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The 64-bit question

Should you go for the 64-bit version of Windows Vista, or the 32-bit version?

By Jay dougherty  /  DPA , WASHINGTON

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Buy a new copy of Windows Vista or a new computer today, and you’ll have a decision to make: Should you go for the 64-bit version of Windows Vista, or the 32-bit version?

We’ve all been using various 32-bit versions of Windows for years now, but clearly the future belongs to 64-bit computing. What do you need to know before you get a jump on destiny? Here are some answers.

Q: Why would I want to run 64-bit Windows?

A: You’ll get access to more system memory. The 32-bit versions of Windows —Vista and XP — can access a maximum of 4GB of system memory. In practice, however, some of that system memory is reserved for the operating system and other processes, so your applications end up with significantly less. It’s not uncommon for a computer with 4GB of memory installed to have only 3GB available once the operating system and other processes stake their claim to the memory.

While 3GB may have seemed like a lot of memory a few years ago, today all you need to do is run a memory-hungry photo program, load a half-dozen large files, and you could be pushing the limits of your installed memory.

The 64-bit version of Windows Vista can access much more than 4GB of RAM. Vista Ultimate, Enterprise, and Business can access 128GB of RAM. Home Premium can access 16GB, while Home Basic will max out at 8GB.

Having the ability to access more memory in your computer gives you a couple of advantages. First, you can load more applications and more files within those applications. Second, your overall computing experience should be smoother, since swapping from one application to another will hopefully take place in memory and not rely on caching data to the hard drive, which slows you down.

Q: Is the 64-bit version of Windows Vista faster than the 32-bit version?

A: Theoretically, the 64-bit version of Windows should allow your computer to process twice as much data as a 32-bit operating system in the same amount of time. In practice, though, you will not see a doubling of performance with a 64-bit operating system, in part because there are so many variables — both in hardware and software — that must be optimized for 64-bit computing.

In fact, if you run the 64-bit version of Windows with only 4GB of system memory, you may find that the computer runs a tad slower than with a 32-bit operating system due to the way computer instructions are stored in memory in 64-bit systems — essentially, they take up more space. So you should have more than 4GB of memory when running a 64-bit version of Windows. If you do, you should see a slight real-world performance improvement when running a 64-bit application.

Q: Are there any disadvantages with the 64-bit version of Windows?

A: Your primary concerns should be software compatibility and drivers. Since 64-bit operating systems are not yet used as widely as 32-bit versions, not all computer software vendors have gotten around to ensuring that their programs run properly under 64-bit Windows. Many have, though. So before you install 64-bit Windows or buy a computer with it pre-loaded, check your major software applications to ensure that they’re compatible.

You’ll also want to make sure you can use all of your peripherals — printer, scanner, Webcam — with 64-bit Windows. And that means checking with the manufacturers to see whether 64-bit versions of the appropriate driver software are available.

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