Choosing your next PC’s Operating System (the 64bit fiasco)
I am in the process of building a new gaming PC. Well, I should come clean, I have been in the process for almost 5 months now – I am mostly decided on the specifications but minor incompatibilities / annoyances cause me to stall. When this happens, real life typically takes over and by the time I look at my ‘final’ specification again, I normally rip it up and start from scratch due to new hardware being released or price drops. *exhale* I am finally on the verge of finalising the specification, the only things still holding me back are the graphics card (after news of ATi’s 4xx0 series) and the amount of RAM to put into my machine. The latter is heavily influenced by the Operating System I plan to run.
There are two crucial elements to any computer system which must work in harmony, the software and the hardware. Whilst this hardly an earth shattering announcement, I never cease to be amazed at the backlash in the form of blog / forum posts from people who forget this. Realistically when building (or buying) your next Gaming PC at the moment your choices are limited to Windows XP or Vista. Both Linux and Mac OSX suffer from platform compatibility issues with major new games and whilst the former enjoys fair server support for online gaming, neither really has much traction in the desktop gaming market.
The difference between Vista and XP is far more than cosmetic, whilst many are quick to criticise Vista for a number of reasons, I am actually a fan of Microsoft’s latest Operating System for a variety of reasons. Sure, it is feature-poor compared to initial designs and has it’s own annoyances, but the number of extra features and advances make it decisively the better Operating System. There is a caveat, for Vista to run comfortably for gaming purposes needs at least 1 Gb of RAM for itself. This on its own is no big deal – RAM is extraordinarily cheap at the moment, however the issue of platform (32bit/64bit) is now rearing its ugly head.
64 bit computing is nothing new, infact AMD processors have had 64bit extensions (called x86-64) for a number of years since the K8 platform back in 2003. Intel did not catch up (despite starting earlier than AMD) and produce viable 64bit chips until the Pentum 6xx series (late 2004), having stumbled initially with their IA64(T) specification developed for their Itanium platform.
Given this was four years ago, why are we not all running on 64bit XP or Vista? The answer is simple, in the same way that driver support initially crippled Vista’s adoption, 64bit drivers are fairly few and far between. What this means, is a lot less hardware will run properly under a 64bit Operating System. Given this situation, why do we even care about 64 bit computing? Why is it not relegated to high end computing and server farms? Mathematics.
Unfortunately, with a 32 bit Operating System, there is a mathematical limitation to the amount of memory the system can address. At most, Vista (or XP) in 32bit will only address 4Gb of total RAM. This includes both the graphics card and the main system memory. This brings my point about Vista comfortably using one Gb of RAM all by itself to sharp focus. Whilst Yes, the price of RAM is cheap there is something about me that dislikes buying 4Gb of RAM (to enable dual channel mode) only to have a quarter of it not accessible by the system. I wrote about this in detail in a previous post.
So what is the solution? Whilst I am huge fan of Vista (and have recently bought a Vista laptop) I do not think it is suitable for desktop gaming. With Windows XP, I have had fairly bloated a driver / runtime loaded installs using no more than 300Mb of RAM which realistically enables most PC gamers to get away with 2Gb of system RAM with no perceptible loss in gaming performance. This unfortunately would not be the case for a similar system running Vista and as such, unfortunately scuttles Vista for this market in my humble opinion.