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A guide to 64 bit

Jan 2, 2014

What is a Bit?

A bit is the smallest unit of data possible. You probably already know that computers speak in binary (1s & 0s); well, a bit is a single unit of 1 or 0. Alone, it’s not very helpful, but when placed together, it creates the foundation of computing.

For example, a single bit can convey 2 things, either a 1 or a zero. Two bits though, can convey 4 things, 00, 01, 10, and 11.

What Are These Bits Used For?

Everything! A computer can only speak in binary, and thus the bit dominates its existence. However, in this guide, I am relating to bit-architecture – or the amount of data available to a system at any given time. Thus even though your hard drive may be 160 Gigabytes (a byte equaling 8 bits), it can’t use all that information at the same time.

32-Bit Architecture

If you follow my previous example, you’ll find out that 32-bit means 32 of those buggers, all in one line. That means that there are a possible 4 billion (4,294,967,295 to be exact) permutations of data that can be arranged in your computer. What this roughly translates to, is that your computer can have over 4 billion data units that it can utilize at any given time. Most of this space is used by the system RAM, while other processes, like video, consume whatever’s left over. Though 4,294,967,295 units of addressing space may sound like a lot, that only equates to about 3.5 GB of RAM with the rest left over for other tasks. Because it’s very feasible to have 4 GB of RAM in your laptop right now, people are jumping ship, and heading towards 64-bit architectures.

64-Bit Architecture

By switching from 32-bit to 64-bit, the maximum amount of addressing space escalates to 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 units of space or 17 billion gigabytes. This means that we won’t hit the RAM headroom for quite a few years (decades?) to come. In reality, most computers that are 64-bit capable are artificially limited on how much RAM they can take, with the common limits being 8, 16, and 128 GB. Another advantage of switching over is faster computing. 64-bit code (should) run faster than comparable 32-bit bit code.

What’s Required to Go 64-Bit?

1. The CPU or processor

The consumer-level processors that are currently 64-bit capable are the AMD Turions and the Intel Core 2 Duos

2. The Operating System

This is why you commonly see Vista followed by a bit number. It’s pretty obvious if your operating system is 64-bit as it will be labeled that way.

3. At least 4 GB of RAM

Ok, this isn’t an official requirement, but there’s not much of a reason to be 64-bit computing if you’re not going to take advantage of it.

The Drawbacks of 64-Bit

So if 64-bit’s so good and swell, why isn’t everyone running 64-bit? Same reason why it takes time for people to switch over to anything new in computing – compatibility issues. 64-bit systems require 64-bit drivers and applications. Though more and more things are working well with 64-bit systems, it’s not yet up to par with the universally used 32-bit.

Special Note: Vista SP1 changes the way Windows displays RAM in the system properties. Instead of displaying RAM available, SP1 displays RAM installed. However, the 32-bit limit still exists - not even God can change that.