Even though 64-bit PCs have been available for seven years, the promise of 64-bit computing has been delayed by a dearth of 64-bit software.
The situation is improving — slowly — but many major PC applications remain 32-bit affairs.
Microsoft likes to boast about the extra performance delivered by the 64-bit versions of Windows. Likewise, PC vendors continue to pitch the benefits of 64-bit PCs over their 32-bit brethren.
That’s all well and good — and theoretically true — but without software optimized for 64-bit machines, using those more-advanced processors for everyday tasks is like running a Formula One race car on regular gas.
Subscribe to our Windows Secrets Newsletter - It's Free!
Get our unique weekly Newsletter with tips and techniques, how to's and critical updates on Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows XP, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Google, etc. Join our 480,000 subscribers!
Subscribe and get our monthly bonuses - free!
Your hard drives store photos, books, music and film libraries, letters, financial documents and so on. This ebook is aimed at helping you understand your hard drives, expand their capacities and length of life, and recover what you can from them when they fail. We're offering you a FREE Excerpt! Get this excerpt and other 4 bonuses if you subscribe FREE now!
The primary difference between 32-bit applications and their 64-bit counterparts is the size of memory the programs can address. Computers use only two digits (ones and zeros), so a 32-bit program can track 2^32 (2 to the 32nd power) memory addresses — about 4GB. This is the basis of the “4GB memory limit” for 32-bit hardware and software.
A 64-bit PC can track 2^64 addresses, yielding a theoretical memory ceiling of about 16 exabytes — 16 billion gigabytes. Of course, no PC can hold that much physical memory — but the point is, they could. Similarly, 64-bit software is capable of managing truly huge data sets.
The 64-bit flavor of Windows takes advantage of this. For example, the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate can address up to 192GB of RAM. More prosaically, 64-bit Windows can routinely allocate up to 4GB (and sometimes more) to each software process running on the PC. In contrast, 32-bit Windows XP maxes out at 2GB per process.
There are other differences, too; for more information, see the Nov. 19, 2009, Best Software column by Gizmo Richards, “Should you move to 64-bit Windows 7?” (paid content).
Big-name apps remain MIA from 64-bit list
General-purpose PCs using 64-bit processors emerged in 2003. To this day, however, 64-bit versions of such major applications as MS Office, Adobe Photoshop, Web browsers, and security suites have been vaporware. Also, finding 64-bit drivers for your PC’s peripherals has been like playing the digital equivalent of “Where’s Waldo?” — and in many cases, Waldo is nowhere to be found.
That’s the main reason why 64-bit PCs haven’t eighty-sixed 32-bit systems just yet. Sure — a quick Web search will uncover a bunch of 64-bit apps, and 64-bit shareware sites abound. These include the Catalogue of 64-bit Software and X64-bit Download, which offers the Microsoft Office 2010 beta release designed for 64-bit Vista and Windows 7, as well as 64-bit drivers, security apps, and system utilities.
Unfortunately, existing 32-bit ActiveX controls — whether from Microsoft or third parties — are incompatible with the 64-bit version of Office 2010, as described in the MSDN Office Developer Center.
Despite these and similar download sites, most of the 64-bit software available for Vista and Windows 7 is composed of shareware utilities and low-rent productivity packages.
A 64-bit IE, but minus 64-bit ActiveX controls
Microsoft released the 64-bit version of Internet Explorer 8 in early 2009; the program is available from the Microsoft Download Center. However, the program is in dire need of a Daddy Warbucks — it’s orphaned by the lack of native 64-bit ActiveX controls and other Web objects.
Mozilla’s Firefox browser has been available in 64-bit versions since release 3.5; visit the Firefox download page for the link. Note that Firefox is currently up to version 3.6, with a prerelease 3.7a version also available.
Google offers a 64-bit version of its Chrome browser (available from X64-bit Download), but only for Linux; the company hasn’t yet announced a date for 64-bit Chrome for Windows.
The apps benefiting most from a 64-bit architecture are those with large data sets — such as image and video editors and other graphics apps, whose files can be massive. Photoshop users are left wondering why it has taken Adobe so long to release a 64-bit version of the popular image-editing app.
According to an Aug. 21, 2009, blog post by Adobe Photoshop principal product manager John Nack, the main benefit of 64-bit software is its ability to address larger amounts of memory. This is particularly noticeable when working with large image files; Nack claims Adobe’s testing resulted in a performance improvement of 8% to 12% when running Photoshop in 64-bit mode.
However, to take advantage of 64-bit processing, users need to allocate more than 4GB RAM solely to Photoshop, according to Nack’s Aug. 21, 2009, post, “A 64-bit reality check.” That means you would need much more system memory than most PCs ship with today.
While we await release of the 64-bit version of Photoshop, Adobe Labs is offering a developer prerelease version of Flash Player for 64-bit Linux and Mac OS. Unfortunately, there’s no indication of when the Windows version of the 64-bit Flash Player will be available.
Most PC software vendors are wary of incurring the high costs associated with developing and marketing 64-bit versions of their products, primarily because few of today’s 64-bit systems ship with sufficient RAM for consumers to realize a benefit from the shift to 64-bit computing. For now, that powerful 64-bit lion on your desktop or in your lap will have the roar of a kitten.
| Have more info on this subject? Post your tip in the WS Columns forum.|
WS contributing editor Michael Lasky is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California, who has 20 years of computer-magazine experience, most recently as senior editor at PC World.