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Upgrade: 64 Bits of Freedom

Upgrade: 64 Bits of Freedom
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We show you how to upgrade to a 64-bit operating system for free. But more importantly, we tell you who should and who shouldn’t make the switch.

While 64-bit computers are commonplace today, 64-bit operating systems are only just becoming mainstream. Your 32-bit operating system could also be limiting performance if your PC has a 64-bit CPU, which it probably does. A 64-bit operating system offers several key advantages over its 32-bit counterpart. First and foremost is the ability to take advantage of more than 4 GB of memory. A 32-bit operating system is inherently limited to 4,096 MB of memory, meaning after video memory and other peripheral memory, your computer may only be able to use 3 GB of RAM or less. Because of this 4,096 MB limit, files larger than this can take longer to load because they are constantly called from the hard drive instead of the much faster page file memory or RAM. A 64-bit operating system, on the other hand, can boost this limit to 16,000 petabytes (although, in common practice, your software generally limits it to 128 GB).

A 64-bit operating system can also give significant performance increases when running 64-bit versions of software. Some of the largest gains come in very computationally-intensive tasks that deal with high-precision numbers (like 3D rendering and physics simulations). Things like data encryption can run up to five times faster in a 64-bit environment compared to the same system with a 32-bit operating system. You probably don’t do that type of computing, but more popular programs also see performance increases including Photoshop, many compression programs (like 7zip), and video codecs. Even games perform better on a 64-bit system because it gives them access to more than 2 GB of memory and greatly increases stability thanks to the 64-bit operating system’s added precision.

There are also a few downsides to upgrading to a 64-bit operating system. For example, running 32-bit programs in a 64-bit environment can be problematic. Occasionally, 32-bit programs may have trouble running or will not even run at all. Fortunately, this is an issue very rarely experienced now that 64-bit systems have become so mainstream. However, running 32-bit programs on a 64-bit operating system can use a fair bit more RAM, so if you have a computer with just 2 GB or less of RAM, it's probably better for you to stick with a 32-bit operating system.

If you think a 64-bit operating system sounds appealing to you, there’s a way to upgrade both Windows Vista and Windows 7 to 64-bits for free.

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  • 9 Hide
    jacobdrj , January 25, 2010 6:43 PM
    I like this article. Good job Tom's
  • 3 Hide
    seth89 , January 25, 2010 7:48 PM
    Sweet detailed review, I too know a few people who still think XP pro 32bit OS is all you need.

  • 5 Hide
    mjello , January 25, 2010 7:51 PM
    seth89Sweet detailed review, I too know a few people who still think XP pro 32bit OS is all you need.


    In most cases it is. The average PC user don't need more.

    Only enthusiast gamers and users of certain heavy duty applications have any use for 64 bit right now
  • -1 Hide
    quantumrand , January 25, 2010 8:17 PM
    mjelloIn most cases it is. The average PC user don't need more.Only enthusiast gamers and users of certain heavy duty applications have any use for 64 bit right now


    Actually, even average PC users are running into issues with that 3GB of RAM limitation. With the ever growing sizes of anti-virus programs and productivity software, and not to mention the not too uncommon practice of keeping 10-20 internet tabs open at a time, that 3GB of RAM is being heavily taxed.
  • 2 Hide
    quartzlock , January 25, 2010 9:28 PM
    Last time I touched a 32 bit OS was 5 years ago when xp64 came out. Even if you only have 2G of ram,you'll see the benefits of the 64 bit processor. I hope you all know that the boost doesn't lie in the extra memory addressing.
  • -2 Hide
    Anonymous , January 25, 2010 9:56 PM
    alienware wont send me a reinstallation dvd :'( 
    guess im out of luck :''(
  • -3 Hide
    vvhocare5 , January 25, 2010 10:35 PM
    This is an ok article - but insert CD and press enter is not the toughest thing to do, is it? If you are running 4G of RAM you should consider running the 64bit version. Drivers being the one issue why you wouldnt upgrade to 64bit. If you are under 4g stay with the 32 bit version
  • -2 Hide
    rooket , January 25, 2010 10:36 PM
    I use 64bit windows at work and 32bit windows at home. Although I know the differences, I don't benefit from 64bit at all to be perfectly honest. I'd just recommend installing 64bit windows if you have more than 4 gigabytes of RAM in your system. Otherwise it is kind of a waste of time to think about unless you are doing some high end rendering, cad, encryption, video encoding or decoding, etc. Games aren't going to see noticable improvement yet. 64bit is going to really catch on with the next generation of processors. now isn't the time to even worry about this type of stuff.
  • 1 Hide
    pakardbell486dx2 , January 26, 2010 1:42 AM
    Wait i thought it was not legal to download copies of windows even though you own the same version with a valid key. Some where in the digital Millennium act it says so....i think
  • 5 Hide
    quantumrand , January 26, 2010 1:57 AM
    pakardbell486dx2Wait i thought it was not legal to download copies of windows even though you own the same version with a valid key. Some where in the digital Millennium act it says so....i think


    It's not legal to download illegal copies of Windows. Any laws in place are to discourage illegal distrobution. Microsoft themselves provide copies of Windows for download, so obviously just downloading a copy of Windows is not illegal. Tom's Hardware isn't suggesting you use bit torrent to download a copy of Windoes. In fact they discourage it due to viruses and etc.

    If you pester MS enough, they'll actually provide you with a disk/iso after making you jump through a bunch of hoops.
  • -2 Hide
    enriquecano , January 26, 2010 9:12 AM
    You say:
    "If your computer came with 4 GB of RAM or more, you will notice that all of it not only shows up in your system information, but it is all accessible as well"
    but the screen snapshot shows:
    "4.00 GB (3.00 GB usable)"
    why is this?
    shouldn't all the 4 GB usable?
  • -2 Hide
    BartG , January 26, 2010 9:37 AM
    Enriquecano, Nope, windows limits you to use only 3 of the 4 GB, around the 3.1GB if i`m not mistaken. The exact reason for that I dont know, but you can google that.

    So in truth, having 4GB in a 32 bit system is a little overkill.
  • 1 Hide
    JonnyDough , January 26, 2010 1:08 PM
    "Virtually every manufacturer has released a 64-bit capable system with a 32-bit operating system at some point."

    Idiots. Does the 64-bit version cost the OEMs more?
  • 0 Hide
    terr281 , January 26, 2010 1:27 PM
    Enriguecano, if you view the available amount of ram via Control Panel\System on a 32 bit XP installation, it only shows the amount of ram that XP can use. (Example: Your 3 GB available versus 4 GB installed.)

    With 32 bit Vista installations, this was changed by Microsoft to allow Control Panel\System to show the physical amount of ram installed. However, you still only get ~3 GB of the available 4 GB for use.

    Now, the reason for your computer "losing" ~1 GB of usable ram is due to "addressing." In practice, 32 bit OSs can only allocate a total of "4 GB of system resources." What is included in this 4 GB? (System ram = ~3 GB, video card ram = ~ 512 MB, and another rough 256-512 MB "lost" due to allocating other parts of the system board.

    (Example: On my 32 bit XP Pro installation with 2 256 MB video cards in SLI, I would lose 256 MB if only one card was installed. However, if I installed the 2nd card in SLI, I would lose an additional 512 MB. This was due to the system having to lose an extra 256 MB in order to even communicate with the 2nd card. Hence, addressing.)

    Now, with all the above said, there are pluses and minuses to upgrading a 32 bit OS to a 64 bit one. I, despite my system having 4 GB of physical system ram, am in the camp that says that keeping 32 bit XP Pro on my system is better than upgrading... even though I have the software (Win 7 64 bit Home Premium retail) available. This is due to the following reasons:

    1. I have no need of DX 10+ on my system. (I don't play the newest games at this time.)
    2. Due to my acknowledgment years ago of the video card SLI issue, I upgraded from 2 256 MB cards to 1 512 MB card... hence recovering 256 MB of usable ram and getting a better video processor as well. (2 8600 GTs to 1 9800 GT.)
    3. The copy of 32 bit XP Pro on my desktop is an OEM copy. (I upgrade it, I lose it.)
    4. The Nvidia motherboard in the desktop is beginning to die anyway. (No use to introduce another potential issue when I know how the system runs with the current OS.)
    5. The desktop isn't used for Photoshop, CAD, etc. (It is basically a web browsing and older game playing machine.) As such, keeping it XP Pro actually helps. (Since, as many of us know, new OSs always make older games not want to run.) [Note: I keep a Windows 98 machine around for this same purpose... to run games that won't run in Win XP.]
    6. Despite my system having 4 x 1 GB of physial ram, with only 3 GB available, you don't lose "all" of the gain. The system still uses the chips in duel channel mode. I just lose 1 GB of maximum available.

    Again, there are many reasons to upgrade... my desktop just isn't one of them. (My mate's pc, on the other hand, could use the upgrade due to the 20+ browser tabs open at all times, etc. But, even then, the other benefits are lost.)

    To each their own.
  • 1 Hide
    jfem , January 26, 2010 1:39 PM
    Thanks to this article, I've been waiting for this 'cause I was wondering about the differences between the two. I bought an athlon 64 x2 and took a 64 bit os just because my cpu supports it but without knowing its meaning. I installed tiberium wars and noticed that it became slower than when I installed it on my old pc with pentium 4 and a 32 bit os. Correct me if I'm wrong but I think the game doesn't support 64 bit os.
  • 0 Hide
    terr281 , January 26, 2010 1:57 PM
    jfem, there are many reasons that you could be having the issue you describe. However, if you look at this link:

    http://www.cnclabs.com/cnc3/system-requirements.aspx

    You'll notice that Vista 64 bit wasn't supported at game launch. Thus, unless something has changed since then, you have a high likelihood of being correct regarding the slower game experience on your new pc versus the old. (For much else on the issue, create a forum post at http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/forum-13-54.html and someone will probably help you more.)
  • 0 Hide
    quantumrand , January 26, 2010 2:30 PM
    jfemThanks to this article, I've been waiting for this 'cause I was wondering about the differences between the two. I bought an athlon 64 x2 and took a 64 bit os just because my cpu supports it but without knowing its meaning. I installed tiberium wars and noticed that it became slower than when I installed it on my old pc with pentium 4 and a 32 bit os. Correct me if I'm wrong but I think the game doesn't support 64 bit os.


    As the article mentions, 32-bit programs can end up running slower on a 64-bit OS, especially if they don't have much RAM. In order for a 64-bit system to address all that extra memory, the addresses themselves take up more space (think of it like using a local phone number versus a long distance number where you need to add the area code).

    On top of the additional memory constraints, 64-bit operating systems run 32-bit applications on top of a compatibility layer instead of natively. This generally has very little effect on performance, but in some cases it can cause issues.
  • 1 Hide
    HolyCrusader , January 26, 2010 2:31 PM
    When Vista first came out, game performance was noticeably slower as compared to Windows XP, regardless of whether you were using Vista64 or Vista32. Optimizations to Vista (and a lot of improvements in 3rd-party driver support) helped to close that gap, so now the performance is roughly equal, especially now that Windows 7 is out.

    However, to get the increased speed that a full-fledged 64-bit Operating System offers, the programs you run must also be 64-bit. Sadly, there are very few programs & games that offer a 64-bit executable. Hopefully, as 64-bit OS's become more mainstream we will start seeing more companies developing 64-bit programs.
  • 0 Hide
    mitch074 , January 26, 2010 2:35 PM
    This article is a waste of time. Microsoft told everybody ever since Vista was announced that all versions of Vista (and 7) with a 64-bit equivalent would share the CD and activation keys with the 32-bit version. That also means that Starter and Basic versions of Vista and 7 can't benefit from that, since they are intended for low-cost devices. If you're the proud owner of a 4 Gb box with Vista basic on it, you'll first have to upgrade to Premium, then do the install - and in that case, you WILL have to find your own media, because those provided by OEMs are not universal ones.

    Since Microsoft also provided DVD images of Vista and 7 (and even a tool to mount said images from a USB key), getting a physical media really isn't necessary any more.

    It is not true that 32-bit OSes can't use more than 4 Gb of RAM; only Windows is limited that way, due to it having used up the higher memory address range for device drivers, and telling developers that higher address ranges wouldn't exist; other OSes can make use of PAE on capable CPUs (basically, every AMD and Intel CPU since the Pentium Pro and Athlon) to make use of 16 Tb of RAM. For example, Linux can use 16 Gb of RAM on a 32-bit PAE CPU with no problem.

    Finally, one very wrong element in the article, is that 32-bit software will not work right or use a lot of RAM on a 64-bit OS: no, they'll merely need 32-bit versions of the libraries they need, so they'll use their own 32-bit versions of, say, trident.dll or dcom32.dll, that can't be shared with 64-bit processes. User space DLLs represent around 10% of the OS's total RAM consumption. And since, on the other hand, 64-bit software need to store 64-bit instructions, their stacks and executable parts take twice the RAM than 32-bit software. This usually results in binaries that are 3% to 50% bigger. Which makes RAM use a 5% (in the worst case) price for using 32-bit software - but said 32-bit software will benefit from 64-bit disk access, 64-bit virtual memory, 64-bit interrupt handling... And will still work slightly faster than on a 32-bit OS.
  • 1 Hide
    gamerk316 , January 26, 2010 3:38 PM
    ...is there a point to this review? Basically, I read it as: Check for CPU/Drivers, and re-install Windows.

    Going over some of the issues of moving to 64-bits (compatability, performance, Windows-on-Windows, lack of 16-bit program support), or discussing PAE would have been more informative...
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