64 bits or bust

I’ve resisted the pull to 64 bits, for a variety of reasons. I’ve had other priorities, like lowering debt, fixing up a house, kids in diapers… But eventually the limitations of living with 2003-era technology caught up with me. Last week I broke down and bought an AMD Phenom II 560 and an Asus M4N68T-M v2 motherboard. Entry-level stuff by today’s standards. But wow.

If you can get one, an AMD Phenom II x4 840 is a better choice, but those are getting hard to find. And if you can’t afford a $100 CPU there are bargains at the very low end too: A Sempron 145 costs less than $45, and a dual-core Athlon II x2 250 costs $60.  The second core is worth the money.

It’s fast. Part of the reason, I’m sure, is because Windows immediately allocated nearly 1.75 GB of RAM to the disk cache. I’m not complaining; it made life with the pokey disk drive I had to put in there much more tolerable. It’s going to be October before I can afford an SSD that will do this thing justice. And the disk cache will make that nicer too.

The Asus board offered to unlock the unused cores on the AMD 560 CPU. It worked; but I won’t leave it that way until I’ve been able to stress-test it with Prime 95. Just because a CPU boots Windows doesn’t mean it’s stable.

There’s still a dearth of 64-bit software to run on it, but even 32-bit software gains some benefits. Some 32-bit programs get a full 4 GB of address space, which they can’t get when running under 32-bit Windows. And even programs that don’t get a full 4 GB benefit from not having to share the 2 GB of address space they get with anything else.

So it’s not quite the same as what happened when you ran Windows 95 with all 16-bit applications, where the advantage of upgrading from Windows 3.1 was questionable.

It’s possible right now to get at least a first-tier motherboard, dual-core CPU clocked over 3 GHz, and 8 GB of RAM for under $200, even without unlocking cores. Two years ago I was deploying high-end database servers with specs that weren’t much higher than that. It’s overkill, but the system throttles itself based on use, too. So you’re not wasting energy when you’re just reading e-mail.

I’m working on a budget of $100 or less per month to modernize, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it can go pretty far these days. Pick up a motherboard one month, CPU and memory another month, and use two months’ budget to get an SSD the next. Drop the parts into an existing system and you can move along in stages.

I spent a couple of hours Saturday messing with some stuff, but none of it proved conclusive enough to give me any significant material to write about. I messed with RT 7 Lite, which promises the ability to slipstream service packs and hotfixes into Windows 7 installation media. It does something, but it’s not as smooth or polished as similar programs for XP were. I haven’t had a chance to the test slipstreamed media yet, so I won’t comment on whether I think it works.

Regarding the motherboard, I couldn’t find everything I wanted: Micro ATX, a parallel port, 4 DIMM sockets, DVI out, and a PS/2 keyboard port. I struck out on the DIMM sockets and DVI out, but can live without those. I don’t expect 8 GB of RAM to be a limiting factor for me for a while, considering I still have systems that top out at 2 GB. Low-end boards still typically have the parallel and PS/2 ports, but some higher-end boards are starting to omit the parallel port. I could use a parallel-to-USB adapter if I needed to, or plug in a PCI parallel port card. Lack of DVI bothers me a little more. I could plug in a video card with any output I want, but since the onboard video is good enough for most of what I plan to do, I’d like it to look its best. But it’s tolerable with analog VGA output.

And 64-bit Windows 7 doesn’t do much of anything slow when you give it 8 GB of RAM and a 3.3 GHz CPU with at least 2 cores. Right now 8 GB of DDR3 RAM sells for a ridiculously low 50 bucks–even when you get a top-tier brand like Crucial or Kingston–so there’s not much reason to put anything less than that in a system. I remember paying more than that for 8 megabytes of RAM and thinking I was stealing it.

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