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64 bit machines and 64 bit support are becoming more common, which begs the question: is it hype, or is it worth it? And how much RAM is enough?

You recently answered a question about "Why does my computer crash after adding RAM?" That got me thinking about 64 bit systems which are being offered more and more by manufacturers. As I understand it, Vista 64 bit is supposed to accommodate quite a bit more RAM than 32 bit systems (ie: Vista Basic = 8GB, Home Premium = 16GB, Business/Enterprise/Ultimate = 128+GB according to Microsoft.) And I'm guessing that Windows 7 in 64 bit will probably follow suit.

So... if someone buys a new computer (either laptop or desktop) with a 64 bit system, will the comp have a motherboard/BIOS that will accommodate the larger RAM or is this another marketing ploy to get people to spend money for something that won't live up to its potential? From a practical standpoint, can one have too much RAM? In other words, based on existing games, software, programs, etc is there really a need for 16GB or (gulp!) 128GB RAM? If one does maximize RAM would that eliminate the need for a page file? And finally, some packaged versions of Vista came with both a 32 and 64 bit install disk. If someone decides to install the 64 bit system what negative effects, if any, could occur to graphics cards, optical drives, etc?

I certainly don't see any marketing ploys designed in here, but as with anything, a salesman can twist it in several different ways.

What we need to look at are the differences between hardware capabilities, software capabilities, and as you say, understanding just what's really needed.

At the hardware level, machines have differing physical RAM capacities. By that I mean that the hardware will be capable of handling only so much RAM. The year old desktop I'm typing this on, for example, has a maximum capacity of 8 Gigabytes. My older laptop? It's maxed out at 4GB.

And both are 64bit capable processors.

"Exactly how much RAM your system is capable of accommodating is simply another factor in system design."

There's nothing wrong with a 4GB or less system running a 64 bit operating system. The issue is that there's really no incentive to do so since a 32 bit operating system will do just as well (with one exception right at the 4GB boundary).

There's also no point in having more than 4GB of RAM if you have a 32 bit operating system installed - the system won't use it.

Exactly how much RAM your system is capable of accommodating is simply another factor in system design. The additional hardware required to support the additional RAM is not free, so system manufacturers frequently offer a variety of options ranging from inexpensive motherboards that support only a maximum of, say, 4GB, to more expensive ones that handle much, much more.

It's simply something you need to be aware of when you purchase a machine.

Is there really a need for 16GB or 128GB of RAM? For most people, probably not yet. But for others, quite possibly.

For example, I recently upgraded my desktop to its maximum capacity of 8GB in anticipation of installing the 64 bit version of Windows 7. While most people might not need that much RAM today, I can use it. I tend to run virtual machines, each of which can eat up a gigabyte or two of RAM instantly. By expanding the amount of RAM in my system to its maximum, I'll be able to run multiple VM's simultaneously, rather than one at a time as I do now.

A web server or database server, or even an individual workstation that's used for very heavy data processing might well benefit, meaning operate much faster, by having as much RAM as you can afford.

Different people, and different applications, have different requirements.

Remember, many years ago we hardly envisioned a need for 128MEG of RAM, much less the 1-4 GIG we now take as commonplace. Someday, I'm sure as operating systems and applications continue to grow, we'll look back and wonder how we got along with "only" 4gig.

Can you have too much RAM? Not really, in the sense that the only thing it might hurt is your wallet. If you have more than you actually need, the excess is simply benignly not used.

Can you eliminate a page file by having more RAM? Absolutely. The whole point of a paging file is to backfill when the system, or applications, request more RAM than is actually available. If you always have enough RAM then the page file would never be needed.

I actually ran my desktop that way for some time: 32bit Windows XP with 4GB of RAM and no paging file. I ended up reenabling my paging file after I accidentally ran both World of Warcraft and one of those virtual machines simultaneously which caused my system to run out of memory.

It's not really a function of how much RAM you happen to have, but how much RAM you happen to need to do whatever it is you do. A user who never does anything but browse the web might run with some minimal amount of memory, and no page file at all.

The only negative effects that I've heard so far regarding 64 bit systems are that some drivers aren't available. As with any transition of this sort, that's getting better, but may end up leaving some older devices behind. I've also heard occasional complaints of some applications not working, but that seems to be rare now. 64 bit Windows includes a 32 bit compatibility layer, just as 32 bit Windows had a 16 bit compatibility layer for years.

In addition my understanding is that Windows 7 will include an optional "Windows XP mode" that boils down to nothing more than a virtual machine. For those of us already comfortable with virtual machines, that represents yet another way to ensure compatibility with legacy software.

So, no ... it's not a marketing ploy. Some folks actually need that much RAM. When you purchase a new machine, its maximum RAM capacity should be something you at least be aware of for possible future expansion.

Article C3895 - October 18, 2009 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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17 Comments
Rahul Mehta
October 18, 2009 10:01 AM

I do a lot of image, audio and video processing. After I upgraded my 32 bit systems to max possible 3.2 GB RAM, life has become much faster. I am sure a 64 bit system with even more RAM will be much better for me. Like Leo said, it depends on what you want to use it for that matters.

Mark
October 18, 2009 2:16 PM

I've considered shutting of my virtual memory especially on my netbook that I usually just use MS-Word, excel, surf, email and vlc player (no more than 2 or 3 applications at a time). Is there a utility to monitor virtual memory use to see if that would be practical. And if I run out of memory could that cause a freeze-up and system lock-out if the system loads too many processes at start-up. If that happens could I recover by booting in safe mode and restarting virtual memory.

Clifford Myatt Jr
October 18, 2009 4:52 PM

Leo,

You wrote "...In addition my understanding is that Windows 7 will include an optional "Windows XP mode" that boils down to nothing more than a virtual machine..."

Ok, but don't forget to mention that some Intel CPUs CAN'T run it. One person that buys hardware with one of these CPUs and can't run the XP Mode is really going to feel "betrayed" no one warned them.

david
October 20, 2009 7:51 AM

i'd like to also suggest that one reads the motherboard manual to ensure that his/her board has a maximum RAm allowed ... and he does not add more than that maximum ...

my P IV has a max of 4 GIG Ram so I added that in recently and so far I have not had a problem
using XP Pro as the operating system.

david from Toronto Canada

Howard Bretman
October 20, 2009 9:01 AM

Leo I have an ASUS P5K and the motherboard states that it cannot operate with more than 3GB in 32bit. I now have 4GB using windows xp pro 64bit and it runs very fast with no problems. So far I have found only 1 prog which will not run.

Orenza John Cotton
October 20, 2009 9:10 AM

I have a securty system that I would like to install on my home computer and also on my laptop. People keep telling me how good it is and how easy it is to install. What do you think and how do I pay for a cup of coffee for you?

Lutz Pansegrau
October 20, 2009 9:58 AM

Dear Leo,

I read the article with interest and did some exercise on my Windows XP32 system, equipped with 2Gb of RAM.

I changed the virtual memory setting to NOT PAGED in order to force all loaded applications into RAM.

Estonishing, loading all applications I have on my system (AUTOCAD 2009, GMAX, Flight SimulatorX,Visual Studio C++ and VB, several Simulation Software, Microsoft application like Word, Exel, Powerpoint, Oulook Express, Internet Browser etc. ....) I could get my system RAM only filled up to 1.6Gb.

Now who has all this nonsens loaded at the same time? Do we really need that much RAM everybody is talking about? and considering this, by default Windows installs a virtuell data space on Hard disk which is used to direct and store part of the data needed for an application to read it if it is needed.

If I use paging, how many applications I load, 800Mb are hardly reached.

Everybody can observe the filling state of RAM with the Task Manager > Performance Tab.

NB: One effect I noticed: Reading Ask LEO's e-mail, I could not load the present article, the internet explorer did not load this page. Unloading everything except the mail application everything were back to normal.

So, again do we really need to buy that much RAM? or do I misunderstand how Windows works.

Regards Lutz

bass
October 20, 2009 2:21 PM

price?
ill buy the highest one..
my spec:
Intel Core i7 920 2.67GHz (8cpus)
Dual NVIDIA GTX295
12 GB RAM 1066 Mhz
Vista ultimate 64 bit

rohn
October 20, 2009 3:31 PM

I'm with Lutz, although you touched on it, I agree that your article could have made the point clearer that the "average" home user wouldn't need more than the 32bit RAM RAM limit (4/3.??GB) at this time.

I'm running Vista Business 32bit on a 1 yr old laptop with 4 gb (3066 MB usable indicated, the limit you mentioned). Right now I've got the following apps open:
FireFox (with a dozen tabs)
3 Word 2003 docs (including a 32MB file with graphics),
Word 2007,
Excel 2003, 2007,
IE 8,
PowerPoint 2003 2007,

and my RAM usage has peaked at 2GB, then dropped to 1.98GB.

So the point I'm trying to make is that for the average home user (ie excluding hard core gamers) the 32 bit limit of 4/3.?? GB is more than enough. For gamers or photo/video editors 64 bit and more RAM might be appropriate. And as you pointed out, over time code bloat and multi-threading enablement (both in Win and applications) will lead to more liberal use of RAM. But I suspect that will be more than the life of hardware purchased any time soon, ie more than 3 or 4 years down the road.

Another point to remember is that Windows legacy is from DOS (it's still there down in the 'genetic' design roots of Win) and world where RAM has traditionally been exhorbitantly expensive. So the design of Win tends to conserve that "expensive" & "limited" resource called RAM. And, again, as you pointed out it gets "cranky" if it can't find a swap file.

As an alternate strategy to force using RAM, instead of 0 swap file, try a very small one, 1kb or 1mb. That way Win still finds one, it is just filled up very quickly. I havent' tested this approach to see if it works, but it might be a viable workaround.

Tal
October 21, 2009 5:34 PM

Leo - this post is close to my heart. I was an early adopter of 64 bit at work. I built a farm of citrix servers on 64 bit architecture each of which has 8Gb RAM. It was a while until we could run our 'preferred' antivirus solution on them as it took some of the bigger AV players over 6 months more to release 64bit AV clients. Then we found many apps by smaller companies just wouldn't install at all due to some different filesystem structures and a new 'Wow6432node' compatibility registry hive. So it ended up having to be a mixed 64 bit and 32 bit solution - which caused the most wonderfully complex print driver nightmare. But, we've been running these 64 bit windows servers for around 3 yrs now. Here's some info on one, right now:
- Two dual-core AMD processors
- 8 Gb RAM
- 28 consecutive users are sharing a published desktop on that server right now
- 12 instances of excel are running with who knows how many windows used on each
- 16 'heavy' database clients running
- 7xIE, 22xOutlook, etc etc. You get the message.
- Currently 3.5Gb of the 8Gb memory is UNUSED.

So I'd say - yes, 64bit is currently a totally unnecessary marketing ploy. Not only that, but you'll find SOMETHING that you need that just.. won't work.
And you might end up running a seperate 32 bit OS on the machine virtually just to run your rogue app. And why not? Got to use the bloody RAM up somehow....
Tal

whs
October 22, 2009 4:02 PM

You are right. Looking back makes any "big" machine of the past look tiny. I remember programming machines with a RAM of 1200 bytes. When we moved to 4Kbytes, that was real progress - and it cost a fortune to upgrade. This was real hand made "core storage". That was in 1961. And the only input/output devices were card readers and tapes.
I guess the "good old days" were not that good after all.

Richard
October 26, 2009 10:17 AM

Is there a downside to lots of memory on a laptop. If I hibernate a 4GB or larger laptop, doesn't it have to write out all of memory to the hard disk before it really shuts down. On a slow 5400RPM drive, won't that take a while and if you try it when your battery is about to die, do you risk it failing and causing problems?

Chris Awad
October 26, 2009 11:27 PM

Lutz, I could have 1 game running, taking up 1.6GB of ram on its own.. Not to mention most of my heavy duty programs take 100-300MB each and I usually have all of them running at the same time, while playing a game and possibly watching TV (which auto recording the show im watching and a 2nd feed on my other tv tuner channel, to my hard drives)... I have 8gigs in my system, of which, I am constantly in use of 60% according to task manager (no page filing).

Purushyottam Ghosh
July 2, 2010 6:37 AM

'There's nothing wrong with a 4GB or less system running a 64 bit operating system. The issue is that there's really no incentive to do so since a 32 bit operating system will do just as well"

Thanks for the helpful article. As I have been planning to buy a new 64-bit processor since the last few days your article came at the right time! :) My old Desktop is 32-bit and maxed at 2GB, which is no longer enough for me. :( I wish it were capable of accommodating 4GB RAM though, as you mentioned!

Mobile Computing Tips:
http://exzorders.com/nc/mobile-computing/

Jay
July 7, 2010 12:22 AM

Thank you very much Leo.! And all u guys, keep visiting this site always..
Leo,Now only one thing I couldn't understand and that is:-
You have told 64 bit Windows includes a 32 bit compatibility layer, just as 32 bit Windows had a 16 bit compatibility layer for years. If so then why we need to have a driver or software compatible with 64bit even when we have a same driver or software compatible with 32bit.? Please tell me.

The compatibility layer I mention applies to applications, not device drivers.
Leo
07-Jul-2010

cheddar
August 31, 2010 9:36 PM

OK so i see that several people have said why do i need or do i need a lot of ram off the original question of how much ram do i really need
so i have to say this i am envious of all of you with 4 gigs or more of ram i am running windows 7 64bit home premium and i max out my two gigs of ram OFTEN!!! as in four to five times a day running on a two year old desktop computer i must say its uber fast till i reach about 96% of my ram used then things start crashing because i do LOADS of editing and converting and school and research and do play the occasional Game WOW on max settings with a new vid card and cpu cooler but my RAM holds me back at every turn for i max it out all the time and have to basically restart the whole computer because everything starts crashing so do we need all this RAM YES if you don't plan on buying a new computer every two to three years yes spend the money now and MAX out so that later you aren't dishing out lots of $$$ to find RAM that's compatible with your unit so to answer your question in a massive runn on sentence is yes you do unless money is no object then by all means buy a new computer ever two years otherwise plan ahead and be ready for massive advancements instead of being stuck with hardware that cant handle what you need it to .

John Myers
September 21, 2012 10:26 AM

I know this can be confusing, but I have been using Windows 7 Pro 64 bit for a while now and found no problems with older programs running, at least as far back as XP, maybe farther. The trick is to install the program in the Program Files(X86) folder and Win 7 will make the proper adjustments. Now I dont mean that this is 100% but I have really enjoyed Windows 7. The professional version is the one you need though or you will get into a lot of Administrator issues. I have Win 7 Home Premium on another and almost always have problems with some programs. They have a compatibility check program to determine if your system will support 64 bit. You can run it from any operating system.

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