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64 Bit Operating Systems
This TekSpek explains the essentials required to run a 64-bit operating system and native 64-bit applications on a modern 64-bit capable PC system.
AMD and Intel have both recently made the jump to 64-bit x86 computing, updating their older Athlon and Pentium product lines with SKUs that extend their processing worlds into 64 bits. The jump to 64-bit x86 computing therefore requires one of those processors and a supporting PC platform capable of running it, in terms of hardware. Almost all PCs sold in the last 12 months, that aren't at the very budget end of the scale, support 64-bit, giving ample scope for the user of a modern PC to try their hand at truly 64-bit computing.
Most people with an Athlon 64 or supporting Pentium processor likely will still be running a 32-bit operating system, so unlocking the full capabilities of the CPU and platform that you own requires a fresh investment in software.
The market for 64-bit software is an evolving one, application development requiring a supporting operating system both for the developer to engineer it on, and for the customer to run it with. After seeing AMD's success in delivering a well-received 64-bit x86 platform, Intel declared 2005 the year of 64-bit computing in the enterprise, with 2006 the year of 64-bit on the desktop, no doubt inspired by the confirmed release of Windows Vista.
So while native 64-bit applications and operating systems exist, the overwhelming majority of software released, at least for Windows, is compiled for a 32-bit target. The good news is that all 64-bit x86 operating systems can run 32-bit code without any problems.
AMD's own AMD64 Ecosystem site shows over 1300 software packages from over 300 software developers.
The Operating Systems
Microsoft have released 64-bit x86 versions of all their major Windows operating systems, since the release of supporting processors and their container platforms. You can download and evaluate 64-bit versions of Windows XP Professional, Windows Server 2003 and others, for free, directly from microsoft.com. The Windows XP 64-bit Trial page gives you all the information needed to evaluate the operating system before a purchase.
If you do decide to pick up a copy, you can get it from our very own webstore for under £100, provided it's purchased with a suitable piece of hardware, here. Installation of the 64-bit version is done in exactly the same way as the 32-bit version, if you're doing it from scratch, so there's no worries there.
The other option for 64-bit x86 desktop computing is Linux, available in any number of well-supported and popular distributions. Most won't even cost you any money, bar that of a CD or DVD to burn it to, to install from. The distributions have progressed to the stage where they'll happily co-exist with Windows installations and, like Microsoft's operating systems, they'll run 32-bit Linux binaries at the same time as 64-bit software, due to a supporting layer and OS infrastructure, with no performance loss to really speak of, if at all.
Native 64-bit Software
The move to native 64-bit software has, obviously when you think about it, occurred first where it's needed most. Digital content creation, CAD/CAM, software development and visualisation tools are just a few of the markets that have embraced 64-bit with open arms. Games development is now starting to take place in fully 64-bit environments, meaning the developer is spitting out 32-bit and 64-bit versions of a game at the end of the development process, with games prime targets for the 64-bit makeover and associated performance improvements.
Photoshop CS2 takes good advantage of a 64-bit Windows OS with support for taking up to 3.5GB of physical memory where available, popular applications like Ahead's Nero Burning ROM and NOD32 anti-virus software are 64-bit native, Sun offer a native 64-bit version of their Java 2 Runtime Environment (J2RE) and you can get 64-bit versions of Half Life 2 (from Steam), Far Cry and Chronicles of Riddick.
Mozilla offer 64-bit native versions of Firefox that work with all the extensions that the 32-bit copies do, you get a native 64-bit version of Internet Explorer with Windows XP 64-bit, O&O's defrag tool is available in a native 64-bit version, CloneDVD is 64-bit and Tiny's firewall is available as a native 64-bit download, too.
In short, there's a decent amount of native software available with more coming on-stream with every passing day.
Ah, the middleman to make the OS and software work correctly. If there's anywhere your attempts to go 64-bit will stumble, it's currently in the driver arena. Put simply, driver vendors have a large investment to make for Windows Vista. Since Vista introduces a new driver model, it's been hard to ask hardware vendors to bring their drivers to 64-bit Windows XP and Server 2003. There's a large driver count these days, ensuring that most common and popular hardware configurations should be fine, at least on a platform level.
It's peripheral support that's lacking the most. Things like printers, webcams and scanners might never see a 64-bit driver before Vista arrives, with wireless networking hardware the other bugbear in terms of lacking hardware support. However, all that said, it might surprise you just how much of your hardware is supported. And the great thing is that it's easy to check.
There are dozens of great online resources dedicated to 64-bit x86 computing on Windows and Linux, where you can check up on hardware support, native 64-bit application software and games, and what's coming. We suggest you start with Microsoft's Expert Zone x64 Community, Microsoft's Tested Products page, 3DVelocity's compatibility list, the AMD AMD64 EcoSystem and good old Google.
In summary, AMD64 processors and supporting platforms are pervasive in modern PC systems and the software migration is happening, albeit somewhat slowly for the time being. The march towards 64-bit computing is a strong one, and AMD64 is the reason it'll happen on your PC desktop.
The software side of things continues to grow with operating system support there, Vista coming, natively application software continuing to become available and driver writers catching up daily. Research is easy to do and it's likely that, given a reasonably recent PC, moving to 64-bit Windows or Linux will be relatively pain free. Remember that 32-bit software can be used and run in all but the rarest of occasions. Best of all is that 64-bit Linux and Windows can be trialled for no money, letting you dip your toe in the water and see how it feels, before cutting over completely.
This TekSpek author currently runs a 64-bit OS and suggests you do that toe dipping, if you've got the hardware.