4GB of RAM - how do we use it?
32-bit processors have been available since the 386 (80386) CPU, but it was not really until Windows NT 4.0 came out that we saw true 32-bit operating systems. Windows 95 and 98 were still 16-bit OSes with support for 32-bit applications, and consequently this was why Windows 95 and 98 were so unstable, trying to get the two separate codebases to work together was a true nightmare. If you wanted to go true 32-bit you had no choice but to run Windows NT Workstation 4.0. Which was well behind 98 in terms of hardware support. USB support was out, and gaming was also a big bust on NT, nothing worked.
Windows 2000 was the big breakthrough on this side, with support for 16-bit applications, so you could run your older games, but as it was based on the NT 32-bit core, stability increased 10 fold over 95, 98 and the dismal Windows Millennium, which had more problems than 98 and 95 put together. Windows 2000, however, did not last too long as the OS of choice for simplicity and hardware support, as Windows XP quickly came out with a more user friendly setup and interface. XP was also 32-bit compliant, with new 16-bit emulation allowing a 16-bit application to crash if it wanted to without taking down Windows completely as was common under 98.
As the OSes grew, so did the need for more memory. Windows 95 could be run on as little as 8MB of memory but performed better with 16MB, or 32MB at best. Windows 98 wanted 16MB for minimum setups, but 64MB was really the best option, 128MB did help but did not give the gains you would expect. Windows 2000 wanted 64MB minimum for its setup, while 256MB was the sweet spot. XP was a memory hungry beast needing 128MB bare minimum, and 256MB with XP SP2. If you had 512MB for XP SP1 you were fine, but SP2 raised the bar, and today 512MB just gets you by, while 1GB is needed for basic operations, and for gaming at least 1.5GB or 2GB is recommended. Windows Vista recommends a bare minimum of 1GB for install, but do not expect the OS to run along at full-speed with this amount of RAM. To get anywhere you need 2GB or 4GB for the smoothest results, but here, as we said earlier, a 32-bit OS cannot fully access 4GB, only 3.5GB is supported. So how do we combat this? This is where we come into the realm of 64-bit computing!
Since AMD brought out the first Athlon 64 CPU on the original 754 platform, we have seen the ability to physically access memory beyond 4GB. In fact 64-bit computing allows for over 128GB of memory access, however, we are nowhere near able to populate a PC with this amount of RAM yet, so 64-bit does give us some head room. Intel quickly followed suit on its Pentium 4 600-series CPU with the EM64T instruction set, which is pretty much just a renaming of the x86-64 instruction set that AMD released. Intel was initially hoping to push the market towards its Itanium architecture (IA-64), but that went down the drain real quick. Thanks go to Microsoft for that one.
Though 64-bit processors are here, in order to still run 4GB and beyond you need more than just a 64-bit CPU, you need an OS that supports 64-bit instructions. Windows has recently gone 64-bit, though Microsoft has not pushed it as hard as it has for its 32-bit versions. In fact there is no advertising for 64-bit operating systems, if you did not know what you needed, or that it existed, you would probably not know about it.
In order to get full access to all 4GB of memory you need the following:
- Motherboard with ACPI compliant BIOS (standard now as you need ACPI for dual-core)
- 64-bit compatible CPU, all CPUs coming from Intel and AMD now are x86-64 driven, even Celeron D and Sempron
- 64-bit OS, Windows XP x64 and Windows Vista64 are Microsoft's versions, plus must flavours of Linux now have 64-bit versions available, so no shortage for 64-bit users
For our setup we used Windows XP x64 as we could not get our hands on a copy of Vista64 in time for our article. However, we are quite happy to deal with Windows XP x64 as is based around the same Windows XP we know, just with a 64-bit kernel rather than 32-bit.
There are a few limitations you must also deal with when running 64-bit Windows over 32-bit. Some applications are not quite happy to run on XP x64, we had troubles getting some of our benchmarks to run in the past, and while there are patches for our benchmarks, there are a few programs that will not support x86-64 OSes. The free version of AVG Anti-Virus, our trusted virus protection program we use for testing out software we download will not run on XP x64 since it is designed for a 32-bit OS, and there are no plans to release any free 64-bit versions.
Drivers are also a problem, if you are running some older printers or scanners that were great for XP or even 2000, they may not work under XP x64 as there are still limited drivers out, 64-bit OSes are not updated in their drivers as much as the 32-bit versions, and even if they are, sometimes they are buggy or performance is not as good. Let us hope this picks up in the near future, if 4GB and beyond is to be the way, 64-bit is the only OS that will handle this.
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