Windows Sixty Four

Windows XP Professional is new this week. Windows XP Pro 64-bit, that is. Announced during the keynote at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), the x64 version of Windows XP is more exciting that I’ve given it credit for up to this point. Both Apple’s Tiger (available April 29) and Windows XP 64-bit are bringing the world of 64-bit computing to the mainstream masses. What makes this exciting is the massive speed enhancements possible for anyone performing processor and memory intensive functions like audio and video editing.

There was a recent question about how to speed up video rendering. While maxing out the feature set of your existing system will provide a performance boost, as I suggested, you still hit the physical limitations of the available hardware and software. 64-bit breaks through the glass ceiling created by 32-bit hardware limitations, extending the physical limitations to a point beyond any currently available hardware configurations. If you own a system with a Intel or AMD processor released anytime in the last several years, you are using a 32-bit system. Right now, 32-bit systems are butting up against a limit to how much memory your system can make use of. Even if your budget could allow for more RAM, the machine can’t make use of more than 4GB of RAM in any standard P4 or AMD system currently available at retail. On a per processor basis, you really can’t make use of more than 2GB of RAM in a 32-bit system. Even if you have 2 processors to make full use of the 4GB limitation, the RAM is shared by the operating system and any applications currently running, reducing your available memory to something less than 4GB. While that seems like a ton of RAM compared to the 512MB of RAM most of us are comfortably using to run Windows, it doesn’t begin to touch the potential.

Windows XP 64-bit supports a maximum of 128GB of RAM with further extensions into the virtual memory space as hardware comes around to make bigger numbers possible. One of the biggest choke points in hardware intensive processes like audio and video processing is the need to read and write information to a hard disk. If you have 1GB of RAM available, you can read 1GB of information into that memory space and then you have to swap it back to the drive and grab the next 1GB chunk of information. This takes time and slows things down. To put this in perspective, my laptop has a 60GB hard drive. With 128GB of RAM I could load the entire contents of that drive into memory twice and never have to touch the disk to gain access to the information. Realistically, no one is currently making systems for the average user with that much RAM. On the other hand, you probably don’t need 128GB of RAM for most consumer applications.

Assuming someone makes a 64-bit video editing application available soon, video editing will be one area where you see massive speed improvements when working with information in a 64-bit environment. If you import a 10GB video file from your digital video camera and you have 12GB of RAM in your PC, you’ll likely be able to work with that entire 10GB video file loaded into memory, which means no writing back and forth to the disk. The lag you might experience as you browse through the video file looking for the exact section you want to edit will go away because you aren’t slowed by either the operating system storing that information in virtual memory on disk or swapping sections of the video from the disk trying to arrive at the right point in the file.

Audio editing already has at least one 64-bit application, available for free trial through September. Cakewalk is offering the x64 version of its Sonar 4 Producer application as a fully-functional free technology preview. Musicians with loop intensive needs or working with large multi-track audio files will find immediate advantages to 64-bit audio editing. From a usability perspective, the x64 version of Sonar 4 is the same elegant multi-track digital audio workstation available to 32-bit users. What makes the x64 version different is the optimization for use with 64-bit processors and massive increases in memory. One conservative estimate I heard at WinHEC was a speed improvement of at least 30%. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to test a pro audio app for free. The trial will not work unless you have a 64-bit system.

64-bit systems also improve things like database performance, 3D rendering in environments used for special effects like Lightwave, and virtually any app that relies heavily on mathematical calculations. Gamers will likely be impressed by closer to real time interactions with the gaming environments. My hope is to see speech interaction with computers finally reach a level that’s functional now that a major memory barrier is removed. Of course, if all you use your system for is reading email and browsing the Web, the enhancements probably won’t change much about your current usage patterns.

Unlike Longhorn, which is still on a timeframe that remains to be seen, Windows XP Pro x64 is available now. In a small way, this is a preview of some of what’s to come with Longhorn, because 64-bit processing will become the norm as people phase out their existing PC setup for something new over the next 3-5 years. Power users who need faster audio and video processing will start to get the benefits of 64-bit operating systems in the near term, while the rest of us will start seeing the enhancements slowly trickle down to the consumer level sometime before 2010.