Are You Ready for a 64-Bit PC?
New processors coming soon from Advanced Micro Devices and Apple suggest 64-bit computing will make its way to a desktop near you this year. But what does that really mean for you?
Let's put it this way: If you think today's computers are fast, wait until they make the leap from 32 bits to 64 bits. This isn't about more megahertz--it's about actually doubling the amount of data a CPU can process per clock cycle. Servers and high-end workstation have been reaping the technology's benefits for years.
It's true a 64-bit desktop computer won't make your word processing program run faster (sorry, you're the bottleneck in that equation). But a 64-bit chip has the power to dramatically improve the performance of your more demanding applications, such as audio and video encoding, complex engineering programs like CAD, and--of course--games. And in the long term, 64-bit computing will give programmers much more power to play with, and could revolutionize what desktop software can do.
The amount of data a chip can process at once is a fundamental difference between today's 32-bit desktop processors--like Intel's Pentium 4, AMD's Athlon XP, and Apple's Motorola-made G4--and future 64-bit desktop CPUs, says Kevin Krewell, senior editor at Microprocessor Report. In the 64-bit camp are Apple's
The 64-bit CPUs can handle more memory and larger files. "The advantage of 64 bits is it gives you a larger address space, which means it lets you address more memory," Krewell says. Today's 32-bit Intel and AMD chips can address up to 4GB of memory (an Apple G4 unit can address 2GB). In Windows-based machines, that 4GB is split between the operating system and the applications. That means the most memory any given application can access is 2GB.
"That limit is not a big deal now, but it could be down the road--particularly in video-editing applications and the like," he adds.
A 64-bit processor, on the other hand, can address up to 16 exabytes of memory (that's over 16 billion gigabytes).
Apple's new G5 machines will support up to 8GB of physical memory (twice as much as today's 32-bit systems), which should be plenty to keep the CPU busy without resorting to the slower virtual memory on a hard drive, says Greg Joswiak, vice president of hardware product marketing at Apple.
"Pulling that first bit out of memory is 60,000 times faster than pulling it from a hard drive," Joswiak says.
AMD says its new Athlon 64 processor will support up to one terabyte of physical memory and up to 256 terabytes of virtual memory. That said, the first Athlon 64 motherboards will likely offer 4 DIMM slots. With 2GB DIMMS available, the first systems could hold as much as 8GB of physical memory (although the memory cost would be significantly higher than the system itself).
Game makers--traditionally among the first to make use of new technology--see clear advantages to 64-bit computing.
That extra speed will let programmers add remarkable detail to their software, says Tim Sweeney, founder and lead programmer at Epic Games, maker of the popular Unreal game franchise.
"You'll see better textures, more realistic sounds, and larger and more realistic environments," Sweeney adds.
Plus, the characters themselves will be rendered with dramatically more detail. You'll see more realistic representation of features such as hair, skin, and eyes. And the computer-run characters will have more realistic artificial intelligence, he says.
Epic has already updated Unreal 2003 for use on a 64-bit system, Sweeney says. The program will be ready to go as soon as a compatible 64-bit OS arrives. The company, which typically spends about two years creating each of its new games, is already working on its first fully 64-bit game, which is scheduled to hit store shelves in 2005.
Video encoding will also improve in a 64-bit world, says Tom Huntington, corporate communications manager at DivX. The company's DivX codec compresses DVD-quality video up to ten times more than the MPEG2 standard, making it easier to transmit over the Internet.
A 64-bit processor will improve both the encoding and decoding of video, he says. Better still, when you view a video file on a 64-bit desktop, you'll see "a noticeable difference in speed," he says, resulting in more frames per second and a more film-like playback.
Eventually the benefit will go far beyond speed, says Rich Heye, vice president of AMD's microprocessor business unit. The key to 64-bit computing is that it will open up possibilities for creative programmers in ways never before seen.
Apple and AMD executives envision 64-bit desktop computers on the scene pretty much now. Apple's next-generation of hardware, based on the 64-bit-capable G5 processor, begins shipping in August. AMD expects to ship its first Athlon 64 desktop and notebook processors as early as September (it's already shipping a server version of the chip called
But to take advantage of those 64-bit systems, you'll need a 64-bit-capable desktop operating system. That's where things get more complicated, and the Apple and AMD/Microsoft camps part ways.
When Apple rolls out its new G5 products in August, it will include an updated version of the current 32-bit OS X operating system code-named Jaguar, Apple's Joswiak says. The updated OS will support 32-bit applications with the ability to make 64-bit requests from the processor.
"The important thing for us [is] we didn't want to create a separate OS that is 64 bits," Joswiak says. "What is essential is that this OS and this hardware will run 32-bit applications with no recompiling--it will just run them." Apple hasn't announced plans for a pure 64-bit operating system; Panther, an updated 32-bit OS due out the end of this year, will have Jaguar-like 64-bit support.
AMD's Athlon 64 processor will work like previous Athlon chips under the current 32-bit Windows XP, but the OS does not support the chip's 64-bit capabilities. That waits until Microsoft ships its as-yet-unnamed
Once Windows catches up, there's still the issue of making today's PC hardware 64-bit ready. "The biggest challenge is going to be the device drivers in 64-bit mode," says Microprocessor Report's Krewell. "You need all new drivers for all of your key components [graphics cards, hard drives, and the like]--all the stuff that the operating system needs to work well," he says. "If you want 64 bits because you want performance, you can't have a bunch of 32-bit drivers mucking things up."
And then, finally, come the 64-bit-ready applications. AMD's Heye admits the transition from 32 to 64 bits in everyday desktop applications won't happen overnight. But he says by putting 64 bits into its upcoming processors, AMD is preparing for the future.
"Will it happen in 2004, or maybe 2005? It's hard to say. It will migrate over time, and when it does happen we'll be everywhere--in the backroom, on the desktop, in the notebook--the works."
Notably absent from all of this 64-bit desktop discussion is Intel, the world's biggest processor vendor.
While the company has devoted considerable time and resources to developing its
"Sixty-four bits is of great use in the back office, for servers and databases," says Intel spokesperson George Alfs. "The big iron has good use for 64-bits," he adds, but says the company isn't convinced the technology yet has a place on the desktop.
"It's hard to peg an exact time for this transition," Alfs adds. "The infrastructure isn't here today," but, he notes, "we're keeping our options open."
Intel wants to keep 64-bit computing as a server technology for the time being, so it can sell more Itanium processors, Krewell says. It doesn't want to sell the Itanium as a desktop processor. Plus, there is a key difference between the Itanium and the Apple and AMD chips. While the G5 and Athlon 64 can run 32-bit applications natively, the Itanium is a pure 64-bit chip that requires slower software emulation to run 32-bit apps.
Rumors persist, however, that Intel has created a 32- and 64-bit capable processor code-named Yamhill that could ship should the 64-bit desktop market heat up, Krewell says. If such a technology exists, it could even be seeded into Intel's next-generation desktop processor,
Epic's Sweeney agrees that Intel seems reluctant to move to 64 bits on the desktop, but he says the company is too savvy to let others get ahead on this important technology.
"In the next two years, either Intel will ship a 64-bit desktop chip or it will lose the majority of its consumer and business market," Sweeney says. "If I was in Intel's position, I would be working...to get a 64-bit chip ready, but in the meantime, I would be downplaying the importance of 64 bits."