March 6, 2006 4:00 AM PST
Who wants or needs 64 bits?
Nearly two and a half years have passed since 64-bit processors started going into PCs. But the software to take full advantage of these chips remains scarce, and customers aren't buying much of what's out there. The 64-bit chips provide greater performance than their older 32-bit counterparts, but that's because of speed upgrades and other architectural enhancements.
Except for a few workstation users, almost no one is getting much from the 64-bitness of these computers.
"Sixty-four bit is sellable as bigger, faster, but in terms of what it does for you, there is very little at the moment," said Roger Kay, president of analyst firm Endpoint Technologies Associates.
The dearth can be seen in a lot of ways. Microsoft released a 64-bit version of Windows for desktops last May but has sold few copies, according to analysts. A site created by Advanced Micro Devices, the biggest proponent of 64-bit desktops, lists only six games tweaked for 64-bit computing and one partial upgrade.
Dell sells 64-bit Windows as an option on two workstations and on a corporate desktop, but not on notebooks or any consumer PCs. Hewlett-Packard sells it as an option on workstations only. Lenovo offers it if a customer requests it. Gateway doesn't offer 64-bit software on its PCs with 64-bit chips at all.
"There is just not enough driver support for 64-bit Windows," said Rahul Sood, president of Voodoo Computers. "We don't offer it. We are waiting for Vista."
The slow emergence of a 64-bit ecosystem also means that those consumers who bought 64-bit systems in the past few years to "future proof" themselves against a software conversion really didn't. By the time Vista comes out, those early 64-bit computers will be 3 years old, closing in on the typical four-year replacement cycle.
Most desktops and notebooks, in fact, can't even be upgraded to take full advantage of 64-bit computing. One of the main benefits of 64-bit computing is that a computer can store data in more than 4GB of memory. A few gamer-centric PC companies sell PCs and workstations that can accommodate more memory than that, but most don't. Most max out at 2GB. (There are some performance benefits to running 32-bit software on 64-bit chips, but the primary advantages emerge when 64-bit chips are matched with 64-bit software.)
Workstations from HP, Dell and others often accommodate at least 8GB of memory. Several workstation applications have been ported over, said Margaret Lewis, director of commercial solutions at AMD. Workstations, however, constitute a small market, and sales of workstations with 64-bit chips from AMD or Intel and of 64-bit software comprise only a fraction of that market. (Servers are a different story: Applications were ported to 64-bit platforms years ago, though one executive at Sun Microsystems said in July 2005 that only about 30 percent of customers had started running 64-bit software on its Opteron servers.)
The absence can mostly be explained by software delays. The 64-bit Windows was delayed a number of times, causing interest among developers and consumers to drop off. Epic Games put out a free 64-bit patch on its Web site for its game "Unreal Tournament" in 2004, but the uptick has been slow.
"I don't have usage statistics, but I expect they're pretty minimal," Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic, wrote in an e-mail. "Those OSes aren't ready for prime time because of a lack of drivers, application install problems and other random things. Real-world adoption of 64-bit OSes will probably only occur when Windows Vista ships."
A Microsoft representative wrote in an e-mail that the company has trained more than 300 developers on porting their applications to 64-bit Windows and that sales of the operating system have exceeded the company's expectations. The initial expectations, however, weren't revealed.
"The reality is that it is tough to get your hands on that product. The big blocker is that there is no (consumer) app that demands that kind of power," said Mike Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. "There are also concerns about the availability of drivers."
Cherry, incidentally, said he bought a 64-bit laptop the other day but couldn't get one with 64-bit Windows.
Memory prices remain an issue, too. Historically, PC makers let memory account for 8 percent or less of the total price of a PC. Right now, 4GB of memory costs about $330, judging by current market prices. Although computer makers get volume discounts, that would still push the memory price tag past the usual bar.
When Vista hits, consumers will begin to see some 64-bit benefits, even if their applications remain 32-bit, according to AMD's Lewis, but 64-bit applications may not
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