32 bit versus 64 bit-what you should know

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Now that Microsoft Windows 7 has been released, new PCs will most likely be sold with it pre-installed. Windows 7 offers several enhancements and improvements over Vista and even those who already have computers running Vista will most likely want to upgrade to Windows 7.

Each Windows 7 package contains two DVDs. One is the 32 bit version of the operating system and the other the 64 bit version. If Windows 7 came pre-installed on your computer and you want to know which version of Windows is installed, go to the Start menu, locate “Computer” or “My Computer” on the right-hand side of the menu, right click on that and select Properties. After “System type:” it should say either 32 bit or 64 bit operating system.

So what’s the difference between the two? Microsoft explains:

The 64-bit version of Windows handles large amounts of random access memory (RAM) more effectively than a 32-bit system.

The benefits are most apparent when you have a large amount of random access memory (RAM) installed on your computer, typically 4 GB of RAM or more. In such cases, because a 64-bit operating system can handle large amounts of memory more efficiently than a 32-bit operating system can, a 64-bit system can be more responsive when running several programs at the same time and switching between them frequently.

The main differences between the 32-bit versions of Windows Vista and the 64-bit versions of Windows Vista relate to memory accessibility, memory management, and enhanced security features. The security features that are available in the 64-bit versions of Windows Vista include the following:Kernel Patch Protection
Support for hardware-backed Data Execution Protection (DEP)
Mandatory driver signing
Removal of support for 32-bit drivers
Removal of the 16-bit subsystem
Kernel Patch Protection
Support for hardware-backed Data Execution Protection (DEP)
Mandatory driver signing
Removal of support for 32-bit drivers
Removal of the 16-bit subsystem

One of the greatest advantages of using a 64-bit version of Windows Vista is the ability to access physical memory (RAM) that is above the 4-gigabyte (GB) range. This physical memory is not addressable by 32-bit versions of Windows Vista.

Depending on the version of Windows Vista that is installed, a 64-bit version of Windows Vista supports from 1 GB of RAM to more than 128 GB of RAM. The ability to address more physical memory lets Windows Vista minimize the time that is required to swap processes in and out of physical memory. Therefore, Windows Vista can manage processes more efficiently. This memory management feature helps improve the overall performance of Windows Vista.

Advantages when you install a 64-bit version of Windows Vista
Increased memory support beyond that of the 4-GB addressable memory space that is available in a 32-bit operating system
Increased program performance for programs that are written to take advantage of a 64-bit operating system
Enhanced security features

(Source-Microsoft)

So, 64 bit is faster and handles memory better, and more memory at that. So why doesn’t everyone install the 64 bit version of Windows?

Primarily because the hardware inside your computer has to support that version. If you have a 64 bit AMD or Intel processor you should be able to install the 64 bit version of Windows 7. But you may not want to. Why? Because there are limitations as to what software will run on the 64 bit version. In particular, hardware drivers.

We’ve discussed drivers before. They are essentially software programs that control the way Windows works with your hardware. Drivers are written for specific operating systems. In a continuation of the above, Microsoft says,

What to consider when you install a 64-bit version of Windows Vista
64-bit device drivers may not be available for one or more devices in the computer.
Device drivers must be digitally signed.
32-bit device drivers are not supported.
32-bit programs may not be fully compatible with a 64-bit operating system.
It may be difficult to locate programs that are written specifically for a 64-bit operating system.
Not all hardware devices may be compatible with a 64-bit version of Windows Vista.

The above pertains to both Windows Vista and 7. Installing the 64 bit version of Windows 7 may indeed speed up your system but may also make it impossible to find drivers for your printer or fax machine. Microsoft warns, “All hardware devices need 64-bit drivers to work on a 64-bit version of Windows. Drivers designed for 32-bit versions of Windows don’t work on computers running 64-bit versions of Windows.”

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