Running Windows 7 32-bit on a laptop with 4GB of memory

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I’m currently running Windows 7 32-bit on my Toshiba Satellite laptop running on an Intel Dual CPU T3200 with 4GB of memory.

But now I want some advice on: Would it be worth it to buy the 64-bit version of Windows 7 to maximize the usage of my memory? Will I see some difference, or not?

I plan to Web surf, a bit of programming with big IDE like visual studio… Movie watching… That kind of stuff.


As always it depends. If you are only concerned with memory, yes, you might be able to access a little more memory, but all your pointers are now twice a long so you need more memory!

There are a factors other than using that last 10-15% percent of your RAM which should go into it this decision.

Overall I would say yes, use 64 bit.

Here’s why:

  • Better memory utilization. If you do have memory intensive 32 bit apps, they each get a full 4GB of flat address space. On 32-bit windows the max a 32 bit process can have is 2 GB (without serious tinkering).

  • Better performance – native 64 bit versions of many CPU/memory intensive apps, 7-zip, winRar, ffmpeg, video rendering or transcoding, etc. have about 10% better performance on the same hardware. But a few apps see the opposite effect, and 32-bit apps have some thunking overhead (which is remarkably minimal considering what is going on.)

  • drivers are more stable – Most drivers writers had to start over for 64-bit rather than keep porting their old frameworks from previous versions of the windows driver APIs. Also drivers must be signed which provides a higher barrier and better quality.

  • Security – memory protection features such as ASLR are more robust in 64-bit windows.

Reasons why not:

  • 64 bit drivers – You can probably get drivers for almost all modern hardware, but you might have older hardware for which 64-bit drivers are not available. e.g. I have a high-quality flatbed scanner (USB) that happens to be 10 years old. It still works fine, but there are no 64-bit drivers for it and there never will be.

That is about the only reason I would keep a 32-bit machine around.

Embrace the future. 64-bit is definitely the way everything is going. You might as well experience it now.

Edit: I forgot one of the most important performance differences: People allways talk about 64-bit memory pointers and capacity, but I hardly ever hear people note that in x64 mode, processors have 16 general-purpose registers instead of just the 4 registers for x86 code!

Registers are the fastest possible memory locations as data has to get into these spots before the processor can actually work with it. Just like on-chip cache, having more makes a big difference — if the code is compiled to use the additional registers (x64 compiled). This is the reason for the improved performance seen in x64 compilations of 7-zip, winRar, ffmpeg, etc.

When I got the Win7 upgrade from NewEgg it had both 32 and 64 bit DVDs. You can probably just (re)install from a 64 bit disk and use the same key as before (nothing new to buy).

Some machines (e.g. Dell Precision M90 workstation) have a technical limitation that prevents even the 64-bit version of Windows 7 from utilizing a full 4GB of installed RAM. On such a machine, Windows 7 x86 (32-bit) shows 3.5GB of usable RAM, while the 64-bit version shows 3.62GB of usable RAM. I suggest you research that issue before you spend the time.

In the end, you would achieve less than a 15% increase in RAM, minus the extra overhead of 64-bit applications and the overhead of “thunking” required to run 32-bit apps in a 64-bit environment (Program Files folder vs Program Files (x86) folder). I doubt you’ll be able to tell the difference.

If you really want to prove it out, spend $50 and buy a new 500GB SATA hard drive for your laptop (NewEgg price for a Seagate Momentus 5400.6 as of 09/20/2010). Swap that in, and install a trial version of Windows 7 64-bit without activating it, and see how it works for you.

You will be able to use the full 4GB and run 64 bit programs, that is pretty much the only difference.

There are features such as enforced driver signing which mean the system is more stable – but as long as you are careful on a 32 bit edition, it is just as stable.

64 bit Windows is a little slower at starting, every running application takes a little more memory but once you are running, there is little difference.

Personally I would, or that extra memory goes to waste.

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