The 64-Bit Question

What does this newest generation of PC chips mean for you? Unless you're a real demanding sort, maybe not much -- at least for a while

If 32-bit computing is good, does it follow that 64-bit computing should be twice as good? Well, yes -- but also not necessarily. Anyone who has ever bought a computer has heard the claims made about chip speeds. Processor makers and PC companies are always trying to lure buyers with promises of better performance thanks to faster processors. Power users can't bear to buy a 3.2-gigahertz chip once the 3.4s come out. Now, that performance promise is starting to enter a new realm, not of speed but of the ability to handle more memory.

Back in the late '80s and early '90s, the typical desktop PC carried what's known as a 16-bit processor, which could handle, or "address," up to 1 megabyte of random-access memory. Then came the standard that still dominates today, the 32-bit processor, which can address a seemingly gargantuan 4 gigabytes of RAM. Lately, the next step has been taken: to bring to the common desktop the 64-bit processor, which can address the unimaginable 16 exabytes (or 16 billion gigabytes) of memory.


  Leading this charge is Advanced Micro Devices (AMD ), the pesky chipmaker that's always trying to challenge market kingpin Intel (INTC ). AMD has come out with 64-bit chips called Athlon 64 designed for desktops and notebooks, and Opteron for traditionally more powerful servers. AMD's newest chips are hybrids that can run software designed for both 32-bit and 64-bit machines.

And in recent weeks it has become clear that 32/64-bit combination processors for servers are taking off. Their ability to address loads of memory allows certain applications, such as databases, to run much faster than on today's 32-bit processors.

Corporate customers love that, and in February, hardware makers Sun (SUNW ) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) have announced new servers based on AMD's dual-mode Opteron chips, joining IBM (IBM ), which already makes Opteron-based servers. These chips attracted such big-name computer-makers because they cost less than Intel's 64-bit-only Itanium server chip.


  Naturally, on Feb. 17, Intel unveiled a new hybrid 32/64-bit version of its heretofore 32-bit Xeon chip for servers and workstations. Intel's move not only puts its stamp of approval on this small but fast-growing market. It's also sparking speculation that 64-bit computing will soon become accepted not just servers and workstations -- but for desktops, by far, the largest PC processor market.

Indeed, it looks like the transition from 32-bit to 64-bit computing will happen faster than the move from 16 bits to 32 bits, which took seven years. This latest shift, helped by clever marketing, could perhaps take only five years, say analysts -- even though it will bring fewer dramatic improvements in most customers' experience. Those who simply use e-mail and word processing won't notice any changes, say experts.

That's because 64-bit chips are really meant for use on a whole new set of software applications, which are nothing like what's available today. And it could be several years before those applications get developed.

Yes, 64-bit chips can greatly improve a server performance (for instance, by speeding up retrieval of data from those giant databases). They'll certainly also be important for corporate users running demanding applications like animation and mathematical calculations. And on desktops, consumers who play intense 3-D games or do video editing will appreciate the extra memory addressability.


  However, these power users are niche markets. What will 64-bit computing mean to more pedestrian PC users? Most won't see the benefits of a 64-bit chip for years to come -- while paying a premium now, says Roger Kay, an analyst with tech consultancy IDC in Framingham, Mass. Of course, some folks will buy them anyway: "End users like to know that they're getting the best thing there is, even if they don't need it," says Kay.

Already, enough hype surrounds 64-bit machines that it'll likely force Intel to come out with a 32/64-bit desktop processor within a year, say analysts -- even though such a chip isn't on Intel's roadmap now. However, Xeon is a near twin of Intel's latest desktop processor, Prescott, whose 64-bit features are not enabled -- which means the chip giant could release a 64-bit desktop version speedily.

And 64-bit desktop chips from AMD and IBM, which makes Apple's new top-of-the-line 64-bit PowerPC G5 processor, are already selling extremely well. AMD might be able to grab as much as 5% of the PC processors market from Intel in the next year, believes Peter Glaskowsky, editor-in-chief of industry research newsletter Microprocessor Report.


  Still, 64-bit desktop operating system (OS) choices are limited today to versions of Linux sold by SUSE and Red Hat (RHAT ), though on Feb. 3, software giant Microsoft (MSFT ) released a beta version of its Windows XP 64-Bit Edition, capable of running both 32-bit and 64-bit applications (the final product is scheduled for second-half 2004 release). Microsoft expects the new OS to be "a small but important and growing market," says Tracy Overby, product manager for the Windows division.

The bigger problem comes back to software applications: It could be quite a while before those that can take advantage of the new chips and operating systems are released. Enterprise software maker Oracle (ORCL ), for one, doesn't plan to rewrite such 32-bit applications as those used for payroll processing or finance, says a company spokesperson, because Oracle says they run just fine on 32-bits (its database applications intended for servers already are 64-bit). Michael Cherry, an analyst at research consultancy Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash., expects many other software companies to follow suit.

Exceptions are gaming and a few other specialized applications. Indeed, AMD expects to release a handful of 64-bit games in the next few months, says Hal Speed, senior marketing manager for its 64-bit efforts. Cloanto, a small software developer based in the U.S. and Italy catering to users playing "classic" computer games and emulating other older applications on their PCs, plans to release some 64-bit software as soon as Microsoft's new OS comes out, says President Michael Battilana. "Desktop users always want something new," he says. "Anything Intel and AMD can give us is welcome."


  Software isn't the only problem, though. The memory needed to unleash a 64-bit system's full potential might remain too pricey for a number of years. Consider that today's typical 32-bit PC comes with 512 megabytes of RAM. To upgrade that to match the theoretical addressability limit of 4 gigabytes would cost around $700, says Brian Matas, an analyst with chip consultancy IC Insights in Scottsdale, Ariz. To get anywhere near the 64-bit machine's capability gets ridiculously expensive at today's RAM prices (upgrading just to 1 exabyte would cost, oh, about $200 billion).

"64-bit desktops aren't worth the premium price," says John Kenagy, chief information officer at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Ore. He says he might consider buying 64-bit PCs, but only to replace some specialized workstations at the hospital. Buying 64-bit PCs also makes sense for corporations that won't replace their hardware for, say, five or more years, says industry analyst Rob Enderle. By that time, 64-bit applications that corporations will want to use may be available.

Most consumers might want to wait and see which device the new 64-bit applications will end up being used on. Take video. Some experts believe consumers will buy 64-bit machines to watch better-quality streaming video or movies-on-demand on their PCs. However, many others say movies will soon be downloaded directly to TVs. If that's where the market turns, buying an expensive 64-bit PC to watch flicks might not make much sense.


  Still, the 64-bit processor and OS on a desktop have wide appeal. Most 32-bit applications running on a 64-bit OS will function a little faster, says Dean McCarron, principal of processors consultancy Mercury Research in Cave Creek, Ariz. And 64-bit apps running on a 64-bit OS could result in up to 30% improvements in the speed when performing tasks like video editing, he says.

For now, computer buyers who don't care about 64-bit hype might want to concentrate on chip performance measured on 32-bit applications. Today, AMD's top desktop chip, Athlon 64, leads Intel's Prescott in most benchmark tests, says Glaskowsky. But the two companies' positions tend to switch often.

Intel still believes the world isn't ready for 64-bit desktop computing. "When we see the software ecosystem for 64-bit desktop chips and the demand, we'll be there," says a spokesperson. However, demand could arrive before the ecosystem is built. That'll be a boon for computer and memory makers, which will end up getting more money for products that, in most users' homes, will work only slightly better than today's 32-bit systems.

By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.

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