Choosing between Vista x86 32 bit or x64 64 bit

Choosing between Vista x86 32 bit or x64 64 bit

Summary: One of the more common questions I hear about Vista is which bit version of Windows Vista should one get.  Do we go with x86 32 bit edition or x64 64 bit edition?

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TOPICS: Hardware
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One of the more common questions I hear about Vista is which bit version of Windows Vista should one get.  Do we go with x86 32 bit edition or x64 64 bit edition?  I'm going to try to clear that question up as best as I can and explain the pros and cons of each choice.

First we must understand a little background on what x64 is.  X64 is the 64 bit extension technology that AMD invented (AMD64) to seamlessly migrate the 32 bit x86 (as in 286, 386, 486 compatible microprocessors) world into a 64 bit era.  Intel in partnership with HP had refused to extend the ancient x86 platform and had already committed to its all new pure 64 bit IA-64 Itanium architecture.  While Itanium was fundamentally superior, its x86 emulation provided inferior performance for existing applications and the adoption rate was very slow.  Intel had hoped that the market would leap to the new platform but there was no seamless way of making that migration, and Itanium failed to gain widespread adoption.  AMD took the opportunity to extend the existing x86 architecture with 64 bit capability by handling 64 bit CPU registers and adding a lot more registers, and it was immediately greeted warmly by the market.  In a reversal of roles, Intel found itself copying AMD64 (permitted by an AMD-Intel cross-licensing agreement) and calling it EM64T.  The two x64 technologies are essentially identical except for a few minor differences in the implementation.

Microsoft initially created a version of Windows XP called XP 64 bit Edition, a pure 64 bit operating system that ran on IA-64 Itanium and only supported x86 applications through emulation.  There was even a Windows 2000 Server version for IA-64 as well.  The problem was that the adoption rate of IA-64 was very slow, and when AMD created AMD64--with Intel having no choice but to follow--Microsoft created the x64 edition of Windows XP as well as Windows Server 2003.  The x64 editions were hybrid 32/64 bit operating systems that could natively run 32 or 64 bit code at full speeds without software emulation, whereas the 64 bit edition of Windows XP relied on software emulation to run existing x86 32 bit code.  With the release of Vista, Microsoft simultaneously launched the 32 bit x86 and the 64 bit x64 editions.  The retail editions contain both the x86 and x64 editions, while the OEM versions contain one or the other and you have to decide before you order.  Now one of the most common questions people ask is whether to run 32 or 64 bit Vista.

The first thing you must do is to make sure your particular CPU supports x64. [Dave Leigh in the talkback posted this link to Steve Gibson's x64 detector which is a simple utility to check your hardware.] Here's a simplified summary of the situation:

  • Almost all new servers sold within the last two years from AMD or Intel will have x64 capability.
  • Most mid- to high-end desktop processors from AMD or Intel within the last year have x64 capability.
  • Some higher-end Semprons have x64; lower-end Semprons do not.
  • No AMD Durons have x64.
  • All AMD Opteron processors have x64.
  • All AMD X2, FX, and Athlon64 chips have x64.
  • All Intel Pentium D and Celeron D chips have x64.
  • All AMD Turion notebook processors have x64.
  • All Intel Core 2 processors (mobile, desktop, and server) have x64.
  • No Intel Core Duo notebook processors have x64
  • No Intel Pentium M notebook processors have x64.

[Next page - Drivers are the death of x64]

Drivers are the death of x64

The second thing you must check is to see if all your hardware has x64 Vista driver support, either included in the OS or downloadable from the hardware vendor.  At this point, many motherboard makers have failed to include the latest 5.1 sound and network drivers, and you might have to look to the chipset maker for drivers.  For example, you can find Realtek 32/64 bit drivers here for Gigabit LAN and 5.1 audio support.  NVIDIA has the latest 32 bit and 64 bit drivers.  ATI (AMD) has 32 and 64 bit drivers here.  Creative has drivers here, but its x64 support is sorely lacking, and it's either missing or in beta.  While these are the fundamental hardware drivers you'll need, the killer for Vista x64 edition is finding drivers for obscure hardware like cameras, printers, scanners, and other accessories.

You don't have to worry about 32 bit software compatibility in Windows Vista or XP x64, since they run natively and seamlessly, but drivers are an absolute killer.  If you happen to find 32 bit drivers for your device but no 64 bit drivers, you're out of luck if you're running x64 Windows XP or Vista.  For this reason, x64 edition for a typical consumer is usually not very practical because there are simply too many hardware peripherals you won't be able to use.  Getting the computer itself to work is relatively easy; it's the one or two obscure devices that stops you dead in your tracks if you must have that device working.  For this reason, no PC maker (that I'm aware of) will pre-load x64 edition of Windows on its PC because it will be a support nightmare if a customer starts complaining about a printer driver that won't load.  To this date, Apple iTunes won't support any x64 edition of Windows, and it will absolutely not work at all because of hardware driver issues.

Servers, on the other hand, don't typically ever need to see peripheral devices, and they need to work with only the limited set of hardware they're sold with.  Any self-respecting server hardware trying to sell you something like an HBA Fiber Channel adapter or iSCSI adapter will have to offer full x64 support.  Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, for example, ONLY comes in x64 editions, and we're likely to see more software coming out like this to promote 64 bit.  There is very little risk in standardizing on x64 edition in the data center since all legacy 32 bit applications will run natively at full speed.

Dedicated workstations for professionals are another great candidate for x64 edition so long as they're willing to put up with limited peripheral support.  x64 allows high performance computing tasks to run extremely fast and efficiently.  The free Paint.NET image editing application, for example, is fully optimized for multi-core and x64, yet Adobe can't get its act together and won't even release an x64 edition of the upcoming Photoshop CS3.  That doesn't mean you can't run x86 Photoshop; in fact, it will still probably run a little better on Windows x64 because more than 4 GBs of RAM can be supported with ease, which gives more memory to Photoshop.  It's just a crying shame for Adobe to lag behind, because Paint.NET has shown tremendous speed increases using x64 for filtering and layering effects on the order of 50 to 100 percent speed boosts.  Adobe should have been supporting x64 two years ago and it won't even do it next year.

The bottom line is that you have to look at your own hardware limitations before you can make any kind of a transition.  If all the hardware you want to use will work on Vista x64, it's well worth the transition.

[poll id=18]

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Topic: Hardware

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119 comments
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  • Making it simple

    Steve Gibson's got a little utility that will tell you whether you've got 64 extensions:
    http://www.grc.com/securable.htm
    dave.leigh9
    • Thanks for the tip!

      (nt)
      Tazjhe
      • Ditto! (nt)

        NT
        klumper
  • Using XP x64

    First, I'd like to say to all those people who say iTunes just won't work on any x64 OS...that it works fine for me. I'm running it on XP x64 Edition without any problems.

    And, there is some software that just plain won't work too. For example, Rhapsody 4 will not work on any x64 platform since they use 16-bit DRM DLLs, which will not work on x64.

    I got XP x64 about 2 weeks after it came out since my PC died and I needed to build a new one, and I'm kind of sorry I did. As the author mentioned, the driver situation was, and still is, ugly. I've still got hardware over a year later that still doesn't have drivers.

    For home users, there's no real benefit of x64. Period. However, if you are a professional using programs that use a lot of memory (like Photoshop with large images...like me), having x64 so you can use > 4GB of RAM is really a big help.
    bmccann1
    • The benefit will come.

      "For home users, there's no real benefit of x64. Period."

      It will come. Software is always getting bigger as hardware advances, and we'll hit that 4 GB barrier sooner than you think. Already with Vista 1 GB is becoming smaller, and more people are thinking about 2 GB. Moore's law says 4 GB is just around the corner - within two or three years we'll all be upgrading to 64 bit as 4 GB will just not be enough.

      By then hopefully more drivers will be available.
      CobraA1
  • Vista upgrade advisor??

    Does the Vista upgrade advisor help to identify hardware that will be an issue in the x64 world with drivers either available or not?
    sfeldman67
    • No, it does not.

      It runs hardware tests to see if your computer is up to the job. It does no software checking.
      ShadeTree
    • upgrade 32bit to 64bit

      NO - Vista upgrade advisor is not for Vista 64bit. I bought Vista Ultimate 64bit upgrade and can not install it on a Gateway Fx6800 01e computer running Vista Home Premium 64bit. Went to advisor and said it is not for 64bit, got no help. now stuck with a $200.00 paper weight. Sure wish Gateway, Best Buy Geek People or Microsoft would have told me befor I spent Two weeks of going nuts with trying to install it.
      LouChristie
  • This is where

    Linux shines. I am running 64 bit at home now, a dual core AMD, and everything works. I don't understand how Linux can make the 64 system work with it's generic (except my nVidia and HP drivers) drivers and Windows can't? OpenSuSE has done a wonderful job of creating the x86_64 distribution that has all the software working correctly and without narry a fuss from me!

    Just thought I would throw that out there. ]:)
    Linux User 147560
    • Actually it is also where Vista shines too.

      The driver support for Vista x64 is actually very good. I am running it right now and haven't run into any issues yet. The problem will primarily be with older peripherals that the manufacturer has dropped support for.
      ShadeTree
    • why Linux provides 64-bit drivers faster than Vista

      Simple: the Linux kernel has been set for a long time to run in 64-bit: it ran on Itanium, as a matter of fact, and DEC Alpha were 64-bit processors too.
      As a general rule, most free/opensource softwares and drivers take care to use precisely defined data types and endianness-agnostic routines in their code. Meaning that, in more cases than not, when AMD64 was created, as soon as a compiler (say, gcc) was able to build for it, most drivers could be compiled and run in that mode - and AMD did provide enough samples and engineering support to make sure AMD64 all the wrinkles were out when they actually released the first Opterons.
      Considering you have Free drivers for (see the Linux kernel hardware modules) most chipsets, network cards, several webcams, all HP printers and Intel hardware, most Nvidia hardware (all, if you consider they maintain the limited 2D driver), some Ati hardware, and several sound cards, you could basically take a distro, compile it in 64-bit and have it run the same as it was in 32-bit (with added speed) with chipset, video, sound, network and webcam support.
      Some corner cases needed to be cleaned, though: apps like OpenOffice.org, which were 32-bit only, needed a lot of cleaning up to run on 64-bit systems. Said cleaning up is well on its way though, and you can run the latest release candidate in 64-bit mode without trouble (provided you can compile it yourself). Considering how big OOo is, if it's almost done being cleaned up, you can say that any other project that isn't 64-bit safe right now is either too small or dying.
      Mitch 74
  • I would wait until all the hardware is 64 bit.

    The motherboards you buy today at good prices only have 32 bit pci slots. You have to buy an expensive server motherboard to get 64 bit pci slots and then find the daughter cards that support 64 bits to take advantage of it. This is the main bottleneck in the hardware. Those cheap integrate mobos are really 64/32 hybrids and the 32 bit part of the mobo is the one that needs to come up to 64 bits, for that part of the system is naturally slower than the cpu. Leaving that part at 32 bits is a performance disaster. Of course most folks don't have $350 and up for a complete 64 bit mobo, not to mention the more expensive daughter cards. PCI express will address this. I would wait a while longer. Itanium was way too early.
    osreinstall
    • PCI data path has nothing to do with x64

      You don't need 64 bit PCI slots to use x64 Windows or x64 Linux. They have nothing to do with each other.
      georgeou
      • We will still be retrieving data at 32 bits.

        I know you don't. But you need the 32 bit drivers to activate the 32 bit bus. Almost kind of pointless because if they were to go 64 bit throughout it would be the biggest boost for performance since this subsystem is the bottleneck. Right now it is a minor improvement in performance. Kind of like putting a 427 in a subpar chassis vs a 350 in a state of the art one. The 350 will defeat it everytime.


        Plus there is no consumer software for it yet. I would still wait and I would buy the mobo to justify it.
        osreinstall
        • Your issue is irrelevant

          PCI-Express is now even faster than the PCI-X 64 bit interface and that's what all modern desktop, mobile, and server motherboards use. The bus interface speed isn't the bottle neck of system performance and I don't know why you would think it is.
          georgeou
          • Not Really.

            PCI Express is also 64 bit. Faster than an earlier spec of it. I also thought it was just coming out. Invented in 2004 by Intel. Also there is only one slot where the others are 32 bit. Even if all the slots are PCI-e the daughter cards from all the vendors are still 32 bit. I just think it is because some of it is still 32 bit. I would like to see 64 bit from the read write heads to the L2 cache and all the daughter cards. This would be the biggest increase percentage wise in speed. Once in memory it doesn't matter, you are right, but retrieval speeds are still far behind.
            osreinstall
          • Again, you don't need that kind of bandwidth for most cards

            The only place you need super bandwidth is 10 gigabit Ethernet and 2+ gigabit fiber channel. A 32 bit PCI slot can transfer 1 gigabit per second.
            georgeou
          • True, but I was in a purist mode. Sound would have less latency.

            The hard drives need that bandwidth though. Cache is for parts of systems that don't match in speed due to different arrival times. They have 16MB of cache on the hard drives now. I know the read write heads are slow but a 64 bit path would help greatly.
            osreinstall
          • You're going off into orbit

            Forget the purist mode, listen to what George is saying. You're crossing your wires here mate.
            klumper
          • I suppose

            But those hard drives could be sped up with 64 bit I/O, the biggest bottleneck in the whole computer, even if you use a solid state drive. Nothing orbital about that. I understand costs of retooling. So does Intel. ;)
            osreinstall