This is a question we hear bandied around an awful lot by people who are considering making the move from Windows Vista to Windows 7, and even more so by people who have bought a machine with Vista installed and decided to revert back to Windows XP and are now facing an upgrade path that is, frankly, fraught with complications.
The big issue is that many people seem to have had it made very clear indeed to them that there will be massive benefits to making the jump from a 32-bit to a 64-bit operating system. While that’s all well and good for those who will actually see a benefit, the vast majority of users out there aren’t going to be seeing the massive bonuses that some niche upragers will.
The Upgrade Path:
A fairly significant part of the problem with upgrading to Windows 7 64-bit on a machine that’s already running Windows Vista is that there’s no support for upgrades from 32-bit to 64-bit. There are all kinds of entirely reasonable reasons for this to be the case, but we needn’t go into them here.
The long and short of it is that upgrading from Windows Vista 32 to Windows 7 64 is going to require you to have a sit down with your current OS while you say goodnight. It’s always a bit of a headache to run a complete backup, get all of your content onto another drive and install a new OS, then copy it back.
The simple fact is that for most users, there’s just not enough benefits in the upgraded OS to justify the various headaches of preparing your machine for the install, and then copying everything back across afterwards. Are there advantages to be had? Yes. Will they be worth it? Not for everyone.
Of course, I should put in as a disclaimer that you could (and many have) write an entire article on the various issues that people might encounter while they’re running a standard Windows upgrade. Things have come a long way since earlier versions but the fact is that there can be problems with upgrades. Could those problems be so bad that you’ll end up formatting anyway? Well… that depends on your threshold for annoyance 😉
Indeed, if you don’t have more than 4GB of RAM then you’re likely not going to see any real benefit at all, and even then…
That 4GB of RAM:
One of the biggest limitations of 32-bit iterations of Windows is that you can’t go above 4GB of RAM… well, that’s not entirely accurate. You can have more than 4GB of RAM, but your OS isn’t going to be doing anything with it.
Indeed, that’s the biggest (and I’m hesitant to say “only” here, though Ryan and Shelton from our RMA lab weren’t) advantage to installing a 64-bit OS. Of course, the question then becomes… what is there that a body can do with more than 4GB of RAM that 4GB and a little frugality couldn’t manage?
The fact is that there are people are going to tell you that high end gaming will work out a lot better for you if you’ve got a monster rig with 16GB of RAM and graphics cards coming out of it’s… ears. Unfortunately, that’s seldom really the case.
It seems very much to be the case that few games really benefit in any real benefit from the introduction of a 64-bit OS. Indeed, the only game that anyone in the building here could name off the top of their head that was specifically “optimised for performance” on 64-it machines is Crysis, and even then, we’re assured that that “optimisation” was likely performed from within a 32-bit environment…
In short, there are some times when having the extra RAM available to you is going to benefit your gaming habit, but the odds are that you won’t be seeing a massive difference too often. It’s nice but likely not nice enough for most to warrant the upgrade hassle.
Indeed, when it comes to upgrading to a 64-bit OS from a 32-bit one, provided you’ve got the RAM to make the switch worthwhile, the one big reason we could imagine people might justify it is if they’re doing a lot of media editing.
Now, when we say “media editing,” people generally assume that we’re talking about massive scale; moving around full movies and the like. The fact is that just about any media production can run into the kind of territory that makes it worth your while to have that extra bit of memory knocking around as a “just in case.”
If you’re the kind of person who’s going to find themselves in a position where a project involving a bundle of media work could spring itself on you, you could well up very glad indeed to have the extra memory installed and at your disposal. Indeed, it seems as though it could well be the best reason to tag along and follow the crowd with the upgrade to a 64-bit OS.
Of course… there are some issues to be had with 64-bit Windows. Things aren’t quite as bad as they were back in the day when Windows XP 64-bit first launched and, between drivers and programs themselves, you could have been in for an absolute nightmare trying to get your system up and running, much less doing what you want it to.
Things are far better now, things are more stable, and 64-bit versions of applications have gone from a niche product to a widely used and often updated portion of the market. Moreover, there’s no reason that we won’t see the current trend towards installing 64-bit iterations of new OSes on release continue, which means that the number of people using 64-bit OSes should rise gradually until we’re in a position where more software is designed specifically with 64-bit systems in mind.
Still, until then, it’s worth sitting down and asking yourself the question when you’re considering ordering a new copy of Windows to brighten up the desktop a little, “Do I really need the extra RAM for anything I’ll find myself doing in the next twelve months?” It seems likely that, for most of us, the answer to that question will be, “Probably not.”
In the face of a “probably not,” it’s a lot harder to justify backing everything up, wiping your disc, installing the new OS and then taking what you need back from your backup.