January 17, 2010

32-bit Versions of Windows 7

The differences between 32-bit (x86) versions of Windows 7 and 64-bit (x64) versions are more complex, but here’s the weird bit: though virtually every single PC sold over the past several years was x64 compatible, virtually every single copy of Windows that went out the door before Windows 7 was, in fact, a 32-bit version.

No more. With Windows 7, it’s time to leave the 32-bit world behind for good, and the frst step is to run a 64-bit version of Windows 7. These versions of Windows 7 are fully compatible with most of the 32-bit software that runs on 32-bit versions of the OS, and they are likewise just about as compatible with the wide number of hardware devices that are available on the market.

The biggest reason to go 64-bit is RAM: after all, 64-bit versions of Windows 7 can access far more RAM than 32-bit versions (up to 192GB, depending on which version of Windows 7 you’re talking about, compared to less than 4GB of RAM in 32-bit versions). Folks, with one minor exception, it’s time to say good-bye to 32-bit versions of Windows. So with Windows 7, almost universally, we recommend that you seek out 64-bit (x64) versions instead.

What is the one exception? Many netbook computers come with a version of Intel’s Atom microprocessor that is incompatible with the x64 instruction set, and thus with x64 versions of Windows 7. On such a PC, you will need to use a 32-bit version of Windows 7 instead. And that’s just fne: given the limited usage scenarios for these computing lightweights, that’s perfectly acceptable. It’s also the exception to the rule.

Though 32-bit versions of Windows 7 “support” 4GB of RAM, they can only access about 3.1GB of RAM, even when a full 4GB of RAM is installed in the PC. This is because of a limitation in the way that 32-bit versions of Windows handle memory access. If you were to install an x64 version of Windows 7 on the same system, you would have access to the entire 4GB of RAM. The 64-bit Windows 7 versions have dramatically improved memory capacity, as noted in the preceding tables.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, 64-bit software isn’t magically faster than 32-bit software. That said, 64-bit PCs running a 64-bit version of Windows 7 and native 64-bit software can often outperform 32-bit alternatives. But that’s because you can stick far more RAM in the 64-bit machine: systems with massive amounts of memory just aren’t as constrained and can operate to their full potential.

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