Q. I’ve been reading about a new, super personal computer—one equipped with a 64-bit processor. Ten years ago my firm was slow in upgrading to the PC and to Windows, and I don’t want to fall behind again. In fact, we’ve been upgrading 25% of our hardware every three years and I’m wondering whether I should consider buying one of these new-fangled computers. And if not now, when?
A. You’re to be congratulated for keeping your firm’s technology current. You raise a critically important question. But before I go into the answer, a little background is necessary.
Most computers today operate on a 32-bit microprocessor chip; back in the 1980s, computers ran on 16-bit chip. Those numbers—16, 32, 64—represent the size of each packet of data (software, information) that flows through the microprocessor. Assuming the packets travel through the processor at about the same speed, then systems that process larger packets obviously get the job done faster than systems that process smaller packets. So the bottom line is: 64-bit chips are better (and considerably more expensive) than 32-bit chips. But—and it’s a big but—unless you run monster databases or very complex scientific formulas, you’re not going to see any appreciable gains with the higher capacity chip. That’s because most word-processing and spreadsheet operations are relatively small potatoes by comparison, and their data flow is too small to be affected by the chip capacity difference. So, for the moment at least, those 64-bit chips mostly will be used in servers—computers that serve large arrays of PCs.
However, even there, the shift to 64-bit chip processors will be slow for this reason: Most of today’s popular software is written in a 32-bit configuration and thus cannot be run on a 64-bit chip, although some brands are being engineered to handle both 32- and 64-bit software. Microsoft reported it plans to introduce a 64-bit version of its Windows XP operating system later this year.
So what should you do? For the moment, I advise doing nothing. Your 32-bit PC is quite adequate for a few more years. In a year or two, when prices for the 64-bit chips come down, all the bugs are worked out and more software for them is available, you can start adding supercomputers to your shopping list.