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How the 64-Bit Computing Revolution Affects You

Advise your cutting-edge clients to future-proof their computing hardware.

Computer engineers frequently speak of "Moore's Law," named for Intel's Gordon Moore who, in 1965, noted that the number of components on a single silicon chip was doubling every year. A decade later, Moore amended his aphorism to every two years.

Thirty years after that, Forbes' Rich Karlgaard wrote that these days, Moore's Law transcends chips. "It has become a way of saying that all digital stuff, from PCs to cell phones to music players, get twice as good every 18 to 24 months -- at the same price point."

But while computer processor speeds have increased dramatically over the years, the maximum amount of memory has remained surprisingly stagnant. Increasingly, powerful multimedia applications such as audio (and especially) video production need a lot of RAM to perform comfortably. In traditional 32-bit PCs, the amount of RAM tops out at four gigs, while in Apple's widely-used Power Mac G4 32-bit computer (built 1999-2004), you're maxed out at two gigs.

For a quick background in lingo, in computing terms, a bit is the smallest increment of data that a computer processes; it's a binary digit. In the late 1970s, computer chips processed eight bits of information per operation. You can trace their rapid growth since 1981, debunking Bill Gates' alleged "640K of memory should be enough for anybody" quote.

As Gates said in a 1996 interview, he has "said some stupid things and some wrong things, but not that. No one involved in computers would ever say that a certain amount of memory is enough for all time." He added that the myth dates from the period that 8-bit computing chips were giving way to 16-bit chips. "We knew that even 16-bit computers, which had 640K of available address space, would be adequate for only four or five years," he said.

The 16-bit era eventually gave way to the 32-bit chip that's probably currently in your current PC. As Gates presciently said 11 years ago, "even 32 bits of address space won't prove adequate as time goes on".

And, as Dooley Wilson sang in Casablanca, "The fundamental things apply, as time goes by."

2003: 64-Bit Computing Quietly Arrives

After a few false starts by various industry players, 2003 was the year that AMD's AMD64 chip architecture quietly arrived, quickly followed by Intel's equivalent Intel 64 technology. A 64-bit version of Windows XP has been available since mid-2005, and Windows Vista, its successor, is now shipping in both 32- and 64-bit versions. Apple will also be using Intel's 64-bit technology to power its soon-to-arrive OS X 10.5 "Leopard" platform.

At a minimum, 64-bit computing promises buckets and buckets more RAM than its 32-bit predecessor, whose standards were set in the 1960s and seventies, back when four gigs of RAM must have seemed like an astronomical amount.

The current 64-bit architecture allows for a whopping 128 gigabytes of RAM in Windows, and the theoretical maximum is an absolutely astounding 17,179,869,184 gigabytes, or 16 exabytes.

Of course, while that seems like an incredible number by today's standards, it's important to remember that standards are relative. In one or two hundred years, when starships are storing transporter pattern buffer data in their computers, Federation technology historians will wonder how mankind ever got by on only 16 exabytes of RAM, and will probably also be alternately laughing at and debunking imaginary "16 exabytes of memory should be enough for anybody" quotes from the early 21st century.

64-Bit Workstations in Action

To understand the benefits of 64-bit computing, let's look at a couple of memory-intensive applications in action.

The first is PC-based music production. If your CE firm installs home studios as part of a custom electronics installation, 64-bit computing will definitely impact your client's recording process. Boston-based Cakewalk (, which specializes in hard disk-based recording software, is already selling a 64-bit version of Windows-based Sonar, its flagship application.

A video released by Cakewalk (available on YouTube) demonstrates the 64-bit version of Sonar in action. The clip shows Hollywood soundtrack composer Shawn Clement (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Ally McBeal, and many, many videogame soundtracks) using Sonar and a whopping 150 audio tracks, 17 separate real-time software synthesizers, and 42 simultaneous real-time plug-in audio effects (such as digital delay and reverb), along with synchronized video playback.

The end result is a John Williams-style orchestrated score entirely composed and recorded on one computer, accompanied by a video clip of a high speed aerial combat scene. That many audio tracks and software synths playing in 32-bit Windows with its limited RAM would require the vast majority of those MIDI tracks to be "frozen"-- that is, mixed down to audio with its accompanying synthesizers turned off. This makes last-minute changes and tweaks in the score that much more difficult to accomplish.

Video production also benefits from 64-bit computing. "One trend we've seen is that professional and amateur photographers, video editors, Web designers, and home PC enthusiasts increasingly use PCs to do sophisticated video editing and photo manipulation," says Mike Burk, a Microsoft product manager for Windows Vista.

Burk notes that the 64-bit version of Windows Vista, coupled with professional-caliber video-editing applications, will allow photographers to "modify, enhance, and render captured video faster than ever without the delays added by swapping data between the hard drive and memory. The large memory capability of 64-bit Windows Vista gives you plenty of memory headroom to load and manipulate large video files without having to break a project into smaller pieces. As leading video-editing applications become available in 64-bit versions, home productions will attain new levels of professionalism. You'll be able to create longer productions with richer visuals and higher-impact special effects."

Are 64-Bit Systems Available Today?

Best Buy is now advertising several 64-bit computers with Vista on board, even in the low-end eMachine brand. Dell is using the 64-Bit Multi-Core Intel Xeon Processor in its higher end desktops, which will run both 32 and 64-bit operating systems. Now that Vista has been rolled out, just look for a "64-bit Compatible" sticker on the box. For those who "Think Different," Apple's G5 is a 64-bit computer. Apple has a 64-bit server out, as well.

Is your clients' current hardware 64-bit compatible? That all depends on how new it is. AMD, Intel and Windows each have Web sites to help determine if your PC's chips and motherboard are 64-bit compatible.

Beyond basic hardware, most power users have built up a collection of favorite add-on hardware, such as video and audio cards. RealTek, NVIDIA, ATI and Catalyst have come out with at least beta 64-bit versions of their drivers, but not all card manufacturers have upgraded yet.

If that's the case, according to Steve Thomas of Cakewalk, "You may need to maintain a dual-boot system until such drivers are available." While high-powered multimedia software will benefit the most from 64-bit computing, what about more utilitarian applications, such as Microsoft Word, Outlook, and Intuit's Quicken? Will existing copies of those programs work in 64-bit? Generally, yes.

Sixty-four-bit processors can manage 32-bit programs, but not vise versa. "Almost all programs that work on a 32-bit system are fully compatible with and work well on a 64-bit system," Microsoft's Mike Burk says. But these existing titles generally aren't as powerful as those on the drawing boards, which Burk says include "computer-aided design programs, research and development applications," and even graphic-intense games, all "designed specifically to take full advantage of all the computing benefits 64-bit systems offer."

Unfortunately, these programs are currently arriving slowly, as developers await the inevitable assimilation of the 64-bit version of Vista amongst a sufficient critical mass of computer users. Currently, besides the aforementioned Sonar, other multimedia applications available in 64-bit mode include NewTek's LightWave 3-D graphics/animation application and their VT[4] integrated video production suite.

As for 64-bit versions of programs such as Adobe's Photoshop and Premiere, Photoshop co-designer Scott Byer recently said that such versions are coming. "It's a when, not an if," he says.

That statement also rather succinctly answers the question of whether or not you and your clients will each be impacted by the 64-computing revolution: it's all just a matter of time. Steve Thomas estimates that "within a year or so," 64-bit computing will be the norm. "We've enabled an industry transition and I think that Windows Vista will be a catalyst for moving the technology industry another step closer toward broad 64-bit adoption," adds Burk.

So it sounds like it could pay real dividends down the road to advise your more cutting edge clients to future-proof their computing hardware appropriately.

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