The Windows 7 launch is finally upon us, which means that a lot of people who skipped the beta and RC launches will be getting their first taste of Microsoft’s new operating system. This also means that a lot of people are going to have to make some decisions soon, like which version of Windows to buy, and whether to go with the 32- or 64-bit version of the operating system.
What’s that you say? “Shouldn’t everyone with a 64-bit capable CPU upgrade to 64-bit Windows?” Well, not quite. There are some major advantages to a 64-bit OS, but there are drawbacks to consider as well. In this article, we’ll describe the pros and cons of 64-bit Windows, so when the time comes to upgrade you’ll know which version is right for you.
Why 64-Bit Windows Rocks
So what’s all this 64-bit hubbub about, anyway?
In a 32-bit operating system, memory addresses are 32 bits in length, limiting the total number of unique addresses available to around 4 billion—effectively capping the total amount of memory your system can use at one time to 4GB.
With 64 bit addresses, an operating system could theoretically use up to 16.8 million terabytes of RAM. Now, you’re obviously not going to have access to that kind of hardware for quite a while, but it does mean you’re actually going to be able to take advantage of today’s dirt-cheap memory prices.
Why 64-bit Windows Doesn’t Rock So Much
But there are also several reasons why 64-bit Windows isn’t for everyone. Here are a few of the biggies:
You need at least 4GB of memory
This one should be obvious: a 64-bit OS won’t help you if you don’t have at least 4GB of memory (It will help a little bit if you have exactly 4GB, as 32-bit Windows actually limits you to using 3.5 GB, for other reasons). Still, if you’re still rocking 2GB of memory (or less) you should really upgrade; it’s dead simple and will barely make a dent in your pocketbook.
32-bit drivers don’t work anymore
Generally, 32-bit applications work in 64-bit Windows, but the same can’t be said for drivers. In other words, old, crappy hardware might not work anymore. If you absolutely can’t be bothered to upgrade your 7-year-old printer, you might want to skip on 64-bit Win7.
Some software breaks in 64-bit Windows
It’s less common than hardware issues, but some programs do break in 64-bit Windows. Particularly, old programs written for pre-XP versions of Windows may not work in 64-bit Windows 7. If you’re still running a 16-bit program for some reason, it definitely won’t work in a 64-bit operating system.
Also, just because a program has a 64-bit version, don’t assume that all plug-ins for that program are 64-bit compatible as well. Not all Photoshop plugins, for instance, will work in 64-bit Photoshop.
Not all software benefits from 64-bit
Finally, consider that when you upgrade to a 64-bit OS, all your programs won’t magically start taking advantage of the extra memory. A program has to be written and optimized with 64-bit processors in mind, and right now that’s a minority of all programs. If you mostly use your PC for browsing the web, for instance, you probably won’t see much of an increase in speed with 64-bit Windows, because none of the major browsers have official 64-bit versions (for that, blame Flash, which is firmly 32-bit).
What does take advantage of 64-bit processing? Photoshop, video editing software, 3d modeling programs, CAD. Heavy-hitters, basically. And while very few games have 64-bit versions, there are some (such as Crysis) which work better on a 64-bit system, and you can expect considerably more in the near future.
By default, Windows stores 32- and 64-bit programs in separate folders
So there you have it. There are some drawbacks, sure, but they’re not going to effect the vast majority of users, and the benefits of a 64-bit OS will only get more pronounced over time, as more and more developers write 64-bit versions of their apps.