What You Need To Know About The Shift to 64-Bit Computing

by [Published on 23 Nov. 2004 / Last Updated on 23 Nov. 2004]

For several years now, there have been rumors that 64-bit computing would soon become mainstream. We may have finally reached that point, but there are some problems. The market is filled with competing 64-bit standards, each requiring their own special version of Windows. In this article, I will explain what you need to know about the various 64-bit systems that are available today. As I do, I will talk about the limitations imposed by each.

Since about 2001, 64-bit computing has been available in at least some capacity. However, up to this point, 64-bit computing has been traditionally used by big data centers with huge budgets, and specialized 64-bit applications. All the while though, there have been rumors that 64-bit computing would soon be entering the main stream. Almost four years have passed, and it seems that we are finally at a turning point in which 64-bit computing may finally be upon us. Before you run out and buy a 64-bit system though, there are some important issues that you need to be aware of. In this article, I will attempt to cut through all of the speculation and marketing hype and tell you what you really need to know before you make the move to 64-bit computing.

What is 64-bit computing?

Before I get started, I wanted to take a moment and explain what 64-bit computing is and why it is so significant. As you probably know, computers process instructions in binary format. Each bit is capable of processing one binary instruction (zero or one) per clock cycle. Most of the PCs that are currently on the market have 32-bit processors, meaning that they can process 32 binary instructions per clock cycle.

Since 64-bit systems can process twice as many instructions per second as a comparable 32-bit system, 64-bit systems are definitely faster than their 32-bit counterparts. Perhaps the most significant difference between a 32-bit and a 64-bit system is the amount of memory that they support.

The fact that 32-bit systems only have 32-bits of data to work with means that they can only address up to 4 GB of RAM. A 64-bit system on the other hand could theoretically address up to 16 exabytes of RAM (That’s over 16,000,000 GB of RAM). In reality though, there are few, if any, 64-bit systems that support 16 exabytes of RAM. Building a machine that supports that much memory would be extraordinarily expensive. To counter this cost, many manufacturers impose RAM address space limits that fall somewhere between the 4 GB limit of 32-bit machines and the theoretical 16 exabytes that a 64-bit system should be capable of addressing. Most existing 64-bit systems limit physical RAM to somewhere between 8 GB and 256 TB.

The Intel VS. AMD Battle

Now that I have talked a little bit about the significance of 64-bit computing, I want to talk about the 64-bit solutions that are currently available. Currently, Intel, AMD, and Apple all offer 64-bit systems. However, the philosophies behind those systems couldn’t be more different.

I don’t really want to spend much time talking about Apple since this is a Windows related Web site. It is worth mentioning though that Apple offers a Power Mac G5 with two 64-bit processors, running at 2.5 GHz. This liquid cooled machine is designed to be a workstation class computer.

Intel on the other hand has had a 64-bit system available for a long time now. Intel’s 64-bit processor is called the Itanium. Itanium machines are intended for use as servers. At the time that this article was written, Intel denies having any consumer level 64-bit systems planned for release any sooner than about 2006. The eventual release will roughly coincide with Microsoft’s Longhorn release.

The one major drawback to Itanium servers (aside from the price) is that they will only run 64-bit code. That means that companies who want a 64-bit Itanium server will be required to run 64-bit applications and 64-bit device drivers, both of which are currently difficult to come by. Itanium servers can use an emulator to run 32-bit applications, but 32-bit applications tend to run much more slowly in an emulator than they would run natively because of the additional overhead involved in translating the 32-bit code into a 64-bit format.

AMD’s 64-bit strategy is a lot different than Intel's. Currently, most of the machines that AMD is shipping have 64-bit processors. AMD offers 64-bit processors for server and for workstation class machines at prices that are competitive with Pentium 4 and Itanium machines. The interesting thing about most of AMD’s 64-bit processors is that they can natively run both 32-bit and 64-bit code. This means that today, you could install a regular, 32-bit version of Windows and then later on switch to a 64-bit version without having to upgrade your machine.

Where Does Windows Fit Into All of This?

So far I have talked about the AMD’s and Intel’s 64-bit solutions, but you might be wondering where Windows fits into the equation. After all, you won’t get any benefit from a 64-bit system if you aren’t running a 64-bit operating system.

The Microsoft Web site contains beta versions of the latest 64-bit versions of Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP. You can access the 64-bit downloads for Windows Server 2003 at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserver2003/64bit/default.mspx You can download the 64-bit beta version of Windows XP Professional from http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/64bit/default.mspx

Before you start downloading these beta 64-bit editions of Windows though, there are a few things that you need to know. For starters, the 64-bit version of Windows XP will not run on Itanium processors. That’s because the Itanium processors and the 64-bit AMD processors are so different that they each require their own unique version of Windows. Microsoft does however offer both an AMD and an Intel 64-bit version of their Windows Server 2003 software.

The other thing that you need to be aware of is that, at least for now, the 64-bit version of Windows XP is lacking a lot of the features found in the 32-bit version. Among the missing features are: DVD playback, the ability to record to a CD, the Kodak imaging accessory, Windows Media Player, NetMeeting, IEEE 1394 audio, and fax capabilities. The 64-bit version of Windows XP is also missing almost all protocols except for TCP/IP, System Restore, the Windows Messenger Service, Remote Assistance, the File and Settings Transfer Wizard, and too many other features to list. It is possible that the server software may also be lacking similar features although I was unable to locate any information regarding missing features on the Internet.

Should I Buy a 64-Bit Computer?

Now that you know all about the way that the various manufacturers implement 64-bit processors, the real question is, should you buy one? The answer is that it really depends on who you ask. Many experts believe that 64-bit processing power is overkill for desktop machines. I tend to disagree though. Right this minute, there might not be a lot of 64-bit applications available for the average user, but I believe that in the not too distant future, 64-bit systems will be indispensable. Think about it… A few short years ago, only computer geeks would even think about running Windows NT Workstation on a home machine (yes, I was one of those geeks). Conventional wisdom at the time was that Windows 95 / 98 was for home users and Windows NT belonged at the office. Today though, even the most generic machines ship with Windows XP, which is based on the Windows NT kernel. My point is that while 64-bit processors in the home might seem ridiculous today, I don’t think it will be very long before they are common place. Gamers and those who heavily use CAD, desktop publishing, scientific, or graphic arts software will almost certainly benefit from 64-bit technology.

But what about today though? Today, you can walk into any computer store and buy a 64-bit desktop machine (or a laptop) with an AMD processor for under $1,500. Although you would have a 64-bit system though, you would have to run it in 32-bit mode unless you installed a 64-bit version of Windows. There are several problems with installing the 64-bit version of Windows XP though. First, the operating system is still in beta testing. Second, 64-bit hardware drivers are tough to come by, and the machine won’t work correctly if you use 32-bit drivers with a 64-bit operating system. Third, there are very few 64-bit applications available for Windows machines at the current time.

In my opinion, there is no reason to run out and buy a 64-bit system today. If you are in need of a new computer though and you know that it will be a few years before you can upgrade again, then it might behoove you to go ahead and buy a 64-bit system. That way, you can run the standard 32-bit version of Windows XP professional today, but as drivers and applications become more readily available, you can upgrade to the 64-bit version of windows without having to invest in new hardware.

If you are one of those people who has to be on the cutting edge, you can run a 64-bit operating system today. Just keep in mind that you probably won’t be able to use the 64-bit version of Windows XP as your primary operating system because of the lack of available applications. Of course Windows isn’t the only operating system on the block. You could always go with a 64-bit version of Linux.

Conclusion

As you can see, at the moment, there is no real standard for 64-bit computing. In this article, I have explained what 64-bit solutions exist, and what you need to know if you are thinking about buying one of them.

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