Apple Trumps Microsoft in Making the 64-bit Transition Transparent to Users
That memory upgrade you wanted to get your Vista PC past 4 GB of RAM is going to cost a lot more. You'll have the price of the RAM and have to pay an extra $189.99 for a copy of 64-bit Vista.
That is if you are lucky enough to be able to use it. You see, most installed copies of Vista are the 32-bit version. 32-bit means that the most RAM you can theoretically use is 4 GB. You will actually have less, because peripherals and other devices use the same address space. Each device reduces your access to memory, bringing things closer to 3 GB.
The only way to access more than 4 GB of RAM is to buy the 64-bit version of Vista.
No Upgrade for You
Why can't you just buy the cheaper upgrade version? The scoop is that the installer is 64-bit, so unless you already have a 64-bit version of Windows XP installed, you can't run the upgrade and thus have to buy a full version to move away from 32-bit.
As a bonus, you get a few extra problems with Vista. The 64-bit version needs a 64-bit computer. Intel's Core Duo and earlier CPUs were not 64-bit, but the newer Core 2 Duo and the Xeons are. So you may have to buy a whole new computer if you need more than 4 GB of RAM!
The reason most consumer PCs still have the 32-bit version of Vista is that old programs and drivers may not be compatible with 64-bit Vista. Therefore you risk upgrading only to have your applications or peripherals stop working.
UPDATE: Several readers report that you can upgrade from 32-bit Vista to 64-bit Vista almost for free. Microsoft only charges for shipping and handling. Also, the 64-bit installer will work over a 32-bit install, but you have to boot from the install disc. Thanks to the sharp readers who provided these datails!
It Doesn't Have to Be This Way
This whole situation makes no sense. Apple added 64-bit support to Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" on G5 Macs (CPUs prior to the G5 don't support 64-bit operation) back in 2005. Apple combined support for both 32-bit and 64-bit into one operating system.
As a Mac user, I never had to worry about which version to buy or use. We've had the best of both worlds for years. I've got 5 GB of RAM in my Mac Pro, and I love how it improved performance and stopped the constant need to write to the hard drive.
I can understand that Windows XP had to have two different versions. It came out before people started making 64-bit computers for consumers. But AMD began making 64-bit processors back in 2003, so Microsoft has had years since then to put together a plan to unify the operating system for both 32-bit and 64-bit.
What I don't understand is why Microsoft couldn't get this all sorted out in time for Vista - even Windows 7 is said to be coming in separate 32-bit and 64-bit versions.
Too Many Options
Why do I care? Well, Vista is just another application that can be run on my Mac. Choosing a version of Vista is confusing enough with the choice of Home, Premium, Business, and Ultimate - and now I have to add whether to buy 32-bit or 64-bit!
When I searched for help on which version to buy, I found articles like Performance Shootout: Vista 32-bit versus Vista 64-bit comparing 32-bit to 64-bit Vista. They failed to mention the 4 GB memory limit. I searched through a dozen different sites to figure out which version to buy without learning about the memory limit.
How can a site with the name "ExtremeTech" fail to mention that a computer with more that 4 GB memory is an issue? I first heard about it on the MacWindows website.
I see a perverse acceptance of the 4 GB limit as a failure of the PC industry. This limit, set by Microsoft and other software vendors stuck at 32-bit, is holding back computers in general. No laptop that I could find can handle more than 4 GB. Even Apple, which now uses off-the-shelf components, has this same limit on its laptops. Only the Mac Pro and workstation computers from other vendors are capable of handling more than 4 GB.
In a world where we can buy an 8 GB flash drive for as little as $25, it feels unreal that you can't buy inexpensive computer RAM with more than 2 GB capacity. Of course this makes sense if you're stuck using 32-bit Windows XP or Vista and can't use the extra RAM anyway.
Apple's engineers dealt with the issues involved in having 32-bit and 64-bit code integrated into one operating system. I'm sure it would have been easier for Apple to have two different versions of OS X. I like the seamless transition - it allows for gradually moving away from 32-bit computing, and the user doesn't even need to know that it's happening.
As a Mac users, I didn't know that there was an issue. Now that I do, I'm even happier with my purchase of a Mac Pro, because it's already at the 64-bit level. It will therefore remain current for years to come as we wait for the Windows world to catch up.
Apple is highlighting that Snow Leopard will have access to huge amounts of RAM (16 TB) because of its 64-bit underpinnings. Maybe someday they'll be selling computer RAM in 1 TB sticks. Just imagine what kind of application could take advantage of that much memory!
If more people don't switch to 64-bit computing, we may never find out. We can't expect Apple to bring the computing industry into the 21st century by itself - or can we?
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