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Computer Care: PCs speeding up, bit by bit
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Here we are, leaving the era of 32-bit computing and entering that of 64-bit. It is more powerful, uses system resources more efficiently and doesn’t cost much more. One drawback is that hardly anyone knows what it is.

Although 64-bit technology has been around for years, only Linux users or those running servers really use it. Even today, there are not that many applications written to take advantage of all that 64-bit computing has to offer.

Enter Vista and now Windows 7. The operating systems are shipped with two discs, one 32-bit and one 64. Until recently mostly everyone, myself included, used the 32-bit option. That’s what our computers were. We had a 32-bit operating system with 32-bit processors, running 32-bit apps.

Now it’s all about to change. Not only has the core doubled, but the processing power as well. With a true 64-bit system you should be able to process things twice as fast as before.

So which do you have? If you go to the My Computer icon and right-click on it, then go down to Properties, you’ll see somewhere in all that technical jargon where it says which of the two systems you are running.

OK, but what does it all mean? A bit is a binary digit of either 0 or 1, which is the smallest unit of data in a computer. There are eight bits to a byte and in most systems, four bytes, or octets, that form a 32-bit word which is the instructions in a computation. Until now that is, when 64-bit computing enters the picture.

Most computers process data in bunches of 32 bits and could handle only four gigabytes of system memory, or RAM. Not only can they now handle 64 bits of data at a time, but these computers can handle – ready for this – 192 GB under Windows 7, theoretically much more. That’s 48 times what we are currently used to. Remember when we thought 256 megabytes of RAM was considered a lot? It was only a few short years ago.

But there really is no need to jump on this consumer treadmill. If you’ve got something that works, stick with it. The chances of most of us needing that kind of processing is slim, unless you do video editing, work extensively with Photoshop, use Computer Aided Design software, or you absolutely must have the fastest computer on the block. Then in those cases, 64-bit is for you.

To take full advantage of this technology, you will need a 64-bit processor running a 64-bit operating system with matching drivers and 64-bit apps to go with them, the last of which is difficult to come by. You can though, run things backward compatible. A 32-bit application (most of them) can run in a faster environment, but not vice versa. You can’t run a 64-bit program in a 32-bit environment.

There are differences here between Windows and a Mac. The latter 64-bit is actually a hybrid, having both 32 and 64-bit components to it. For that reason, it will run any type of program. Windows 64-bit is only that and is the reason it will occasionally have problems running 32-bit apps.

If you are a home user with a computer that has 4 GB of RAM under a 32-bit architecture, there is really no need to upgrade your hardware.

If you have a 64-bit system, 4 GB of RAM will prove inadequate, as it needs more memory to process. Not only will it take more RAM, it will demand it. The biggest drawback is that there are few 64-bit applications written.

I don’t think the 32-bit system will be taken off the market just yet. The new stuff is there if you want it, but until there are lots of apps to run under it, 32-bit computing probably won’t be going away anytime soon.

Even if you get a new 64-bit computer, you can install the 32-bit version of Windows 7 if you like, with most of your old software. There is a caveat. Your antivirus and drivers will be ineffective and you may not be able to find what you need. Many 64-bit drivers are as hard to come by as the programs. It would be like driving a Ferrari with regular gas and bad spark plugs. It will run, but not well. It defeats the point of upgrading.

One thing I would do though is upgrade your memory. I have seen more systems that don’t even have a gig of RAM installed. It’s cheap, it’s easy and it will make an incredible improvement on how your computer operates.

Get a gigabyte or two if you are running a 32-bit system. With a 64-bit system, get as much as you can afford if you think your programs warrant it.

Until 64-bit computers become mainstream, developers won’t be writing many programs for them. Unless you really need it, I’d be content with a fast 4 gig, 32-bit system.

Arthur Glazer is a freelance writer and computer technician in Gainesville. His column appears biweekly.
Arthur welcomes your computer questions and ideas for future columns.