64 bit computers

One of the more anticipated features of Windows 7 is the proclaimed “better” support for and implementation of 64 bit architecture. The 64 bit architecture consists of a 64 bit operating systems (most are 32 bit) and a 64 bit motherboard and of course a 64 bit processor.

These systems will allow users to address more memory (RAM), to do more with and / or speedup video editing, Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) and Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM).

About 4 years ago when Windows release Windows XP 64 bit I was eager to jump on the 64 bit bus (pun intended), since then I have learned a few things I want you to consider before hopping on that bus.

First of all, let’s take a look at the difference between 32 and 64 bit systems. In the most basic terms we are talking about how much information the computer can process each cycle of its clock. 64 bits of architecture is not just double that of 32 bit, so saying that a 64 bit system could be twice as fast, move twice the data just really is not correct, it is closer to exponentially faster. This occurs because more data is moved at the same speed. Think of a 32 bit system as using cars to move people around town (the motherboard). A 64 bit system would be using the same number of busses as there were cars, to move the same data. This allows fewer drivers (header packets), more data to be moved per packet and less congestion on the roads, or motherboard in this case.

In order to keep things simple, we will only discuss memory here. A 32 bit system can handle up to 3.2GB of RAM. So basically that is all the RAM or memory a 32 bit system will see. You would normally install 4GB of RAM and only see the 3.2 give or take depending on the hardware (motherboard and CPU) and your video configuration (on board or an add-on card).

A 64 bit system could hold a lot more RAM, so much in fact we could not comprehend it (about 16.2 thousand terabytes). To solve the mathematical problems of RAM, each manufacturer has made some different concessions on the maximum amount of RAM their hardware can hold or use in a 64 bit environment. Processors from AMD and Intel can support this full amount but the chipset on the motherboard is what limits the system. Right now Intel documents say it is set at 1 terabyte of RAM for its maximum; however I have only seen test using 192GB of RAM, still, that is a lot more than 4GB. Another issue is the availability and cost of larger denomination RAM sticks. As of this writing one stick of 4 GB of RAM is 15 to 20% higher than two sticks of 2GB at crucial and even though they show 8GB sticks on their web site, you cannot actually get to a page with pricing or availability. This creates quite an issue with anyone installing 192GB on their system at this time.

Now that we have the basics out of the way, let’s dig a little deeper. While you might have a 64 bit hardware system, remember that it can only hold as much memory as the operating system that is installed and versa visa. Thus if you have a current PC that uses a 32 bit CPU and motherboard, installing a 64 bit operating system (O/S) will do nothing for you and for the gamers who bought a 64 bit hardware system and want to upgrade from XP or Vista 64 bit, installing Windows 7 32 bit will not help you in any way. In either case you will be back to limiting yourself to 4 GB of RAM.

Alright so you have purchased 64 bit hardware and Windows 7 64 bit, now what? Well, the vast majority of software is still 32 bit, Microsoft Office (and all office suites that I know of) is still 32 bit, the internet does not care about 8, 16, 32 or 64 bit architecture so that does not make a difference. Even though there are a few (very few) 64 bit drivers for printers and scanners, a lot of investigation turned up that they are still printing and scanning at the same speeds. This means that unless you have specific software that uses 64 bit there is no need to have it. Office will still only see and use a maximum of 4 GB of memory and it will not run any faster, as a matter of fact, in my test it actually ran slower. I will get into that in a moment. If you do have a video editing program or use a CAD or CAM program (yes, I am sure there are others, these are just what I run into) then those programs may have a 64 bit version that can take advantage of the 64 bit architecture.

So are you off and running to the local PC shop to get a new 64 bit system yet? Not just yet I hope there is a little more you need to know. 64 bit operating systems require more code and thus require more memory (just like the bus in our earlier example needs more space on the road than a car), so does a 64 bit system. The 64 bit versions of your anti-virus, Internet Explorer, printer drivers and of course the main program that you purchased 64 bit for all need more memory than their 32 bit counterparts. What this means up front is that you will need more base memory with a 64 bit system than a 32 bit system. So exactly how much memory do you need? To be honest I have not figured it out mathematically by comparing exact brand products on 32 and 64 bit systems; however the consensus seems to be 4 GB on a 32 bit system is the same as 6 GB of memory on a 64 bit system. I think that is quite high, the operating system and anti-virus might be using 500MB more but I am not buying that it needs a full extra 2GB.

So, have I talked you out of a 64 bit computer yet? I hope not! There are major advantages if you have the programs that can take advantage of the enhancements that 64 bit systems offer. An example from my personal life is a home video I compiled took 8 hours and two tries to complete (8 hours the 2nd try). The first try failed because I started it before bed one night and Microsoft Updates ran and in their infinite wisdom Microsoft forced a reboot that completely crashed and killed the compile process. When fussing about this to an acquaintance who is a “video guy”, he suggested we try it on his 64 bit system. His system was slightly slower (2 GHz compared to my 2.26) and we had the same amount of RAM. On his system it only took 2 hours.

It is my conclusion that the individual who makes home movies 2 or 3 times in a year and then not for another year or two should not stress about purchasing a new 64 bit system, however for the business that makes money and relies on videography or CAD/CAM systems, the benefits of increased turn around on jobs, bigger and more reliable processes and of course less employee cost, the saving could be huge in the first month, let alone over the course of the life of a good computer.

Well, that is enough jabbering for now, until we meet again, have a virus free week!

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