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.
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 and was a significant step towards better security in Windows, later refined in Windows 7 along with new productivity features. Both are a result of more powerful hardware displaying on larger flat screen monitors.
Unfortunately, Vista and Windows 7 included crippled versions (Vista Basic and Windows 7 Starter Edition) which enable them to run on older hardware, but lacked ease of use and suffered from poor performance. Most settings needed to be searched for.
Windows 8 saw Microsoft attempt to integrate the desktop operating system with mobile computing but also crippled support for the keyboard and mouse. Modifications in Windows 8.1 restored some functionality, but it was too little too late.
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 a single operating system that runs on everything from smart phones to giant teleconferencing systems. Windows 10 is Software as a Service rather than a traditional operating system and the license is tied to the life of the device (like cell phones).
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.
Each generation of Windows is more demanding of hardware than previously so recent hardware is generally going to outperform older (particularly legacy) hardware. Reasons include:
- Most recent computers are capable of running 64-bit versions of Windows (or other operating systems) which are capable of addressing vastly larger amounts of RAM. This means that Windows is less likely to need to store volatile information on the hard drive resulting in more rapid processing of data.
- Many systems now run dual- or quad-processors. These provide faster computing without huge increases in heat (a huge problem particularly in laptops).
- Newer hardware is much more energy efficient in spite of increased performance.
- Display adapters have become much more powerful and capable of running much larger displays in brilliant colour — even modern digital TVs.
- Newer DDR3 RAM is more efficient and less expensive than legacy models.
New Hardware Performs Better
Flat screen displays have largely replaced CRT (tube) monitors except for CRTs larger than 21 inches because:
- flat screen monitors have dropped drastically in price;
- the wide screen provides much more desktop real estate, particularly when gaming or watching videos (although this does not favour editing large word processing documents); and
- LCDs only change pixels when needed, so they are easier on the user's eyes than the old CRT monitors.
The Future? Windows 8 and 10 focussed on the touch format that we've become used to on our tablets and smart phones. While the desktop is not dead, for many technology is becoming more tactile and less dependent upon mice and external keyboards.
32- or 64-bit?
Both current hardware and software is broken into 32- and 64-bit classes (older 4-, 8- and 16-bit classes are obsolete). The larger the number of bits the more information that can be simultaneously transferred.
Not Everything Works in 64-bit
Not all hardware has 64-bit drivers and many older devices won't run in 64-bit environments at all.
Some 32-bit programs no longer run in the 64-bit environment (those that contain 8- or 16-bit components, mostly from the Windows 95 or 98 era).
True 64-bit Computing is Almost Here
Some software may not be available in a 64-bit version and some nominally 64-bit versions don't take advantage of the 64-bit architecture.
Even if the full benefits of 64-bit hardware are not available, the ability to address more RAM is a definite advantage and helps Windows to run faster.
Initially, 64-bit versions of Internet Explorer and Firefox had few plugins available. However, this is rapidly changing and many of the plugins previously required to view multimedia on the Web have been replaced with HTML 5 technologies.
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.
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).
64-bit Windows can 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 and later that were designed for 64-bit programs but changed the way settings were managed (see Pocomail's issues with Windows 7).
- Some older 32-bit programs may not run a 64-bit operating system or have issues.
- 64-bit addressing takes up more space.
- This primarily impacts legacy hardware. Modern systems have larger hard drives and more RAM and the corresponding files systems are more efficient.
With the demise of Windows XP and the proliferation of 64-bit hardware, the market for 64-bit applications and drivers has greatly improved.
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.
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.
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 has a stated Support Lifecycle which means they will cease to support a particular version of Windows, Internet Explorer or Office within a predictable time period after its release.
Generally Microsoft policy provides for:
- 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. —Microsoft Support
Downgrade rights is the terminology Microsoft used to allow users to run an earlier version of Windows using the license for the current version (e.g. Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate versions originally could be downgraded to Windows Vista or Windows XP).
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
- Downgrade rights for Windows 10 — licensing how-to.
- Downgrade Rights — Microsoft Download Center is a direct PDF download from the Microsoft Download Center.
Unsupported Products 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 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—new drivers for your hardware and more. —Microsoft Support
- Microsoft lifecycle policy includes announcements and more information about product lifecycles.
- Search product lifecycle allows you to search for the Microsoft lifecycle by product name.
Windows Support Policies Changed
From the changes to the Modern Lifecycle Policy it is clear that Microsoft has abandoned traditional support, even for currently supported legacy Windows 7 and 8 on newer hardware. This appears to be the factor that will determine the “supported lifetime” of Windows 10 on specific hardware.
This table is based upon the information from Microsoft's Windows lifecycle fact sheet.
Mainstream support has ended for Windows 7 and 8.1. Both mainstream and extended support has expired for all earlier Windows versions.
Windows 10 support is defined by the new Modern Lifecycle Policy.
Windows versions prior to Windows 10 have limited support when running on new processors and chipsets from manufacturers like Intel, AMD, NVidia, and Qualcomm.
1 Windows 10 updates are cumulative, with each update built upon all of the updates that preceded it. A device needs to install the latest update to remain supported. Updates may include new features, fixes (security and/or non-security), or a combination of both. Not all features in an update will work on all devices. A device may not be able to receive updates if the device hardware is incompatible, lacking current drivers, or otherwise outside of the Original Equipment Manufacturer’s (“OEM”) support period. Update availability may vary, for example by country, region, network connectivity, mobile operator (e.g., for cellular-capable devices), or hardware capabilities (including, e.g., free disk space).