Apple presented the iPhone 5S with a 64-bit processor on Tuesday and in the year to come many other Android devices will be following their lead with this technology. 64-bit CPUs have been a standard for years in the desktop domain, but what are the real advantages that this type of processor will bring to smartphone users?
64-bit quick facts
CPUs count with rows of numbers made up of zero's and one's. Processors with a 64-bit architecture are in a position to handle a row of numbers made of 64 digits during one single clock pulse. Or to rephrase: it can handle 64-bits (8 bytes) of data information at double the speed as it takes a 32-bit (4 bytes) processor to handle the same amount of data.
Simply put: 64-Bit CPUs can handle more information at once, but this performance is task-specific and RAM-dependent.
A good simple analogy, thanks to reddit user candre23, is to think of a desk that you have covered in arts and crafts. You’ve got all your materials laid out across the desk (scissors, paper, magic markers, and the like) and you’re finding that with all this stuff it doesn’t leave you with a ton of room to actually do work. Moving from a 32-bit to a 64-bit architecture is like getting a much bigger desk and being able to do bigger art projects and organize your material much better. Sure, it is a heckuva lot more complicated than that, but it’s a good simple explanation for what increasing the bits does for your computer/mobile device.
How does the hardware and software work together?
Hardware isn't the only factor when it comes to a 64-bit system: software also plays an important role. Software also needs to be constructed properly for this architecture in order to provide the processor with the necessary data. Only when both of these requirements are met will a 64-bit architecture be able to deliver the expected advantages.
The advantages of 64-bit
This processor type can compute larger integer values. An integer is a kind of data that saves integral values, in other words zeros and ones. Processing larger values will then result in certain advantages for graphics (for example with user interfaces and games), multimedia information or 64-bit file systems. Another advantage is that it will be able to address more than 4 gigabytes of RAM (the maximum for 32-bit systems). While this is still a moot point for mobile devices (I would absolutely LOVE a smartphone with 4 GB of RAM) it is definitely paving way for this improvement in the future.
The disadvantages of 64-bit
Compared to 32-bit programs, there is a significant disadvantage: due to the doubled number length that is allocated to the 64-bit format, more storage (RAM, cache and memory) is used than with its 32-bit counterparts. This can become a problem, particularly for smartphones, since they are often greatly limited in resources when compared to desktop PCs.
What's more, it really only makes sense to have a 64-bit processor if the programs/apps have been made for this type of architecture. This means extra effort and expense for app developers. It's also important to consider that 32-bit programs when used on a 64-bit system could slow down the entire system in certain situations. The reasons for this is because the 32-bit format will need to be loaded on top of the 64-bit libraries. This would heavily impact the memory as well as the internal storage.
Bottom Line and Forecast
Smartphones are performing better and better and the only logical next step is to develop a modern architecture for hardware and software. Whether you're dealing with complex office software, demanding games or a smartphone used as a computer replacement, the usage possibilities are constantly expanding and switching to 64-bit processors will be a welcome change. For the time being though, this added value still has its limits, but this could change with the next generation of devices down the road, when hardware and software are made to work more fluidly with one another.