Studio 64.

Published Date
01 - Aug - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Aug - 2006
 
Studio 64.
You probably felt special when you bought that new AMD64. Thirty-two extra bits to play with! The sun shone brighter, the sky cleared up, and the heavens smiled upon you as you transcended the dregs of the 32-bit x86 world to new heights of über-geekdom. Your 64-bit desktop would be the Ferrari to your neighbour's bullock cart.

Or would it?

For all the hype that surrounded the launch in 2003 of affordable 64-bit processors for the desktop, all it turned out to be was little more than a big tease. Developments in software have notoriously lagged behind those in hardware, so while we rubbed our hands in glee at the spanking-new hardware platform, we were still using 32-bit software that hasn't been designed to take advantage of 64-bit computing-and we still are.

What's The Bit Idea?
If you've been scratching your head all this while with all this bit-talk, cease worrying immediately. The 32-bit and 64-bit in processor-talk signify the number of bits that the processor uses when it talks to the system memory. Each byte in memory has a unique address, denoted by a number that is 32 bits long for a 32-bit processor, and 64 bits long for a 64-bit processor. With two possibilities for each of the 32 bits (0 or 1), 32-bit processors have the ability to access 232 memory locations, each a byte in size-totalling up to just 4 GB of memory. This means it can load 4 GB of code and/or data into your system's RAM (assuming you have that much) and take advantage of the much higher speeds that it offers when compared to hard disks. Now before you say "But 4 GB ought to be enough for anyone!", take a moment to reflect on a certain bespectacled billionaire who is made fun of for a similar statement made more than twenty years ago.

With 64-bit addresses, processors can address 264 memory locations, or 16 exabytes of memory. That's 16 billion gigabytes. To put things in a little perspective, a study by the University of Berkeley in 2003 estimated the size of the Internet at 500 million gigabytes. Even if that number has doubled by today, a 64-bit processor could theoretically load all the Internet into memory sixteen times over!-assuming, of course, that it has that much memory available to it. On a smaller scale, imagine being able to load a DVD movie into memory-you'd never have to deal with a skipped frame ever again! Or a time when Half-Life 2's annoying "Loading" message is completely non-existent.

What Is It Good For?
Applications that benefit the most from the move to 64-bit computing are those that involve huge amounts of data and/or calculations. The capability to address embarrassingly large amounts of memory isn't the only advantage that a 64-bit processor has-it also has 64-bit registers (which are used as short-term storage, even before the processor's cache memory). These registers are usually used to store numbers that the processor will use in calculations. Doubling the bits in a number results in the ability to represent it with more precision-for example, pi can be represented correctly to more decimal places using 64 bits. While it is possible for 32-bit processors to work with 64-bit numbers, they need to use two 32-bit registers, and take twice as long to process them. The back-of-the-book version is that 64-bit processors can crunch larger numbers, faster. Audio/Video encoders, financial applications, games and database servers, rejoice! And we're not talking just Windows here...

Applications that benefit the most from the move to64-bit computing are those that involve hugeamounts of data and/or calculations

In This Corner…
For the first time, it seems that GNU/Linux has given Microsoft something to sweat about (and not just in the eyes of fanboys)-64-bit Linux distributions were around and in use on servers long before the fumbling start of Windows XP x64 edition. Even standard excuses like "Windows has better driver support" fall flat on their face-64-bit drivers for Linux have been written by OEMs for just as long. More importantly, if you use or wish to use open source software, porting it to 64-bit Linux is as easy as recompiling it with an extra "-m64" in the command line. Of course, we're assuming that the code is written sensibly. What will happen then is that all the current 32-bit pointers will now become 64-bit pointers, allowing the program to access 64-bit memory addresses.

Windows XP x64, however, has a (debatable) edge over the Penguin. Since most of your programs will remain in their 32-bit states for a while, XP x64 includes a component called WoW (Windows on Windows, not World of Warcraft) that emulates a 32-bit environment for the program to run in. Even better, our informal tests showed negligible performance hits when compared to their performance under plain old 32-bit Windows.

  • The History
While 64-bit computing reached our desktops only in 2003, it's been a good 15 years since the first 64-bit processor was used-the MIPS R4000, which was used to power high-end Silicon Graphics workstations that produced movie special effects. By this time, Intel's x86 platform had established a firm death-grip on the desktop PC, supported by the accelerating popularity of Microsoft Windows. A ridiculous number of applications were written for x86 (as is true today), and to try and introduce a whole new processor architecture into the desktop market was unthinkable-who was going to write all those applications again? 64-bit computing, then, found itself in areas like special effects, high-end servers, and research.
                                               
 The Fuel of The Hype
In 1999, AMD released an extension of the x86 instruction set, called x86-64, which assumed a 64-bit processor that would run the old x86 instruction set just as easily as it would a 64-bit instruction. This meant that everything you could run on a regular old x86 PC would still work flawlessly, and you could also run high-performing 64-bit applications. Intel's IA-64 specification was released the same year, but it would run x86 instructions in a compatibility mode, which, well, are two words you don't want to say in the same breath as "high performance". AMD's Athlon64 processors hit the market in 2003, and have been showered with much love ever since.
While all of us rejoiced at the idea of moving to a 64-bit home PC with little or no hassle, much disappointment was expressed by the academic elite, who have been poking fun at x86 for years-mainly because there were far better processors than it, but without the advantage of popularity (must… resist… drawing… predictable… parallel…). Whether x86-64 was the right way to go is a battle that will rage for a while, but at least now we'll have 64-bit applications to keep us entertained while we wait.

The Penguin And Its Wings

If you really want a completely 64-bit PC, you should start window-shopping for Linux distributions. All of them are available in 64-bit versions, and differ only slightly-if at all-from their 32-bit versions (which we've tested this month).

Our Guinea Pig:
AMD Athlon64 3000
ASUS A8N-VM motherboard with on-board sound and Ethernet
1 GB RAM
250 GB SATA hard disk
NVIDIA GeForce 6600 with 256 MB RAM

We're quite impressed with how much GNU/Linux distributions have matured in this department. For example, when we tried Ubuntu 5.04 (Breezy Badger) on this same machine a few months ago, the only device that didn't show up as "Unknown" was the processor. With their new Dapper Drake release, 64-bit Ubuntu shines-sound and Ethernet worked out-of-the-box thanks to some nifty new kernel modules, with only one annoyance: Windows XP doesn't release the Ethernet card's resources even when you shut down your PC, so to switch from Windows to Linux, you need to switch off your PC from the mains for about 30 seconds before starting again. This, however, is quickly fixed with a kernel update.

For newbies, we recommend Ubuntu 6.06 (Dapper Drake)-the graphical installation is simple and blindingly fast using the live CD, and nearly all your hardware will be supported-either through drivers supplied by the manufacturers or thanks to some well-written generic drivers.

For a more satisfying geek experience, not to mention a marked performance edge, you could try Gentoo. Take a weekend off, though-the build-everything-from-source approach is going to keep you busy for hours, and one false move means starting all over again. We've even seen reports of it taking 19 hours, which, at first, made us rather suspicious of our own time of nine hours. Next step: procuring all those 64-bit applications that will get the most out of your PC-all freeware or open source.

TORCS-The Open Car Racing Simulator
http://torcs.sourceforge.net/

While it passes itself off as a fun game, TORCS is also a platform for developers to test their abilities at writing intelligent robots they can pit against each other in a race.

Porting it to 64-bit Linux means the AI calculations are going to be faster, and as people start making more complex robots, we're going to see huge performance differences between the 32- and 64-bit versions.

Blender
www.blender.org

This extremely popular (and quite painful to learn) open source application is capable of creating some really enticing 3D graphics in the right hands, and a faster 64-bit edition means your creativity is going to take fruit sooner. Blender is available for both Linux and Windows.

Cinelerra
http://heroinewarrior.com/cinelerra.php3

Cinelerra is a very powerful Linux application for video capture, compositing and editing. It's one of very few applications that have been specifically written to take advantage of 64-bit CPUs, rather than just being ported from an old 32-bit version-in fact, you're probably going to encounter serious performance hits if you run the 32-bit code-loading uncompressed video into system memory isn't for the weak-processored. It will run on an Athlon64, but what's recommended is a dual-dual-core Opteron system. No, that wasn't a typo.

POV-Ray
www.povray.org

The Persistence Of Vision Raytracer is a 3D ray-tracing package that lets you create some incredibly photo-realistic scenes. What's unique and challenging here is that you're going to write code that will eventually be translated into a 3D scene. You can get this for Windows as well. 

And now, on to free stuff for Windows x64.

VirtualDub
www.virtualdub.org

You can now encode your videos from one format to the other with greater speed and the ability to load even more of your movie into the system's memory, taking away random skips while your hard drive is being read.

avast! Home Edition for Windows x64
www.avast.com

Our favourite free anti-virus just went 64-bit. Actually, avast! for XP x64 is a mix of both 64-bit and 32-bit code-this just to provide you with the added protection against 32-bit viruses.

Windows Defender
www.microsoft.com

Now in its second Beta, Windows Defender is a better "block spyware trying to come in" than a "clean up spyware that's already there" tool. And it's free. And it's 64-bit!

7Zip
www.7-zip.org

Another category of software that benefits from going 64-bit is compression. 7Zip is an open source compression program that packs files into the ZIP, GZIP, BZIP2 and TAR formats, and can unpack files from nearly all popular formats.

Should I, Shouldn't I

All isn't hunky-dory in the world of 64-bit software. For example, you'd expect a full 64-bit version of OpenOffice.org, but there isn't one-even the version that comes installed with 64-bit distributions is a combination of both.

There also aren't 64-bit versions of much-needed programs such as Opera and Flash Player.

If you've been wondering whether you should shift to a 64-bit OS, you should-soon after making sure that all your hardware is supported-especially hardware like your old printer. Eventually, you're not going to have a choice anyway. So welcome to the new world! (Don't bonk your head on your way in.)



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