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Coming soon (again): 64-bit desktop computers

Intel and Microsoft have finally caught up with AMD, so the next computing era can begin

The dawn of 64bit Windows desktop computing is upon us, according to the likes of AMD, Intel and Microsoft. And this time, they really, really mean it.

It's about time. Ever since AMD launched its Athlon 64 desktop processor in September 2003, it seems we've been on the cusp of the edge of the beginning of the front portion of the eagerly anticipated transition from 32bit to 64bit computing. And we have waited, with baited breath, only to be denied time and again.

Sure, AMD has been pushing hard for a 64-bit Windows operating system – and maybe a few apps to run on it – for years. But each time a launch date for Microsoft's Windows XP Professional x64 Edition neared, the company pushed it back.

First it was delayed so Microsoft could work on security issues; then the company pushed it back again to work on Windows XP SP2. Then Bill decided his golf game needed work, so he commissioned 1,000 of his best x64 Edition engineers to crunch numbers on why he couldn't hit the green from the tee box on the short par 3 in his backyard. (Okay, I made up that last part.)

Regardless of the reasons for the delay, Intel used this lack of a mainstream OS (despite the 64-bit Linux and Mac OSs) to justify the nonexistence of its own 64-bit desktop processor.

Actually, let me take that back. First Intel suggested it wasn't rushing out a 64-bit desktop because such it didn't see a need for such a chip until the end of the decade. Later, the company blamed the lack of a required infrastructure (OS and drivers) for its slow move to 64 bits.

As we begin 2005, however, both Intel and Microsoft insist they're ready to go. Microsoft has released its first x64 release candidate and promises to launch the final product by the middle of the year. And Intel says it will have a new generation of 64-bit-ready Pentium 4 processors by the same time.

Meanwhile, AMD continues to lead the way with Athlon 64 processors appearing in both desktops and notebooks. In fact, the company recently announced plans for a next-generation 64-bit notebook processor called Turion.

See, this time they really do mean it.

So what's the big deal about 64 bits? Well, to be honest, it's not clear that there's really much need yet for the increased computing power the move from 32 bits to 64 bits will bring. However, that's never stopped us from wanting more before. Last I checked, Microsoft Word doesn't require a 3GHz processor, either.

The technology's most profound impact, at least early on, will probably be its ability to support dramatically more system memory. Today's 32-bit processors and operating systems can only use a maximum of 4GB of memory: 2GB for the OS and 2GB for apps.

A 64-bit processor and OS can theoretically access up to 16 exabytes of memory – that's more than 16bn gigabytes. Since nobody has announced plans to offer 4bn-gigabyte memory DIMMs, a more realistic memory configuration in a high-end 64-bit desktop is probably something like 8GB.

With that much memory available there would be little reason for programs to constantly access that pokey old hard drive: savvy apps could load just about everything into memory.

Alas, therein lies the rub. Much like the x64 Edition of XP, 64-bit desktop apps capable of utilising all that memory have yet to materialise. Every time somebody writes about 64-bit computing, they trot out the same examples: Video editing apps are coming soon; Epic plans a native 64-bit version of Unreal Tournament. As of right now, however, none of the big shooters seem eager to spend the money to update their applications for 64 bits. Why bother when there's no OS or Intel chips?

It's the classic chicken-and-egg pattern. Even as Microsoft repeatedly delayed its OS, the company asked vendors to begin work on their own 64-bit drivers. (Do as we say, not as we do?)

Hopefully, with Intel and Microsoft finally ready to join AMD with real products, that's about to change. Now the software folks will finally have a reason to start updating their apps. And once they start fiddling, the hope is they'll find many new and interesting ways to use all that newfound computing power.

That's how technology moves forward. That's how breakthroughs in user interfaces are made. That's how we move to the next big thing.

They really, really mean it this time.


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