There’s no real pressure for CPU technology to add more bits in the foreseeable future, but some future computing tasks might eventually make it necessary.
The transition from 32-bit to 64-bit was a big deal for consumer CPUs, and before that the race to add more bits was very active, but for the past two decades, we’ve stuck to 64-bit. What’s next for CPUs?
32-bit vs. 64-bit processors
A 32-bit processor can process 32 bits of information simultaneously, while a 64-bit processor can process 64. This makes 64-bit processors capable of handling more information simultaneously, leading to better performance and capabilities.
Most modern computers and mobile devices use 64-bit processors, but some older devices still have 32-bit processors, so 32-bit operating systems still exist. Notably, Windows 11 does not have a 32-bit version, so Windows 10 is the last version to support these older processors. Similarly, Apple’s MacOS has completely eliminated support for 32-bit applications, and the two major computing platforms have said goodbye to 32-bit seemingly forever.
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Bit size and RAM
A 32-bit CPU is designed to handle data in 32-bit chunks, which means it can access 4,294,967,296 (2^32) individual memory locations, each with a unique address. However, actual usable memory on 32-bit systems is typically less than 4 GB because memory address space is reserved for other hardware devices, such as GPUs. For example, if your GPU has 512MB of VRAM, it can only address 3.5GB of system RAM.
In general, 64-bit CPUs can handle much more memory than their 32-bit counterparts. A 64-bit CPU is designed to handle data in 64-bit chunks, allowing it to access 18 446 744 073 709 551 616 (2^64) individual memory locations, each with a unique address. Theoretically, a 64-bit CPU can handle up to 16 exabytes (EB) of RAM.
In reality, the amount of RAM that a 64-bit CPU can handle is limited by the operating system and the physical limitations of the computer’s hardware. However, modern computers and servers with 64-bit CPUs can support significantly larger amounts of RAM than 32-bit systems, with many systems supporting hundreds of gigabytes or even terabytes of RAM.
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Why did CPUs go to 64-bit?
To meet increasing demands for increased processing power and memory addressability, processor architectures changed from 32-bit to 64-bit. Personal computers began using 64-bit processors in the early 2000s, but these processors were already available for servers and workstations in the 1990s.
64-bit processors can process large amounts of data and access much more memory. They offer superior performance and efficiency compared to 32-bit processors. This is the reason why most computers and mobile devices today use 64-bit processors.
The increase in the number of CPU cores in particular led to an inevitable need for greater RAM capacity.
The advantages of higher bit sizes
A higher bit size allows for a greater range of numerical values, which can be useful for tasks that require high precision, such as scientific and financial calculations.
You can also implement enhanced security for tasks such as encryption, since it becomes more difficult to crack codes as the bit size increases.
More bits allow a processor to handle more complex operations and larger amounts of data simultaneously, improving overall performance and efficiency.
A higher bit size can also improve a computer’s compatibility with large data sets and complex applications. This is a major issue in machine learning and other HPC (high performance computing) workloads.
Why we may never need 128-bit computers
It’s virtually impossible to predict the future of computing, but there are a few reasons why 128-bit computers may never be needed:
- Decreasing performance: As the bit size of a processor increases, the performance and capability improvements tend to be less significant. In other words, the upgrade from 64-bit to 128-bit isn’t as dramatic as going from 8-bit to 16-bit CPUs, for example.
- Workarounds: There may be alternative ways to address the need for increased processing power and memory addressability, such as using multiple processors or specialized hardware instead of a single large processor with a high bit size.
- Physical limitations: It may be impossible to create a modern and complex 128-bit processor due to technological or material limitations.
- Cost and resources: Developing and manufacturing 128-bit processors could be cost-prohibitive and resource-intensive, making mass production unprofitable.
While it’s true that the benefits of moving from 64-bit to 128-bit might not be worth it today, new applications or technologies may emerge in the future that could drive the development of 128-bit processors.
Advances in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, or other yet-to-be-discovered technologies could drive the need for more powerful processors with higher bit sizes. The future of technology is always uncertain, and what may seem unnecessary or improbable today may become essential in the coming years.
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