Today’s PCs come pre-installed with either the 32-bit (also known as x86) or the 64-bit (also known as x64) edition of Windows. With the full retail package of Windows 7 (which includes one 32-bit and one 64-bit disc) now available, both novice and professional computer users are having a difficult time deciding which version they should use—especially when it comes to maximizing performance.
Which one to choose
Every box of Windows 7 comes with both the 32- and thr 64-bit-DVDs: So which one should you install? This performance and feature check helps you make the right choice.
Most experts would recommend installing the 64-bit version of Windows, as it is supposed to make your system run faster. On its Web site, Microsoft notes: “If you’re shopping for a new PC, you’re probably going to come across systems that are designated ’64-bit.’ These are computers running 64-bit editions of Windows, typically with 4 Gbyte of memory or more. Compared to 32-bit systems, which top out at around 3 Gbyte of memory, 64-bit PCs offer added responsiveness for people who are running a lot of applications at the same time and switching between them frequently.”
But, how much truth is there behind this? The TuneUp research team recently conducted an intense set of benchmarks to compare the performance of both editions.
- AMD launched its first consumer 64-bit processor, the Athlon 64, in 2003, and marketed it as a great performance booster and the future of computing.
- Microsoft soon followed with a 64-bit version of Windows XP; however, this was essentially unusable since a lot of programs and drivers did not yet work with 64-bit hardware.
- Over the past two years, the 64-bit version of Windows Vista has become a more mature product. Thanks to a couple of compatibility updates from Microsoft and increased industry support, more than 95% of new hardware and software products now work well with the architecture.
- More processing power: In very basic terms, 64-bit means that it can handle twice as many bits per clock cycle. For more on the technicalities of the architecture, we recommend reading this Wikipedia entry.
- More memory: The 32-bit consumer version of Windows is only capable of addressing 3 to 3.5 Gbyte of RAM; therefore, when you use more than 4 Gbyte, the additional RAM goes to waste. Hitting the 3 to 3.5 Gbyte limit only occurs if you work with several memory-hungry programs at the same time.
- Performance advantage: Practically speaking, applications can make use of the 64-bit architecture to process huge data operations more quickly. This is especially important with advanced programs, such as video editing suites, games, or encryption software.
- More security: The 64-bit versions of Windows Vista and 7 contain Kernel Patch Protection which prevents malicious programs from changing the Windows kernel. The operating systems also boast a Data Execution Prevention which uses a special processor feature to prevent an application from running code from a memory region where it’s not supposed to run. Overall, the 64-bit edition is more secure than its 32-bit counterpart.
- Possible driver issues:32-bit drivers are not supported; hardware manufacturers have to provide special 64-bit versions. However, this is not as much of an issue anymore, as nearly all of the hardware that has been released over the past three years has shipped with drivers right out of the box. If not, these drivers will come via Windows Updates or download from the company’s support Web sites.
- Higher memory consumption: All memory addresses are now 64 bits long instead of 32 bits. This results in a larger memory footprint for Windows and applications. We’ve seen 64-bit versions of Windows Vista and 7 taking up 200-350 Mbyte more RAM than 32-bit versions. If you have at least 3 Gbyte of main memory, this is not an issue, but on a low-end machine (1-2 GB), this causes more access to the hard disk and potentially slows down the machine.
- No compatibility with 16-bit software: Support for old 16-bit applications has been disabled. In most cases, this is not an issue, except when you or your company uses legacy software that has some 16-bit parts still built into it.
- Additional Windows layer: 32-bit applications run under the Windows on Windows 64 (WoW64) environment, which emulates the old 32-bit Windows systems. This means that all 32-bit programs need to go through an additional layer in Windows before they can be processed. Although this layer is very thin, it usually results in a 2% performance loss.
What we put to the test—both the 32-bit and 64-bit editions of Windows 7 on the same machine, with the exact same set of programs and drivers—and installed in the same order. Both installations were used for at least three days in order to ensure that the Windows Indexer, the Windows Superfetch, and other features would not interfere. The TuneUp team strictly held to the official benchmark guidelines provided by Microsoft’s Windows Hardware Developer Central.
To compare the results, we used a desktop PC with a Core 2 Duo 3.0 GHz processor, 4 Gbyte of RAM, and a GeForce 8800 GT graphics card. To test how well the more memory-hungry 64-bit architecture behaved with less memory, we also removed 2 Gbyte and ran the tests again.
- Compressing a 1 Gbyte file into ZIP format: This test shows how well the operating system handles tasks that really push the CPU. To compress the file, we used WinRAR, and on the 64-bit edition of Windows, we used the 64-bit version of WinRAR.
- 3D Mark Vantage: This measures the performance of modern 3D games with standard settings.
- PC Mark Vantage: This series of benchmark tools is designed to test the productivity of the CPU, and read/write speeds of the memory and hard disks. It also tests the machine by automatically performing tasks such as playing multiple video files, editing photos or filling up WordPad with dozens of pages of text. We used the “default run” here.
- Cinebench: This benchmark measures the processor and graphics card performance under real world scenarios. It is based on the very popular CINEMA 4D, a product to create 3D special effects.
- Crysis: We used this graphically intense game to see if there is a gain in performance. As in the case of WinRAR, we used the 64-bit version of Crysis.
Compressing a 1 Gbyte file into ZIP format
The 64-bit version of WinRAR is clearly the leader. It was able to compress a 1080p HD file in little over one minute. The 32-bit version of Windows and WinRAR took noticeably longer to complete the task.
3D Mark Vantage
We noticed that the increased memory consumption of the 64-bit version of Windows slowed down the performance. The 32-bit version of Windows left its memory-hungry counterpart in the dust. As you can see, adding more RAM and going to 64-bit changed the game.
PC Mark Vantage
The latest version of the PC Mark Vantage is much more focused on actual (rather than simulated) scenarios. For example, PC Mark opens WordPad, several browser instances and HD videos, and edits photos over the course of the benchmark. The results here were quite obvious; when working with multiple programs, 64-bit takes the lead—in combination with 4 Gbyte of RAM. Under the 2 Gbyte system, the 32-bit version performed faster, probably because the 64-bit edition of Windows used up more RAM, and was not able to free up more for the benchmarks.
Cinebench, which made heavy use of the CPU and GPU, really took advantage of the 64-bit environment, as it drew a lot of data-intense 3D graphics on the screen.
Crysis 1680×1050, Medium
We configured Crysis with a resolution of 1680×1050 and used the “Medium” graphic settings, which provide a good compromise between performance and visual quality. The 64-bit optimized version of Crysis did not take the lead with more memory, and again did not perform well with less memory. This came to us as quite a surprise, as Crysis features its own 64-bit mode; however, it didn’t get slower. We figure that the 64-bit mode is a benefit in situations where there are more enemies and larger territories in the game than in the standard Crysis benchmark.
There are no two ways about it—64-bit is the future. There might be some configurations, especially on older PCs with legacy programs and devices or PCs with less than 2 Gbyte of RAM, where 64-bit does not offer any performance gains. In these cases, it makes sense to stick with the 32-bit version of Windows. If your computer came preinstalled with a 32-bit operating system, and you never work with resource-intense applications, then you will not see any benefit from formatting your disk and installing a 64-bit edition.
But the PC industry is moving forward! 4 Gbyte of RAM is becoming the standard for consumer computers. Software is also becoming more memory-intense; there are more 64-bit-supported games coming out. In addition, the compatibility argument is becoming less of an issue. For the past 24 months, we have not seen any device not working with 64-bit editions of Windows Vista or 7. If you’re looking for a new computer, go x64, but first check to see if your programs and devices are ready for this architecture.
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