- Jeremy Smith, Writer
- Theresa Bakker, Researcher & Editor
From paying bills to checking movie times, most people can’t perform the most basic functions without a computer anymore. But consumers aren’t always savvy about what goes on behind the screen, especially when the reason comes down to a matter of bits.
Microsoft leads the industry with its Windows desktop operating system, the program that coordinates a computer’s applications, from web browsing to document storage. Vista, the newest evolution of Windows, is available in a 64-bit version, much like its predecessor XP.
The 64-bit version of Microsoft’s operating systems was historically used by companies in need of high-end computing power and the ability to run more memory-intensive programs. HP, Dell, Acer and other manufacturers are now shipping 64-bit versions of Vista Home on consumer-level machines, causing mixed results among users and professionals.
When Microsoft first entered the computing scene in 1985, they offered a piece of software called Windows 1.0, a "desktop environment" for users of the MS-DOS command-line interface. In 1990, Microsoft established itself with Windows 3.0, which had great success due to the program’s wide acceptance by both hardware and software developers.
A few years later, Windows 3.1 NT came out. The company targeted the engineering sector, but it was the first 32-bit operating system. The 32-bit refers to the Microsoft Win32 application programming interface (API), which offered greater security and stability, and also made it easier for developers to write and support more powerful programs.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Microsoft shook up the computing industry again with their release of the Windows XP 64-bit edition. According to Microsoft’s website, "Windows XP 64-Bit Edition is designed for specialized, technical workstation users who require large amounts of memory and floating point performance in areas such as movie special effects, 3D animation, engineering, and scientific applications."
In order to use a 64-bit operating system, a computer also needs a 64-bit processor, which was becoming a common feature on new computer systems by 2001. Microsoft then began offering both the 32 and 64-bit flavors of its operating systems.
The biggest difference computer users might notice between the two versions is the amount of memory that the system can recognize. The company’s 32-bit operating systems are limited to seeing four gigabytes of system memory, while a 64-bit system can utilize over twice as much and is only limited but physical constraints.
The largest issue facing consumers is that some software must be rewritten to accommodate the greater headroom and capabilities of a 64-bit system or it may not work at all.
According to Microsoft.com, "In order to accommodate 32-bit programs, Microsoft’s 64-bit operating systems provide support through either a hardware compatibility mode (in which the new processors support the older 32-bit version of the instruction set as well as the 64-bit version), through software emulation, or by the actual implementation of a 32-bit processor core within the 64-bit processor."
Cynthia Adams, the CEO of GrantStation.com, has experienced this issue first hand: and through baseball no less. "I listen to the MLB games on my computer at home," said Adams, gesturing at her new HP notebook. "They used to play fine on my old laptop, but they don’t work anymore."
Since Adams was running 64-bit Vista, she needed to download two more programs unique to the 64-bit platform. The majority of users still have 32-bit operating systems, so that bit of information was buried deep within the technical support section of the MLB website.
After downloading and installing the required programs, Adams shook her head and said, "Wow. That was way harder than it needed to be."
Even software from large companies has issues. In software tests, Adobe’s Dreamweaver CS 4 had difficultly displaying menu boxes on a 64-bit system. A 32-bit system was not victim to these aberrations. There are even online forums dedicated to finding that special blend of technology magic that is required to make older versions of Adobe’s Dreamweaver install a necessary update on a 64-bit system.
Adam Koegle, a tech with local computer sales and repair store Computer Cache, isn’t seeing a large issue with 64-bit systems and in fact recommends that people choose that version of operating system over a 32-bit. "A 64-bit system is backwards compatible with older programs and can support more ram," he said.
According to Koegle, the 64-bit systems have an option to run software in 32-bit compatibility mode that is selectable right from the program’s icon, so that should eliminate many problems.
He also hasn’t seen many issues that have come to him regarding software on 64-bit systems either. "There isn’t a cost difference between the 32 and 64-bit versions," Koegle said. "The majority of changes are all under the hood."