Friday, October 19th, 2007

Should I run FSX in XP or Vista? 32-bit or 64-bit?

Yesterday I discussed the summary of my findings for seeing what people had to say about SLI and multi-core processors and FSX; however, another very important fundamental point to consider when designing my new computer for FSX will be the choice of operating system. It has to be Windows, there’s no getting around that, but within the Windows platform there are a number of options.

Windows, and computing in general, are going through a major transition phase at the moment on two primary fronts. First, Vista was released within the last year and so many users are now slowly switching over to the newest generation of Windows. Furthermore, PC based computing is also slowly taking on 64-bit infrastructure. These two facts combined mean that anyone looking to build a new gaming system for FSX needs to decide what choice is best for them.

XP or Vista?
Vista and its whole catalogue of different versions (seriously, what’s wrong with just having one version with all the features like OSX?) represents, for better or worse, the future of PC based computing for at least the next several years. In regards to FSX, there are several advantages to running Vista over XP. The biggest advantage by far is the introduction of the graphics standard Direct X10. At the moment, only Vista utilizes Direct X10 although it’s possible that a later service pack may introduce it to XP. The soon to be released “FSX Acceleration Pack” contains the associated software upgrades for Direct X10 (note that you’re video hardware must also be capable of running Direct X10 or else you won’t see the associated enhancements).

There have also been many reports of people saying that FSX has been ‘designed to take advantage of Vista.’ I have not personally had the opportunity to perform side-by-side performance tests on identical hardware setups so it’s unclear exactly how much of a performance advantage (if any) is gained by Vista. However, with the introduction of Direct X10 to FSX it seems that choosing Vista is a no-brainer.

32-bit or 64-bit?
First off, what does this mean? For those who are not familiar with the difference here is a quick summary. In short, most personal computers currently on the market are ’32-bit’ systems. This means that the hardware, specifically the CPU, is looking at no more than 32 bits of data in a single processing cycle. However, a 64-bit system can look at 64-bits of data in a single cycle. The potential impact on computing power can be significant as the system can process much more data at once without physically running any faster (in terms of computing cycles, e.g. 3.0 GHz). A simple analogy would be to consider the ‘power’ of a lawnmower engine running a 2000 rpm vs. a sports car engine running at 2000 rpm. Both are running at the same ‘speed’ in terms of cycles per second, but the larger engine can output a lot more power in each cycle.


However, the benefit of 64-bit computing doesn’t just end with this increase in the amount of data processed per cycle. Another huge advantage is the ability of 64-bit systems to use vastly larger amounts of system memory. A 32-bit system is limited to 4 GB of RAM; however, further practical operating system limitations often limit this to between 3-3.5 GB. Furthermore, the amount of memory available to any one program is generally limited to 2 GB. Therefore, if you bought 8 GB of RAM for your 32-bit computer, you would have just wasted a load of money on excess RAM that the system can’t use. In comparison, 64-bit computers can use vastly larger amounts of RAM. Theoretically, a 64-bit system can use 16 exabytes (that’s about 17 billion gigabytes!) of RAM; however, current practical design limitations generally limit this to a few hundred gigabytes on many systems.

For most ‘normal’ applications, most 32-bit systems are far more powerful than required. Word processing is limited by how fast you can type, internet browsing is limited by how fast your connect is, and so on. However for gamers and other high-end users 64-bit architecture offers tremendous opportunities. Both XP and Vista are available in 64 bit versions.

Great, so let’s just build a 64-bit system and all our problems will be solved!
Well, of course, it’s not so simple. There are also some disadvantages and potential limitations to a 64-bit system. Some things to consider:

  • Most programs are currently still 32-bit. 32-bit programs will run on 64-bit systems, but they won’t experience any significant performance increase as they’ll still be running as a 32-bit application. However, it is often possible to allow these 32-bit programs to use more than 2 GB of memory and this may in turn provide a performance increase.
  • Although 32-bit programs run on 64-bit systems, 16-bit programs will not. But haven’t 16-bit programs long since been delegated to the museum shelves? Not exactly. Although very few fully 16-bit programs are still in use, some programs (particularly those where the programmers got a bit lazy and just copied in some old code) may still have some 16-bit parts floating around. Unfortunately, such programs won’t work in a 64-bit environment. For most major commercial software this shouldn’t be an issue, but for a lot of home-grown stuff this may come into play.
  • Drivers, drivers, drivers! You’ll need 64-bit device drivers to go along with your 64-bit system. However, Vista will only allow the installation of drivers that have been ‘Vista certified.’ Apparently, this is in large part to ensure that Vista lives up to its claim of being a ‘stable’ operating system as the famed ‘Blue Screen of Death’ can often be caused by poorly written device drivers. Again, this shouldn’t be a big problem for common big-name components, but those one-guy-in-a-basement tech companies might not have gotten around to getting their niche components certified.

What about cost?
The good news is that for the most part there is no cost difference between building a 32-bit or 64-bit system. Both versions of the operating system cost about the same and most modern components are capable of running in a 64-bit environment.

What’s holding back the 32-bit to 64-bit switchover?
Again, it’s basically that the average user wouldn’t see any benefit from switching and thus isn’t motivated to go through the standard ordeal of an upgrade. Personally, I think the biggest motivation for the switchover will be the RAM limitations of 32-bit systems. At this point in time, a system with 2-3 GB of memory is still capable of running most higher-end applications with good performance however in several years time the RAM limits will start to limit potential performance thus encouraging more users to make the switch.

So what will I do in regards to the FSX computer project?
Well I haven’t set things in stone yet, but the current plan is to build a 64-bit
Vista system. Although FSX is still a 32-bit application there are reports of some RAM based performance enhancements in the more memory friendly 64-bit environment. Furthermore, although 32-bit systems are still the ‘norm’ this will undoubtedly start changing in the not too distant future and so I may as well build a system that’s ready to take on 64-bit applications as they become more common. Upgrading an existing computer to 64-bit would probably cause a lot of headaches, but since I’m building this new system from scratch with all the latest components 64-bit Vista seems like the way to go.

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6 Comments on “Should I run FSX in XP or Vista? 32-bit or 64-bit?”

  1. Sacha


    I’m really interested in your research, as I am a newcomer to FSX, and also trying to build up a reasonable machine.

    I’m starting with a Dell Precision 380 as a base.
    3 Ghz. dual
    2 GB RAM
    nVidia Quadro FX540 128mb -the default graphics card, and the first component I will change.

    I am planning to buy a Matrox TripleHead2Go, to play with at least 3 monitors.
    Also, it would be nice to hear your advice about flight sticks and/or yokes. It seems CH Products are the best for the price.

    Anyway, and in case you haven’t read them yet, here is a link to some useful articles I’ve found in$=main/op-ed/menu.htm

    Keep on with this nice blog!


  2. pouki3


    I just ordered a new computer to play with FSX. I have to make a decision about installing Vista 32 or 64. I will have 4 GB or ram, sli, quadcore. Is running fsx under vista 64 give me major performance advantage? I would like to stay with Vista 32 for now, but not at the price of losing a lot with FSX. Any suggestion?


    Note: I learn a lot from your site. Keep up the good work.

  3. […] […]

  4. I’ve ran the game in all versions. here’s what I think.

    XP 32bit with 3GB of RAM Dual Core PC, gt8800: go as far as medium low settings anymore will slow it down.
    xp 64bit with 5GB of RAM, dual core, gt8800: go as far as medium high but not much diffrence.

    xp 64 bit, 5GB ram, Quad Core 2.66GHz, gt8800: all settings to maximum however in buil-up areas with many buildings settings on scenery on high.

    vista 64 bit, 5GB ram, Quad Core 2.66Ghz, GT8800: with sp2 and direct x10 preview, the settings are the same it doesn not improve performance but it improved the water a lot and the airplanes too. the sea almost looks real with green shades and cockpit in much higher details let alone the outside of the plane metal is real!.

    to sum up, I wouldn’t pay for vista just to think that dx10 will make a big diffrence but to be smart I’d keep the 32bit version of xp and have 3GB of ram with a quad processor and you must obtain sp1 or sp2 as they improve the speed a lot. in my opinion sp1 performed better than when I installed sp2. but if you have the money for it and want extra details on the watter and the plane why not?..

    The water is higher details only when you fly low, when you fly high its the same as xp.

    the buildings’s are same, trees same, sky is the same dx9 or dx10 not as I expected and I am very desepointed.

    tested by: Lotfi

  5. Adam

    Hi, after watching your videos and reading your site I’m already acquiring old keyboards and monitors from family members. I need to know if I can use a few monitors behind the firewall of my cockpit just to display garmin gps and instrumentation. Then still have a 3 monitor setup per a triple head2go for the outside environment. I’m sure I need extra computers linked together to do this. Do they all need to be running the same OS? How do I go about getting two or three computers running together to perform a true glass cockpit simulation.

  6. Adam,

    I suggest that you check out Cockpit Solutions:

    They offer reasonable solutions, at reasonable cost, for the issues you raised about connecting up multiple computers over a network for use in a cockpit. This arrangement (separate computers) is really the only way to do it since the primary display computer (eg for FSX) needs to be dedicated only to the FS software for maximum image quality. The computers that run the glass cockpit displays generally don’t need to be all that fancy so it can be a good way to recycle some old PCs that you might have lying around (which work perfectly well, but are too antiquated for most modern uses).

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