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 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. A sell-out to manufacturers with leftover inventory suited more to the previous Windows versions, they suffered a short lifespan.
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 for many people.
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.
- Most systems now run multiple 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 RAM is more efficient and less expensive than legacy models.
- A shift in boot environments from the legacy BIOS to UEFI sped up boot times.
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.
Windows 8 and 10 enhance touch capabilities like we use on our tablets and smart phones. Computing is becoming 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 both computers.
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
Most modern hardware is 64-bit running 64-bit versions of Windows. This means it has 64-bit drivers so many older devices won't run in 64-bit environments at all.
Some legacy 32-bit programs no longer run in the 64-bit environment (generally those that contain 8- or 16-bit components, mostly from the Windows 95 or 98 era).
True 64-bit Computing is 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. However, most modern software is designed with the advantages of 64-bit computing in mind.
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.
64-bit versions of browsers like Firefox and Chrome are faster and work better even with calls from 32-bit programs. The plugins previously required to view multimedia on the Web have been replaced with HTML 5 technologies, a significant barrier to the earlier 64-bit browsers.
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. Only legacy hardware is 32-bit.
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
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.
When a product reaches the end of its official support by Microsoft it becomes unsafe to use. You must either replace it with a supported product or take your computer offline.
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 will expire on January 14, 2020. You may, however install Windows 10 Pro with all the current updates to regain 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.
Before Windows 10, Microsoft had a fixed support lifecycle for each version of Windows, Internet Explorer or Office where 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. —Microsoft Support
Windows 7 & 8.1
Windows 7 SP1 and 8.1 are still governed by the Fixed Lifecycle.
|8.1||January 9, 2018||January 10, 2023|
|7 SP1||January 13, 2015||January 14, 2020|
Support for Windows 7 RTM without service packs ended on April 9, 2013. Be sure to install Windows 7 Service Pack 1 to continue to receive support and updates. — Microsoft Support
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. — Microsoft
Modern Lifecycles for New Products
The lifecycles for current products like Windows 10 and 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 the Modern Lifecycle Policy FAQ to fully understand the conditions.
There isn't a single date for end of support for Windows 10.
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.
Feature updates will be released twice a year for Windows 10 via the Semi-Annual Channel (SAC), targeting March and September annually. Updates are cumulative, with each update built upon those that preceded it; you should always install the latest feature update (version), before your current version reaches end of service, to remain supported by Microsoft thru monthly quality updates. — 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. — Microsoft Support
Both mainstream and extended support has expired for all Windows versions earlier than Windows 7 SP1. This affects features such as the Windows XP mode provided with Windows 7 Pro which expired with the end of support for Windows XP, while Windows 7 was still supported.