More bits on the desktop

Desktop computers are joining the world of 64-bit computing. AMD last week announced 64-bit Athlon processors for desktops and laptops, and Microsoft announced a beta release of Windows with support for the new chip.

Desktop computers are joining the world of 64-bit computing. AMD last week announced 64-bit Athlon processors for desktops and laptops, and Microsoft announced a beta release of Windows with support for the new chip.

Microsoft and AMD’s announcement confirms that the speediest new chips are likely to use 64-bit architectures. It comes just a few weeks after Apple started shipping its new G5 computers to customers in New Zealand.

Like the IBM processor used in the G5, the AMD chip also runs 32-bit programs natively, which eases migration issues and probably contributed to Microsoft’s decision to support the Athlon. Other 64-bit chips, such as Intel’s Itanium, are intended for servers and workstations and will only run 32-bit programs under emulation, which incurs a performance hit.

The main advantage of 64-bit processors is that they can use more memory, and handle data in chunks much larger than current 32-bit processors such as the Pentium.

Generally, 32-bit processors can access only 4GB of RAM. Although some operating system vendors have found ways around this limitation, individual applications and the operating system still can’t access more than 4GB for themselves.

By comparison, 64-bit systems should theoretically be able to use about 16 exabytes — 18 billion billion bits — although practical limits such as the speed of the system bus and the number of memory slots, not to mention the price of RAM, obviously mean we won’t be seeing that much memory on the desktop anytime soon.

Which leads to another question: who really needs 64-bit computing on the desktop? Intel, it seems, is a sceptic: CTO Pat Gelsinger said this month that 64 bits won’t be needed on the desktop for several years.

Speed shouldn’t necessarily be a factor, since 64-bit chips aren’t inherently faster than their 32-bit brethren (although the new chips do benchmark well). AMD’s announcement specifically mentioned gamers, who like to play on the bleeding edge. Other likely uses include modelling and scientific applications, currently running on workstations, which manipulate large amounts of data.

At the end of the day, it’s up to users whether they want 64-bit chips. An early clue might be the G5, which Apple NZ general manager Paul Johnston says selling “phenomenally well.”

“We took in over a million dollars’ of orders before people had even seen the product."

  • Christchurch PC maker Insite Technology expects to be shipping machines with the 64-bit Athlon chip by the end of October.

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