The choice between the 32-bit and 64-bit editions of Windows 7 appears to be shifting toward the latter.
With the new operating system less than nine months old, 46 percent of all computers running Windows 7 are using the 64-bit edition, said Microsoft in a Thursday blog post. That compares with 11 percent for the 3.5-year-old Windows Vista.
The major benefit to running a 64-bit OS is that it can address more memory. A 32-bit version of Windows can see only up to 4GB of RAM, and effectively use only around 3GB, since that extra gigabyte is reserved. A 64-bit OS can theoretically address around 17 billion gigabytes of RAM. In the real world, though, the more expensive and advanced versions of 64-bit Windows 7 can handle up to 192GB, while the lower-end editions are more limited.
Microsoft is attributing the surge in 64-bit Windows to a variety of factors. Though the cost of memory does fluctuate, overall the price has dropped over the past few years, so it's less expensive for PC makers to bump up the RAM. And unlike several years ago, today's CPUs are all capable of running a 64-bit OS. As as a result, more OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) have jumped onto the 64-bit bandwagon, many of them moving their entire lineup of PCs into the 64-bit world, according to Microsoft.
The blog cites a recent report from NPD Group analyst Stephen Baker who said that 77 percent of PCs sold in the U.S. retail market in April came with a 64-bit edition of Windows 7 pre-installed. Companies are also making the move to 64-bit, said Microsoft, citing a Gartner study forecasting that by 2014, 75% of all business PCs will be running 64-bit Windows.
Of course, 64-bit operating systems still pose some challenges. The 64-bit flavors of Windows 7 and Vista need specific hardware drivers written for them--their 32-bit counterparts won't work. And though manufacturers have been developing 64-bit drivers for their newer peripherals, users with older printers, scanners, and other hardware face a tougher time trying to dig up 64-bit drivers. Microsoft's Windows 7 Compatibility page lets you browse or search for different hardware and software to determine whether it will run under 64-bit Windows.