64-bit Office – is it worth the trouble?

So much for the difficulties of 64-bit Office 2010 – is it worth it?

Last week we had a lot of coverage on Office 2010 64-bit edition, the compatibility issues and special installation requirements. If you don’t think you’ll have any compatibility problems, is it worth the trouble?

That’s the big question – certainly 64-bit software should run faster than a 32-bit version, but is it enough to counter-balance the installation and compatibility hassles? While a 64-bit computer is faster, it may lack some of the graphics acceleration features of 32-bit systems – Microsoft suggests this could reduce the advantages of a 64-bit computer.

To answer that we “Fired up the Quattro” and have been trying Office 2010 64-bit. Alas, our ‘Quattro’ isn’t a cool Audi with a fire red paint job – it’s an Intel i7 @ 2.8Ghz CPU with 8GB RAM and Windows 7 64-bit edition with Nvidia GTS-250 graphics.

The only VBA code used is relatively simple. There are no add-ons used in any Office programs nor VBA. That means the compatibility problems are minimal – in fact we’ve stuck none to date.

We’ve been running Office 2010 32-bit on the same computer so we can fairly compare 32-bit and 64-bit applications on the same hardware and the same documents.

We’ve talked about installing Office 2010 64-bit already. Office 2010 64-bit is visually indistinguishable from the 32-bit cousin. To confirm what software is running go to the equivalent of the ‘About’ screen – under the new Backstage menu. Click on File | Help and again look for the magic phrase ’64-bit’.

Office 2010 - About for 64-bit version image from 64-bit Office - is it worth the trouble? at Office-Watch.com

Starting up Word is nothing special and opening a simple small document shows no apparent speed improvements.

But open up a large Word document, say 100 pages or more with plenty of images, and the difference is obvious. With 32-bit Word on the same computer the document loads more slowly and scrolling through the document is a little sluggish as Word struggles to keep up – nothing major or even annoying and you become accustomed to it. With 64-bit Word all those minor delays disappear! Larger documents open faster and scrolling is as responsive as you could wish for.

The same applies to large Excel worksheets and PowerPoint presentations – the speed improvements are really noticeable on larger documents.

The really massive difference is with Outlook 2010. The lumbering, clumsy beast that is Outlook becomes a still large but more nimble and responsive 64-bit animal. Starting up Outlook with an 8GB data file is no longer a finger-tapping wait. Switching between folders happens when you click, not seconds later. This was a bit of a surprise since Outlook is more reliant on constant reading/writing to the hard drive than the other applications.

When tracking memory use it’s no surprise that Outlook is gobbling up the most RAM. Overall with Outlook running as well as Word and Excel with large documents, total used memory nudged the 4GB mark or about half what is available. That would suggest that a 4GB or 6GB RAM 64-bit computer should be enough for most people and purposes if Office 2010 is your main consideration.


Is 64-bit Office 2010 worth it?

The arrival of 64-bit applications is the single main reason to consider moving to Office 2010.

Frankly we’ve been searching for any compelling reason for an Office 2010 switch-over – we finally found it though it admittedly doesn’t apply to everyone.

If you have the necessary hardware and operating system then 64-bit is a noticeable improvement over 32-bit applications on the same computer. Given that Office 2010 comes with both 32-bit and 64-bit versions included in the physical disk package you can change-over if the need arises.

Our new ebook Office 2010: the real startup guide has a chapter devoted to 64-bit installation and use in Office 2010.  “Things you should know that Microsoft won’t tell you: saving money, installing, configuring and using Office 2010″ 


Why is it so?

Why are the 64-bit applications so much faster than their 32-bit cousins – after all the computer hardware isn’t incredibly faster.

The main reason is WOW64 – Windows on Windows 64-bit. This is a special part of Windows 64-bit that converts 32-bit program instructions into the 64-bit messages than the hardware understands. Think of WOW64 as like a translator – any conversation that needs a translator will be slower than when the two people (ie program and hardware) speak the same 64-bit language.

For smaller 32-bit programs the WOW64 translation overhead is minimal and probably unnoticeable, but for larger programs like Office or virtual machine systems the constant translation from 32 to 64-bit gobbles up a lot of computer resources.

Office 64-bit applications don’t use the WOW64 translator. Removing that conversion layer seems to make a big difference to the responsiveness of the large Office 2010 64-bit programs.

A secondary reason for the speed improvement is memory management. Not only can 64-bit Windows address more memory but it seems better able to manage memory between applications. The more a program can work in memory instead of caching to the hard drive, the faster it can run.