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Windows XP x64 Edition Basics

Now that Microsoft have released Windows XP x64 Edition, hype is building to super levels about this new version of Windows.  This isn't suppose to be an in-depth uber-geek article on x64, just a quick overview for regular computer users.

What's new?

It's basically Windows XP Professional - only it supports the new 64-bit chips from AMD and Intel (previously known as AMD64 now known as x64). Computers go through stages, there was 8-bit, then 16-bit, then in 1995, 32-bit took off with Windows 95.  Each new era of computing generally increases performance and most importantly allows for more memory (RAM) our 32-bit computers today are limited to 4GB of memory.  This may sound like a lot of RAM to have for your average desktop, but it's not really, 10 years ago we would of had had 16MB, now a typical power machine would have 1024MB, so in just a couple of years we're going to be banging into that 4GB limit like moths to a bulb.

The new 64-bit version of Windows will allow for 128GB of memory (the actual theoretical limit for 64-bit processor is 16EB - an exabyte is about 1 billion gigabytes). To put things in perspective:

32-bit address space: 4 294 967 296 bytes (4GB).
64-bit address space: 18 446 744 073 709 551 616 bytes (16EB).

Memory like that even makes our hard drives seem microscopic...!

Typical hard drive today: 85 899 345 920 bytes (80GB).

What's the catch?

It does come with it's downsides, if you try and run a program designed for 32-bit on a 64-bit system, it sees something it doesn't understand and could well not work. AMD (the people who designed the new 64-bit chips) made them backwards compatible, that is why your machine may already have one of these 64-bit chips inside, yet they run 32-bit programs and 32-bit Windows today. That's the hardware out of the way, now for software, Microsoft spent a lot of time developing something called WoW (Windows on Windows). This basically means the new 64-bit version of Windows can emulate it's 32-bit uncle, just like you can run 16-bit programs on Windows XP today. So most of your programs will work on x64, but some may not.  This has certainly come along way, back in previous switch-overs everything broke, you'd need a brand new OS and brand new programs. It's vastly improved over this, but it isn't perfect.

Microsoft also took the opportunity to remove a lot of legacy dead-wood from Windows XP, just like it runs WoW today to make your 16-bit applications work, the new x64 Edition won't be able to run Windows on Windows on Windows, aka 64-bit, 32-bit and 16-bit. So the 16-bit world has been cut off, at last in my opinion.

OK, OK but do I need it?

If you're a regular home user or even quite a heavy gamer, to be blunt no. But ask again in 5 years times, and it will probably be a very overwhelming yes.

Should I upgrade today?

Well it's entirely up to you, you may see some performance increases with your 32-bit applications and you may see some decreases.  However with programs designed for 64-bits you'll notice quite a nice increase in performance over their 32-bit counterparts, and when we start getting systems with more then 3-4GB you'll start seeing the real benefits - lots of memory.

I've come up with a 10 point computer savvyness meter, yes feel free to call it a geek'o'meter.  Be aware even if you do decide to install it, it could well mean many hours of keyboard and mouse work.

What I can do with my computer.

Should I upgrade today.

I can send e-mails and browse the web. Nah, best not.
I am Steve Jobs - what's the start button? Go to Windows 95, do not pass Go, do not collect £200.
I can install new programs and can do basic tasks. Probably not a good idea.
I understand what drivers are and how to update them. Probably not.
I know how to install Windows. May be.
I know how to do advanced troubleshooting. Give it some serious thought.
I've built all my computers and run a home network Give it a lot of serious thought.
I am a total geek that knows Windows like the back of my hand. Order the trial version today!
I am a total geek that must have all the latest stuff before everybody else. Yes.
I am Bill Gates. You're already using it!

Please be aware you will obviously need a 64-bit CPU in your computer, so it will have to be quite modern, chips such as AMD's Athlon 64 and some of the newest Pentiums (check with the documentation that came with your machine).  You will also need entirely 64-bit drivers for your computer, not all hardware is yet supported.

Links: Microsoft's Windows XP x64 page, PlanetAMD64, Extended 64.

Last updated 3rd of May 2005.