If You’re Buying a New Computer… (Windows 7, 32-bit vs. 64-bit, maximum memory)

If You’re Buying a New Computer… (Windows 7, 32-bit vs. 64-bit, maximum memory)

Three things.

Windows 7

windows7First, if you’re thinking about buying a new computer, I’d wait for Windows 7, which is due out 6 weeks from the date of this post. This new version of Windows arrives on store shelves on October 22, 2009.

Yes, you can buy a Vista system right now with a free upgrade to Windows 7. But why go through the hassle of the upgrade process? If you wait just a few weeks, you won’t have to.

32-Bit Versus 64-Bit

Second, you’re going to have a choice between a 32-bit system and a 64-bit system.  About half of the systems currently on the market right now are one; about half are the other.

Personally, if I were buying a new computer at this point in history, I would plump down the extra money for a 64-bit system.

Yes, you may have some problems with drivers, current software, etc., given that 64-bit computers are still kinda new on the scene.

Yes, there’s very little software out there yet that can take advantage of those 64 bits.

Yes, you may have to give up some of your old equipment (like that 7-year-old scanner) or some of your really old programs (like my all-time favorite word processor, Lotus Word Pro ’97).

And yes, a 32-bit system will probably run just fine for what most people are using computers for these days. In fact, most programs currently available may run just as well on a 32-bit system, and some may even run slightly better, than they will on the 64-bit system.

But here’s the deal. Computers are currently trending toward a longer lifespan. The reason for this is that ever since XP arrived (and apparently, the same will be true of Windows 7) we now have some good stable operating systems; and the amounts of processor speed, memory and hard drive space have gotten generous enough to make it so that computers aren’t going outdated as quickly as they were.

I talked to someone a little while ago on the phone who has a computer that’s “about 8 years old.” Should she keep working with it? It can certainly be a decent enough option at this point, if she isn’t going to significantly change the way she uses her computer for a while.

Just a few years ago, I would’ve put the useful life span for a computer, for most people, at about 6 years. They had slower processors, limited memory expandability, and many of the older ones still had the disastrous Windows Me operating system.

We now have hard drives so big most people don’t fill them up, the ability to put in far more memory, and more stable operating systems. True, Vista was a disaster. But even though it isn’t out yet, all the early press on Windows 7 is good. And Microsoft doesn’t usually flub up twice in a row.

So whatever system you buy, you’re probably going to want to keep it 7 or 8 years or so. Actually, some of the new 64-bit systems may last longer than that.

If you get a 32-bit system, you’re going to be limited to a theoretical maximum of 4 gigabytes (GB) of memory. But that’s theoretical. In practical terms, we’re really talking about 3 gigabytes.

That’s all that any 32-bit desktop system you buy will ever be able to handle.

Now technically, there’s a way around this limitation, but it doesn’t seem to work for normal computer users in real life. So if you’re ever going to want to use more than 3 GB of memory, you should be thinking about a 64-bit system.

And yes, 3 GB is more than most people are using now. But it’s not comfortably more. Not with the next 7 or 8 years (or longer) in mind.

I personally have both an XP system and a Vista system that are already maxed out on the amount of memory their 32-bit technology can handle.

Now it’s true that I personally put a much higher demand on my computers than most people. But if I, even as a power user, am already bumping up against that 3GB limit, that implies to me that a lot of people who get 32-bit systems today are probably going to wish they had chosen differently sometime during the possible lifespan of that computer.

This was confirmed to me when I was chatting with a friend at church recently. This gentleman also uses his computer for business. His 32-bit system is already maxed out on memory, and he wants more speed. He needs to move to a 64-bit system with a nice, fast processor and more memory.

The Limits, in Theory

Theoretically at least, a 64-bit system could support billions of gigabytes of memory. But the practical limits are far different. These will have to do with:

  • how much the operating system (Windows) will support
  • how much the hardware (that is, the motherboard) will support
  • and how much all of this will cost.

Windows 7 Home Basic (64-bit version) will support 8 GB. The Home Premium version will support 16 GB. Either of those is a lot better than 3 GB.

When you get up into the professional versions for 64-bit Windows 7 (for a few bucks more, of course), that limit will go all the way up to 192 GB.

I can’t imagine any home computer or small business workstation needing more than 192 GB for a long time to come.

Maximum Memory for the Specific Motherboard

Now there are no consumer motherboards currently on the market that will hold anywhere remotely near 192 GB of memory. But it really doesn’t cost much to build a motherboard that will hold at least 12 or 16 GB. There are decent 16-GB motherboards available that cost under $100, and at least a handful of consumer motherboards now available that can take up to 32 GB.

By today’s standards, 16 GB is a lot of memory. HP and Gateway are currently only offering home computers with a maximum of 12GB. Dell is offering 16GB. These are some of their top of the line computers.

If you’re buying a new computer now, look for some expandability. You certainly don’t want a 64-bit system with a motherboard that can only ever hold 4GB of memory. That wouldn’t really be any better than a 32-bit system. So go for something with a bit bigger capacity.

And look for prices on those massive amounts of memory to start coming down in the next year or two, as the ability of computers to handle huge memory amounts takes hold, and as consumers start ordering big memory chips in large enough quantities to justify the large-scale manufacturing that will drive the prices down.

The Bottom Line

If you’re totally confident that all you’re ever going to use your computer for is just email and internet surfing and writing the occasional letter, and that you’ll never want to use more than 3 GB of memory, no matter what cool new things come along that you can do with your computer, then staying with a 32-bit system may still turn out to be your better choice. It’ll be easier in the short term, and in the longer term, it’ll probably still do okay for you.

But if, like me, you want your investment to be much more future-proof, and especially if you’re more of a power user who may already work (or perhaps will work in the future) with more resource-hungry tasks — like editing videos, graphics, sound, CAD, etc. — then I’d say 64-bit is probably the way to go.

But not just any 64-bit. Check the maximum amount of memory you’ll be able to upgrade that computer to in the future. For some real future-proofing, ask if it will handle DDR3 memory instead of the DDR2 that’s more widely used today. This new technology is much faster than DDR2. And make sure that you have a 64-bit processor and a 64-bit operating system.

Look for an expandable system that doesn’t cost so much extra that you can’t justify the extra cost. This could be a bit tricky at the moment, as the major manufacturers seem to be charging a premium for expandability.

For the past several years, I haven’t generally recommended that people get computer systems custom built, as the major manufacturers have been providing (in my opinion) better options for most consumers. And if you should get waylaid by viruses or other problems and need to reformat the drive, you’re usually better off with a name-brand system.

However, we are now at a transition point in computer technology. And under the right circumstances it might now be possible to do better by having a system custom built.

Going with an upgradeable system that fully supports 64-bit technology may not give you an immediately better situation than going with 32 bits, but I’m betting that down the road, as long as you choose carefully, you’ll be glad you made the jump.

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