Anyone who buys Microsoft’s new Windows 7 operating system will find two versions of it in the box: one is for 32-bit computers and the other is for 64-bit models. Although Windows looks and feels the same regardless of which version you install, there are important differences between 32-bit and 64-bit computers that will affect your experience, especially when it comes to adding new hardware or software. What is a ‘bit’? The ‘bit’ in 64-bit refers to the amount of information that the computer can process at once. Because the numbers are in binary, not the decimal system we use for counting, it’s not just a matter of multiplying by two: a 64-bit computer can process numbers around four billion times larger than a 32-bit one. That doesn’t mean it’s four billion times faster: a 64-bit computer works at the same speed as an equivalent 32-bit one. The difference is in the level of detail with which it can cope: a 64-bit computer can work with larger spreadsheets and databases, and can create more detailed graphics in games. Because of that, computers designed for scientific applications were 64-bit a long time before it was even considered for home PCs. After all, how many of us need to process numbers that large? One major advantage of a 64-bit computer is that it increases the amount of memory the computer can use. A 32-bit model is limited to 4GB, which used to be plenty but not any more. Home computers have used 64-bit processors for a couple of years: the first was AMD’s Athlon 64, released in 2004 and since then the majority of new processors, including the Intel Atom CPUs found in mini-laptops, have been 64-bit-compatible. But because they will also run with 32-bit versions of Windows there has been little difference to most of us. Practically speaking On a practical level, 64-bit used to be more trouble than it was worth because some software and a lot of hardware, such as printers and soundcards, would be incompatible. Now though, 64-bit is supported by nearly all hardware developers and so a 64-bit operating system makes sense, and with the advent of Windows 7 more computers will use the 64-bit operating system. It’s important to know which version you have when you install new hardware, as a 64-bit operating system requires different drivers (the programs used by Windows to communicate with hardware) and it can’t simply use 32-bit drivers in their place. Because 64-bit versions of Windows XP never became as popular as their 32-bit counterparts, few companies bothered to produce 64-bit drivers for their products. Nowadays most manufacturers support 64-bit, so you should find that any hardware released in the past three to four years will work with 64-bit Windows. Look for 64-bit drivers in the support area of your product manufacturer’s website.
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