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Are you ready for 64-bit computing?

The latest 64-bit processors are coming onto the market. Do you need to go 64-bit now, or can you afford to wait and see...

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The latest buzz in computing is the newly emerging generation of 64-bit processors. The current standard is 32-bit.

The speed of a processor is primarily governed by two factors. One is the clock speed measured in gigahertz. The faster the clock speed, the more operations it can carry out every second.

The other factor determining speed is the 'width' or 'word length' of the numbers the processor works on. Back in the 1980s, processors were able to work on a mere eight bits at a time. In the 1990s, this doubled to sixteen bits, which seemed exciting at the time. And now we have 32-bit processors like the Pentium 4 and Athlon XP.

To put this in perspective, eight bits can represent just 256 different numbers. Sixty-four bits can represent over eighteen million!

Obviously, manufacturers strive to increase speeds year on year, but the increase in word length is a giant leap rather than an incremental improvement. Rather than take the opportunity to increase speeds though, computer manufacturers are more concerned about heat generation and power consumption and so they will probably more inclined to keep the clock speed of these processors down rather than running them close to the limit.

The answer to the question about whether you are ready for 64-bit computing? Well psychologically you might be, but to take full advantage of a 64-bit processor, the software you use has to be rewritten. Considering that Microsoft are still working on this for the next version of Windows, there may be some time to wait before we can get really excited. Even Apple, with its latest 64-bit G5 processor, is still largely working in 32-bit mode, although OS X has some 64-bit extensions and some 64-bit software is starting to emerge.

Ultimately however we will arrive in a totally 64-bit computing environment. Just start saving up for all those software upgrades you'll need.

By David Mellor Wednesday February 16, 2005
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