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Microsoft launches 64-bit preview OS

Athlon 64 and Opteron computer owners can now get a free look at a new version of Windows XP 64-bit Edition.

Microsoft now offers a public preview of its 64-bit operating system for computers based on Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon 64 and Opteron processors.

The program is designed to offer an early look at Windows XP 64-bit Edition for 64-bit Extended Systems, for computers based on the two relatively new AMD chips, Microsoft's Web site said.

While the OS has been in the hands of beta testers for some time, the preview will allow businesses to experiment with it and prepare for the final version, which is still under development, the site said.

Using Microsoft's Web site, people with computers based on either the Athlon 64 or the Opteron can register to download the 450MB preview file for free or receive it on a CD for a shipping and handling fee. The preview version will expire after 360 days.

The new OS is required because AMD's Opteron server chip and its desktop and notebook counterpart, the Athlon 64, have new underpinnings. The changes enable the chips to run 32- and 64-bit software and operating systems. A new technology, which AMD calls x86-64, adds several new instructions to the 32-bit x86 processor architecture, upon which all other available AMD and Intel PC processors are based.

Computers based on 64-bit chips can handle more memory. This helps boost database servers' performance, for example, by reducing the need to seek data on a hard drive. In addition, computers using the Athlon 64 or Opteron chips can run 64-bit operating systems, but continue to use 32-bit software in some instances, where it does not make sense to upgrade.

Judging from the AMD chips' early adoption, the OS preview is likely to be popular. Though the final version isn't expected until later this year, a number of the world's largest computer manufactures have begun working with the AMD chips.

IBM offers the Opteron chip in its eServer 325. Sun Microsystems plans to begin selling Opteron servers this month, and Hewlett-Packard is expected to launch a line of Opteron servers this year.

The Athlon 64 has been working its way into the consumer PC market. HP offers it in two desktop PCs, and eMachines put it in a desktop and notebook. A number of smaller companies that serve PC enthusiasts, such as Alienware, also offer the Athlon 64.

There are also 64-bit Linux operating systems for Athlon 64 and Opteron, including versions from SuSE and Red Hat. Currently, computers using Athlon 64 or Opteron are shipped with one of the 64-bit Linux versions or a copy of 32-bit Windows XP.

Microsoft isn't expected to deliver the final versions of Windows XP 64-bit Edition for 64-bit Extended Systems until the second half of the year. Computer manufacturers have not yet revealed plans to upgrade their customers on the new OS.

But once 64-bit software and operating systems become more readily available, manufacturers believe people will readily upgrade. That may be what Microsoft envisioned when it got on board in April 2003, saying it would create two new 64-bit versions of its Windows XP operating system for computers with the two chips.

While the need for 64-bit software is greatest for servers, a number of companies are also developing it for desktops, AMD said.

Several games, such as Unreal Tournament 2004, are in development now and will include 64-bit versions for Athlon 64 when released. Other 64-bit applications, for tasks such as video editing, are also in the works, AMD has said.

Meanwhile, those who receive the preview operating system will be eligible to get future versions, Microsoft said.