SANDY BERGER: Buying 64-Bit Processor Now Will Pay in Future
If you are looking to purchase a new computer this year, you will find that the stores have computers with 64-bit processors right next to computers with 32-bit processors.
After questioning several salespeople about the difference between the two types of processors, I found many of them uneducated about what the difference is and what it means to the consumer. So today we will take a quick look at 64-bit computing and what it really means to you.
I first wrote about 64-bit computing when AMD came out with its 64-bit processors in 2003. It took a long time for 64-bit computers to become mainstream. But they are here now, and they are ready for prime time.
First, let me explain the difference between 32-bit and 64-bit computing and why it is more important than just the doubling of the bits. The term "64-bit computing" really refers to registers that can handle 64 bits of information. The registers are the storage areas in the CPU (Central Processing Unit). All data or addresses to that data must be represented in a register before that data can be processed.
So the size of the register greatly affects the processing power and speed of the CPU. It may sound like a 64-bit register would be twice as large and twice as fast as a 32-bit register, but it is really a little more complex.
Since a computer uses the binary language, which has only two digits, a 32-bit register can address 232 bits of data, which rounds out to about 4 gigabytes (GB). The 64-bit architecture can address 264 bits of data which corresponds to about 18 million terabytes (TB) of information.
To put this in perspective, a terabyte is 1,024 gigabytes. So a 64-bit computer is potentially much more powerful than a 32-bit machine. But what this really means is that the processing of the dynamic data stream of information is dramatically increased.
Now that we got the geeky explanation out of the way, let's focus on what it means to you.
First, 64-bit systems can support more memory. A 32-bit system can use only 3GB of memory. Most will come with 2GB. A 64-bit system can handle much more.
Physical constraints will limit the amount of memory that can be put in a 64-bit computer, but I've seen 4, 6, and even 8 GB systems in the stores. In fact, if you look at a computer that has 4GB or more, you can be pretty sure that it is a 64-bit computer. More memory also means a more powerful computer.
However, you also need 64-bit software to take advantage of the additional memory and processing power. This is where it gets a little tricky. First there is the operating system. There are two versions of Microsoft Vista, a 32-bit version and a 64-bit version. You don't have to worry about this. A new computer will come with the Vista version that complements its processor. The interfaces of these two versions of Vista are the same, so you will see no difference in the way the operating system looks or acts, except that a 64-bit system will seem a little faster.
While the Vista operating system will take advantage of the new 64-bit hardware, most other software that is currently available is written for the 32-bit processors. Software will have to be specially designed and compiled to take advantage of the new 64-bit computer power.
There are very few 64-bit software programs available right now. But for the most part, you don't have to worry about this either. Most 32-bit software will run just fine on a 64-bit machine, and it will look and act the same.
As 64-bit software becomes available, you will see dramatic increases in speed with these programs. The Adobe CS4 set of programs, which includes Photoshop, is the first set of mainstream programs that takes advantage of the power of a 64-bit system.
There are also some games currently available. The improved processing power will be especially obvious in gaming and video software when their programs are written to take advantage of the new 64-bit architecture. Video will be smoother, even when shown in large windows. Games will be more lifelike, with better animation.
So buying a 64-bit system right now will be good in the future since you will be able to purchase new 64-bit programs as they become available. But there are a few things you should be aware of now.
First, 64-bit computers must use special 64-bit drivers for attached hardware. I have found that there are 64-bit drivers available for most newer printers and scanners. However if your printer, scanner, or other peripheral is more than two years old, you will want to go to the manufacturer's Web site to make sure that 64-bit drivers are available.
While most of the software you own will work on a new 64-bit computer, there are a few exceptions, and those exceptions may mean that you will have to purchase a new version of the software. Many antivirus, firewall, and disk utility software will require new versions. Most of the new 64-bit computers on the market today will come with a trial version of antivirus software that will be good for at least a few months, but you will be faced with paying for the full version of that software or finding new antivirus software in a few months.
Although most of my programs work fine on a 64-bit system, I have found that Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a popular speech-recognition program, will not work. Nuance, the manufacturer, is working on a new version, which will be ready soon. Also, if you plan to dial into a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to access a computer at work, check with your network manager to make sure that a 64-bit computer will be supported.
The bottom line is that, although there are a few things to watch out for, it is a good time to buy a 64-bit computer, which will carry you into the future better than an old 32-bit system.
Sandy Berger welcomes all of questions and comments on today's column. Please post them on the Compu-Kiss Message Board at www.compu kiss.com/happycomputing.
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