Desktop Operating Systems – 64 or 32 bit

As previous blog posts have mentioned we’ve all been issued with Windows 7 recently and the 64 bit version at that. Showing it to someone this afternoon I was asked the question what’s special about 64 bit and isn’t it more hassle than its worth.

64 bit allows twice as many one’s and zeros’’s at the same time as 32 bit software. This gives the same performance gain that having a six lane motorway give you over a three lane one, especially good when rush hour comes. Put simply the computer can transfer and process numbers twice as large in one go – unfortunately this doesn’t translate to twice as fast in real world use though. 

One area this is especially import is memory. 32 bit operating systems are limited in the memory address size they can handle so can only use to roughly the first 3Gb of memory your machine has. If, as my new laptop does, your new computer has 4Gb or more, you will need 64 bit software to make use of that last 1Gb.

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The main problem has been with drivers for your peripherals like printers, scanners etc. The 64 bit version of all the operating systems insists on official signed drivers which used to be hard to find when XP 64 bit came out. Now however they are pretty much all there except for some very old devices –you need to check though, you cannot use the 32 bit ones.

Most if not all software will work on 64 bit, it just runs it in 32 bit emulation mode if you don’t have a specific 64 bit version. Even where software authors have not given their stamp of approval, in our experience it has worked successfully but I’m sure there will be the first time we hit problems. For the record I’m expecting that to be some software that interacts with the installed hardware directly. 

It worth insisting on 64 bit when you buy a new computer because you cannot upgrade from 32 bit to 64 – it needs a wipe and completely new install. Another time might be when moving to a new OS like Windows 7 because we would always recommend a fresh install rather than a upgrade as you will lose some of the speed benefits if you bring your Vista or XP hangover with you by upgrading. 

There is no extra charge for the 64 bit version of the software and most recent processors are capable of running it. You can get it for every desktop operating system back to XP so it been around long enough to become well supported and very stable.

So why isn’t it more popular? Well I think it just some of the computer suppliers do not want to have to stock and ship two versions of the same box so they have gone for the more conservative option of 32 bit. That’s starting to change now and will accelerate if you take my advice of always insisting that any new PC’s come with a 64 bit version of the OS (be that XP, Vista or Windows 7) preinstalled.

Some of us are old enough to remember the move from 8 to 16bit and the ‘excitement’ when 32 bit came along. Why 64 bit has not generated the same level of hype given its benefits I don’t know. 

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