You may be aware that Windows Vista and Windows 7 (and XP, though rare) are available in 32-bit or 64-bit versions. Why 64-bit? Because it processes more information, more quickly if you have lots of RAM. Oh, and have the right software and drivers. If you're reading email and surfing the web you probably won't benefit from having a 64-bit operating system (OS).
This is not an in-depth analysis of the architecture of operating systems - this is, after all, Computer Support for the Rest of Us. I'm just going to hit the highlights, and anyone interested can search out more information. Here's a good place to start: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows-vista/32-bit-and-64-bit-Windows-frequently-asked-questions
The version of OS installed is important to know, because some applications and hardware must have the correct 32- or 64-bit version installed. You may have an HP printer, and need to know whether you should be using the 32-bit software usually included on the installation cd or you need to go to the HP web site to download the 64-bit version. Flash, Java and iTunes all have specific 32- or 64-bit versions (which is what prompted this discussion - more later).
To find out which version of operating system you have in Vista or Windows 7, right-click on My Computer, then click on Properties. Look in the window that pops up under System. Then go get the proper versions of your drivers and software - you might be surprised at the improvement in performance.
What about buying a new computer - which version should you get? I've been ordering 32-bit Windows whenever possible, since most software and hardware default to 32-bit and you don't have to do anything magical to make your stuff work. However, it's increasingly more difficult to find 32-bit, and Dell and HP are pretty much forcing us into 64-bit.
If you have a newer computer with 64-bit Vista, you probably already know that Flash isn't available in a 64-bit version, and probably won't be until mid-2010. Crazy. And more sites are demanding Flash - which prompts an error. The temporary work-around is to use a 32-bit browser (that's progress). Windows Vista 64-bit includes both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Internet Explorer - look at your Programs list to find them. Yes, Firefox lovers, you can use Firefox on a 64-bit OS and not have the Flash problem. Because Firefox is a 32-bit browser, of course! Mozilla is working on a 64-bit version.
So, back to choosing a new computer - 32- or 64- bit? You might as well get the 64-bit if you're getting at least 4 GB RAM. If you're using or buying a 32-bit OS, don't bother with more than 3 GB RAM - 32-bit can't recognize or use more than 3.2 GB of RAM.
We're moving forward with technology, kicking and screaming sometimes. It's part of the process, and if we can handle some inconvenience (and having to learn a thing or two), we'll be better-equipped to enjoy what's next.