designed with the advantages of 64-bit computing in mind.
Some software may be unavailable in 64-bit versions or may be labelled as 64-bit without taking advantage of the 64-bit architecture.
64-bit versions of browsers like Firefox and Chrome are faster and work better even with calls from 32-bit programs.
Fortunately the 32-bit plugins once required to view multimedia on the Web have been replaced with HTML5 technologies. This removed a significant barrier to the universal use of 64-bit browsers.
Check to see if you're still using 32-bit programs even though 64-bit versions are available (e.g., Firefox, Thunderbird, The Bat!, VLC Media Player, IrfanView).
64-bit hardware can address much more memory at a time. 64-bit software will only run on 64-bit hardware running a 64-bit operating system.
Even if the full benefits of certain 64-bit hardware or software are not available, the ability to address more RAM is a definite advantage and helps Windows to run faster in these environments.
Generally, a 64-bit version of Windows has the following advantages:
- 64-bit systems can see up to 128 GB of RAM (32-bit systems can install up to 4 GB but Windows can only “see” 2.75 GB to 3.5 GB).
- Programs written to take advantage of a 64-bit operating system run faster.
- 64-bit systems provide enhanced security features (like the requirement for digitally-signed device drivers).
Disadvantages of 32-bit Software on 64-bit Computers
64-bit Windows can currently still run most legacy 32-bit software, but hardware is more demanding:
- Not all hardware devices may be compatible with a 64-bit version of Windows.
- 32-bit device drivers are not supported.
- Unsigned device drivers won't install (for security reasons).
- 64-bit device drivers may not be available for legacy hardware devices (e.g., older USB scanners).
- It may be difficult to run legacy programs on a 64-bit operating system.
- Windows Vista was designed for 64-bit programs but changed the way settings were managed (i.e., see Pocomail's issues with Windows 7). This process has accelerated with Windows 10.
- Some older 32-bit programs may not run a 64-bit operating system at all or have issues.
- 64-bit addressing takes up more space.
Getting the Technical Details
The differences between 32- or 64-bit are slightly technical, but the following resources can help answer your questions:
- 32-bit and 64-bit Windows FAQ mostly applies to Windows 7.
- Wikipedia's 64-bit article covers the history as well as the technical architecture.
Windows Experience Rating
With Windows Vista, 7 and 8 Microsoft provided Windows Experience Rating, a tool to assess the hardware on a Windows computer. Various hardware elements are measured and rated (higher is better).
My desktop's Windows Experience Rating
Locating the Windows Experience Rating
Windows Experience Rating is shown in System within the Control Panel in Windows Vista, 7 and 8:
- Windows Vista, 7 and 8 users can right-click on Computer then select Properties to show System.
- Alternatively, click on Start ⇒ Control Panel ⇒ System.
- You can also search for System.
You'll also see other system information which includes the operating system, registration information and computer information.
Windows Experience Index Hidden in Windows 8.1 and 10
Windows Experience Index was removed from the System information in Windows 8.1 and 10.
- ChrisPC Win Experience Index, a third-party program, can restore that for you.
- More experienced users can open
C:\Windows\Performance\WinSat\DataStoreand look for the latest
Formal.Assessment.WinSATfile which contains the data you're looking for in an XML document.
Some of these methods may indicate incorrect values unless Windows Experience Index was run on the hardware prior to upgrading to Windows 10.
Check for Recommended Requirements
When looking at software and hardware, be sure to check the requirements to run them. Ensure that you have the recommended capability rather than the minimum requirements so you can run the program as intended and to avoid frustration with slow response issues.
Speeding Up Windows
The quickest way to speed up Windows is to add more RAM and to control the number of unnecessary functions starting with Windows, particularly those showing in the taskbar to the right near the clock. Many programs are configured to start with Windows but this can be altered in the options for each program.
CCleaner can help to speed up your Windows:
- It provides a simple utility to manually stop programs from loading at Windows startup.
- It does an effective job in cleaning up unnecessary files left behind on your computer.
Windows 10 added Startup Apps settings that indicate how much impact apps make to system startup and allow you to turn off startup by app. Windows services may be more favourably assessed.
Checking Gaming Hardware Capability
You can run a quick check of your hardware to see if you meet the system requirements.
- Can You Run It? is a free web service that automatically analyzes your computer and discovers if you can run a specific game.
Windows Lifecycle of Support
Microsoft licences software using specific timelines for end-of-support. The “free” upgrades to Windows 10 and 11 can complicate things.
The information in this section is based upon the Windows lifecycle fact sheet. Microsoft's policies are subject to change.
- Microsoft Lifecycle Policy includes announcements.
- Search product lifecycle by product name or time range.
If you downgrade a Windows licence to an earlier version, that installation carries the lifecycle of the downgraded version. For example, if you downgraded Windows 10 Pro to Windows 7 Pro, your support expired on January 14, 2020. You may see if installing Windows 10 Pro with all the current updates regains the lifecycle currently available to Windows 10.
Windows Support Lifecycle Changed
Microsoft's support lifecycles have changed significantly:
- The modern lifecycle policy governs Windows 10.
- The fixed lifecycle policy governs legacy products like Windows 7 and 8.1.
Until Windows 10, Microsoft had a fixed support lifecycle for each version of Windows, Internet Explorer or Office. Support expired within a predictable time period after its release:
- 10 years of support (5 years Mainstream Support and 5 years Extended Support) at the supported service pack level for Business, Developer and Desktop Operating System products
- 5 years Mainstream Support at the supported service pack level for Consumer and Multimedia products
- 4 years Mainstream Support for Consumer Hardware products
Ending mainstream support for a product means Microsoft will no longer be enhancing that product. What it does NOT mean is there will no longer be fixes for security and reliability issues.
Fixed Lifecycle Policy Ends with Windows 8.1
Windows 8.1 is the last currently-supported version of Windows that is governed by the Fixed Lifecycle:
- Main support expired January 9, 2018.
- Extended support expires January 10, 2023.
Prior versions of Windows, including Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, have limited support when running on new processors and chipsets from manufacturers like Intel, AMD, Nvidia, and Qualcomm.
After January 20, 2023, only the Modern Lifecycle will be in force.
Modern Lifecycles for New Products
The lifecycles for current products like Windows 10, Windows 11 and Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365) are governed by the “Modern Lifecycle” which is defined differently:
The Modern Lifecycle Policy covers products and services that are serviced and supported continuously. Under this policy, the product or service remains in support if the following criteria are met:
— Microsoft Support
- Customers must stay current as per the servicing and system requirements published for the product or service.
- Customers must be licensed to use the product or service.
- Microsoft must currently offer support for the product or service.
The “Modern Lifecycle FAQ ” uses the following definition:
Products and services governed by the Modern Lifecycle Policy are supported as long as customers stay current as per the servicing and licensing requirements published for the product or service and have the rights to use the product or service.
To stay current, a customer must accept all servicing updates and apply them within a specific timeframe, per the licensing and servicing requirements for the product or service.
— Microsoft Support
I strongly recommend that you read these FAQs to fully understand the conditions:
There isn't just a single date for end of support for Windows 10 (which expires on October 14, 2025).
Instead, each major Windows 10 release has its own “end of service” where support ends — generally 18 months from the date the major update was released.
Historically, new versions of Windows 10 (also called feature updates) were released twice a year via the Semi-Annual Channel. Beginning with Windows 10, version 21H2 (the Windows 10 November 2021 Update), feature updates will be released annually in the second half of the year via the General Availability Channel.
— Microsoft Support
These support dates are subject to change, such as when Microsoft extended support for older updates to avoid disruption while employees were working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like Windows 10, there is no fixed date for end of service except for the final end of service for Windows 11 (probably 10 years after the 2021 release).
Instead, each major Windows 11 release has its own “end of service” where support ends — generally 24 months from the date the major update was released for Home versions (enterprise versions have 36 months).
New versions of Windows 11 will be released once per year and will receive monthly quality updates that include security and non-security updates. Customers should always install the latest version before the current version reaches end of servicing to remain supported by Microsoft.
— Microsoft Support
Unsupported Versions UNSAFE to Use
Once a Windows version reaches the end of support, you should cease using it. Vulnerabilities affecting newer versions of Windows often can be found in older versions.
An unsupported version of Windows will no longer receive software updates from Windows Update. These updates include security updates that can help protect your PC from harmful viruses, spyware, and other malicious software which can steal your personal information.
Windows Update also installs the latest software updates to improve the reliability of Windows—such as new drivers for your hardware.
If you continue to use an unsupported version of Windows, your PC will still work, but it will become more vulnerable to security risks and viruses.
Your PC will continue to start and run, but you will no longer receive software updates, including security updates, from Microsoft.
— Microsoft Support
Both mainstream and extended support has expired for all Windows versions earlier than Windows 8.1.