Back in the days before computers, when people talked about bits they were talking about twenty-five cents. But in today's computer world, 32-bit refers to the number of bits (the smallest unit of information on a machine) that can be processed or transmitted in parallel, or the number of bits used for single element in a data format.
The term, when used in conjunction with a microprocessor, indicates the width of the registers; a special high-speed storage area within the CPU. A 32-bit microprocessor can process data and memory addresses that are represented by 32 bits.
Therefore, 64-bit refers to a processor with registers that store 64-bit numbers. A generalization would be to suggest that 64-bit architecture would double the amount of data a CPU can process per clock cycle.
Users would note a performance increase because a 64-bit CPU can handle more memory and larger files. One of the most attractive features of 64-bit processors is the amount of memory the system can support. 64-bit architecture will allow systems to address up to one terabyte (1000GB) of memory.
In today's 32-bit desktop systems, you can have up to four GB of RAM (provided your motherboard that can handle that much), which is split between the applications and the operating system (OS).
The majority of desktop computers today don't even have four GB of memory installed, and most small business and home computer software does not require that much memory either. Eventually, as more complex software and 3D games becomes available, this could become a limitation, but for the average user, that's very far down the road indeed.
Unfortunately, most 64-bit CPU benefits will go unnoticed without the key components of a 64-bit operating system and 64-bit software and drivers that can take advantage of 64-bit processor features. For the average computer user, 32-bits is more than enough computing power.
When making the transition from 32-bit to 64-bit desktop PCs, you won't actually see Web browsers and word processing programs run faster. You'd see the benefits in more demanding applications such as video encoding, scientific research and searching massive databases; tasks where you need to load massive amounts of data into the system's memory.
While talk of 64-bit architecture may make one think this is a new technology, 64-bit computing has been used over the past ten years in supercomputing and database management systems. Many companies and organizations that access huge amounts of data have already made the transition to 64-bit servers, since they can support a greater number of larger files and could efficiently load large enterprise databases to into memory resulting in faster searches and data retrieval. Additionally, using a 64-bit server means organizations can support more simultaneous users on each server potentially removing the need for extra hardware as one such server could replace the use of several 32-bit servers on a network.
Scientific and data management industries have reached the limitations of the 4GB memory of a 32-bit system, and their need for 64-bit processing is apparent. Some of the major software developers in the database management systems business, such as Oracle and SQL Server, to name just two, offer 64-bit versions of their database management systems.
While 64-bit servers were once used only by organizations with massive amounts of data and big budgets, we see a not-too-distant future when 64-bit enabled systems hit the mainstream market. It is only a matter of time until 64-bit software and retail OS packages become available, thereby making 64-bit computing an attractive solution for business and home computing needs.
Adapted from Webopedia.com.
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