Just as with Windows Vista, one of the big questions you face when going to pick up a new computer is whether to install the 32- or 64-bit version of Windows 7. You might want to get the 64-bit version so you can load up on RAM or just to get a jump on the future of home computing. But software and hardware designers are still catching up, so even with your beefy hardware and shiny new operating system, you might end up having a 32-bit computing experience anyway.
64-bit vs. 32-bit
The difference between 32- and 64-bit systems basically comes down to this: 64-bit systems can handle more RAM and more data. That's basically it. Both versions of Windows look the same, it's just a matter of how much data these systems can handle at once.
A 64-bit system can handle more than 4GB of memory (the maximum for 32-bit), and can also process more pieces of data at once. For the average consumer, the most significant advantage this translates into is better graphics, since a 64-bit system can process more visual detail than a 32-bit machine can.
The 32-bit Problem
Even though 64-bit Windows systems were first introduced with Windows XP and then given a real push under Windows Vista, parts of the computing world are still coming to grips with the 64-bit reality. During the Vista years, most Windows users were still using the 32-bit version of XP, so software designers remained focused on these customers and did not pay much attention to what was possible with 64-bit Vista systems. One example is Real Player, which only recently came out with a 64-bit compatible version--Real Player SP 1.
Although you may have a tough time finding some applications primed for 64-bit systems, it should be rare to come across software that simply won't work with the more powerful version of Windows. As a general rule, 32-bit versions of software will work on a 64-bit system. But that kind of defeats the purpose of upgrading, doesn't it?
If you're not sure whether your favorite software will work on a 64-bit system, find out at Microsoft's Windows 7 Compatibility Center.
It's a 32-bit Web
The most obvious example of a 64-bit Windows user living in a 32-bit world is online. Windows users can get a 64-bit version of Internet Explorer, but if you use other popular browsers like Chrome, Firefox, or Opera, then you're going to have to go 32-bit. In fact, if you're a dedicated Firefox user, you may want to think twice before making the 64-bit switch. Although Firefox is supposed to work on a 64-bit system, some Firefox users say the have had to resort to Windows 7's XP mode just to get Firefox to open, while others could only run the browser in Windows 7 if they were logged in as an administrator, according to this recent forum post.
But even if you're an IE fan and want to use the browser's 64-bit flavor, there's one major problem: Adobe Flash -- the browser plug-in responsible for most online video and animation -- doesn't have a 64-bit version for Windows.
Since Adobe Flash is present on almost every site you visit on a daily basis, using a 64-bit browser means you'd be dealing with severely crippled if not unusable Internet access. The alternative is to use the 32-bit version instead, and wait for Adobe to come out with its 64-bit plug-in. But you might be waiting for a long while, since Adobe has only one version of 64-bit Flash in development at the moment, and it's for Linux. However, Adobe recently said it is committed to bringing 64-bit versions of Flash to both Windows and Mac operating systems.
Despite these promises, some users aren't too impressed with living in a 32-bit world. One recent 64-bit adoptee recently told me, "[The fact] that my 64-bit Internet Explorer doesn't work 100 percent is pathetic. I do understand it's an issue with Adobe Flash, but if I wanted to use a crippled browser I'll use my iPhone."
[If you're the anti-Flash type anyway, check out the work this group of developers is doing to build a 64-bit version of Firefox.]
In addition to software, you may find that some of your peripheral devices no longer work with a 64-bit system. If, for example, you're using an XP-era printer or scanner, it's a pretty safe bet that your device will not be 64-bit compatible. Check out your device manufacturer's support pages to see if the company offers a 64-bit device driver. If it doesn't, you'll finally have to shell out for that new printer you've had your eye on.
The 64-bit Question
Things might be a little rough for 64-bit Windows users right now, but you shouldn't be left out in the cold forever. Bit-by-bit (pun intended), the rest of the computing world is moving to 64-bit systems. Apple's Mac lineup is already there, and Linux is also forging ahead with 64-bit architecture. As more people move towards the 64-bit version of Windows, holdouts in the software world will also start making the switch. But unfortunately for you early adopters, we're not there yet.
Connect with Ian Paul on Twitter (@ianpaul).