Why bother with 64-bit Windows?

Never mind the relative merits of Home Premium, Professional or Ultimate. There’s a more fundamental choice to make when choosing which version of Windows to buy: 32- or 64-bit.

64-bit editions of Windows have been available for several years now, and most new processors are capable of running it, but the majority of us are still running a standard 32-bit OS. After all, 32-bit Windows works perfectly well with today’s standard hardware and software – so why bother changing it?

But with Windows 7 about to launch, it’s worth considering the future. If you opt for a 32-bit edition of the new OS, and later find you need the benefits of 64-bit, you’ll have to reinstall from scratch. Make the right choice today and you can save yourself considerable upheaval. We’ve scrutinised the performance benefits, compatibility issues and security implications to help you decide whether it’s time to go 64-bit.

What does 64-bit mean?

Fundamentally, 64-bit computing is a function of the CPU. A 64-bit processor can work with 64-bit chunks of data in a single operation, while a 32-bit processor can work with values of only half that length. An OS designed to make use of the extra capabilities of a 64-bit CPU can thus achieve better performance and support more memory than a 32-bit OS.

And there’s no doubt 64-bit is the future. Remember how the 8-bit CPUs of the 1980s were eclipsed by 16-bit processors, which were in turn superseded by 32-bit Pentiums and Athlons? Now, with 64-bit hardware and software widely available, the clock is ticking for 32-bit computing.

With 64-bit hardware and software widely available, the clock is ticking for 32-bit computing

But the transition to a 64-bit CPU needn’t be an upheaval. The standard x64 architecture – as designed by AMD and subsequently licensed by Intel – maintains backward compatibility with the 32-bit instructions and data registers used by the older x86 architecture. This means you can still run 32-bit OSes and applications on a 64-bit processor.

In fact, you’re probably already doing just that. Most modern CPUs are 64-bit parts, even though they’re mostly used with 32-bit editions of Windows.

Switching to 64-bit Windows

The advantages of a 64-bit CPU are available only if your OS knows how to take advantage of them. Thankfully, Microsoft has been producing 64-bit editions of Windows for almost as long as the chips have been available. Windows XP Professional x64 Edition was released in early 2005, and 64-bit variants of Vista have been available since the operating system’s launch.

But upgrading from 32-bit Windows to a 64-bit installation can involve jumping through a few hoops. For starters, you need to make sure your PC and peripherals will work with a 64-bit OS. Then you’ll need the appropriate installation media. If you don’t already have a copy of Windows, you can buy a 64-bit edition of Vista, or Windows 7 when available. In theory, you can also still buy the 64-bit edition of Windows XP, but we’d discourage this: it isn’t well supported, and certainly isn’t a wise investment for the future.

If you’re running a retail edition of 32-bit Vista then you’re entitled to move to a 64-bit edition for free: fill in a form on the Microsoft website, and you’ll be sent a 64-bit disc for a nominal postage fee.

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