16 July 2007

64-bit puzzle

Warning: computer rant.

Do you remember when Intel Corporation released the processor (CPU) called 80386? It was way back in a previous millenium. My memory is a bit vague on the issue except the fact that I couldn't afford that newfangled stuff back then. What I know today is that the 386 was the first mainstream CPU with "32-bit processing". Number of bits in processing reflects how big numbers a computer can crunch at a time, so the larger the better.

To harvest the benefit of better number crunchers, however, you'd need a full set of other hardware to go with it, and a corresponding set of software. It took a while to get there. The 80386 was introduced in 1985, and Microsoft, for example, didn't get a full 32-bit operating system to the market until 8 years later, in 1993 (Windows NT 3.11). It was partly in response to competition, as IBM had released its OS/2 v2 one year previously.

Interestingly, 1992 also saw the introduction of a quite successful 64-bit processor, the DEC Alpha. Never heard of it? -Well, Microsoft released versions of Windows NT for it for a while, but it never attracted many other software developers.

Now, fifteen years later, this seems to have changed. Not that many software vendors produce true 64-bit applications yet, but they're all keen to have their 32-bit stuff "certified" for use on Windows Vista. Just have a look at Adobe's website, on how carefully they explain the compatibility of their products.

Unfortunately, those who deliver drivers to peripheral devices are not as keen to provide support for their products on the Vista platform. And no economist is ever going to blame them. Incompatibility by driver-obsolence is a nice excuse for pushing new hardware, like PDAs, printers, scanners, etc. More revenue, shareholders happy, end of story.

These days, I'm taking delivery of components to build a new PC. It will run 64-bit windows, and I have checked all my software and hardware for incompatibilities. It kinda suck that my scanner is going obsolete. I don't use it very often, but there are some quite significant occasions when it's needed. Like when my mother wish to make a showcase of her watercolour paintings. Or when some relative comes around with a shoebox full of half-degraded visual memories and a plea for saving action.

So maybe I'll have to buy another scanner too. Funny how one purchase demands another. It feels like a vicious cycle, each turn starting with a new camera:

First, I bought a new PC and a scanner for slide film. Then I bought a new PC and a Pentax *istD camera. Half a year ago I bought the Pentax K10D, and now I can't stand the (lack of) processing speed in my computer anymore. Not to mention that I'm painfully short on harddrive storage space.

But okay, that was my wallet speaking. Truth is, I can't wait to put my new toy together.

I should be old enough for a 64-bit puzzle now.


Mark C said...

I've been using Windows x64 on an Athlon Dual-Core system since last November. It runs fine, but I honestly don't think there's any reason to use it. Driver incompatabilities are just the beginning - many utilities (from backup programs, anti-virus, and even flash card recovery programs) are incompatable. My work around was to keep my old system, and run all those apps off it - pretty cumbersome! There seems to be little substantial 64 bit software - the only 64 bit software I'm using is my FTP client. I don't even use the 64 bit versions of Internet Explorer or Outlook - mostly because they won't work with some 32 bit plugins or addons. I think that last fact will keep 64 bit versions of things like Photoshop on the back burner for a while.

The only advantage I can see to a 64 bit OS is if you really need the memory - a 32 bit system will start to give you less usable memory when you hit 4 gigs (since it has to fit the video ram, bios, and other system ram into the 4 gig limit.) I just have 3 gigs of memory in my PC - and so far I seldom have the need for more, even with large image files in Photoshop CS3.

So - just my two cents worth!

Boris said...

I am looking forward to reading a report about your new system when you complete building it.