How to Use a 64-bit Web Browser on Windows

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64-bit version of Windows don’t use 64-bit browsers by default – they’re still in their infancy, although even Adobe Flash now supports 64-bit browsers. Using a 64-bit browser can offer significant performance benefits, according to some benchmarks.

This article is for Windows users – 64-bit Linux distributions include 64-bit browsers, so you don’t have to do anything special on Linux.

Mozilla Firefox

ExtremeTech found that the 64-bit version of Firefox 8 was 10% faster than the 32-bit version in the Peacekeeper browser benchmark. Mozilla doesn’t yet offer official, stable 64-bit builds of Firefox, though. If you want to run 64-bit Firefox on Windows, your choices are an official-but-unstable nightly build or a stable-but-unofficial Waterfox.

Mozilla offers nightly builds of Firefox for testers – they’re constantly updating and can break, so they’re not the ideal candidate for your primary browser. The Firefox Nightly website lists 64-bit builds for Linux, but doesn’t even mention that the Windows ones exist.

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Instead, you’ll find them buried on Mozilla’s FTP site. Look for the “win64” installer.

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Waterfox is a 64-bit build of Firefox for Windows. Unlike the nightly version from Mozilla, Waterfox is based on the stable releases of Firefox. It’ll be a more bug-free, stable experience than the nightly builds. It even uses the same profile Firefox does.

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According to Mozilla technical writer Jean-Yves Perrier, “There are currently no plan to release a 64-bit release of Firefox for Windows in 2012.”

Internet Explorer

Believe it or not, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is ahead of the curve when it comes to 64-bit browsing on Windows. If you’re running a 64-bit version of Windows, you’ll find a 64-bit version of Internet Explorer already installed and available for use in your Start menu. No other Web browser installs a 64-bit version by default yet.

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You’ll run into a snag if you actually want to use the 64-bit version of Internet Explorer as your default browser, though. To avoid confusion for users that might end up accidentally setting 64-bit IE as their default browser and running into plug-in compatibility problems, Microsoft won’t allow you to set 64-bit IE as your default browser.

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You can still pin the 64-bit version to your taskbar or add its shortcut to your desktop, though.

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If you want to set 64-bit IE as your default program for certain file types – say, .htm files – you’ll need to know its location. The 64-bit version is located at C:\Program Files\Internet Explorer\iexplore.exe, while the 32-bit version is located at C:\Program Files (x86)\Internet Explorer\iexplore.exe.

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Google Chrome

Sorry, Chrome fans – Google Chrome only has a 64-bit version for Linux. According to the Chromium project website, neither Chrome nor Chromium can currently be built for 64-bit Windows.

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The upside is that it should only need “a small number of tweaks” to compile for 64-bit Windows. But it appears that no one has done the work yet.

Opera

Opera is now releasing 64-bit development snapshots for Windows. These will likely be unstable, so using them as your default browser is a bad idea. Opera advertises out-of-process plug-ins as a new feature that will allow 64-bit versions of Opera to run 32-bit plug-ins.

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The development snapshots are branded as “Opera Next” and have a black-and-white logo to remind you of their incompleteness.

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Plug-ins

Plug-in compatibility has always been the big problem with 64-bit browsers. Compiling a browser as a 64-bit binary is one thing; it’s another to drag plug-in developers along. In the past, 64-bit browsers have lacked Flash and other popular plug-ins. These days, the most popular plug-ins — Flash and Java — now have 64-bit versions. You may not already have them installed, though.

Visit the Adobe Flash Player download page in a 64-bit browser and you’ll be prompted to download the 64-bit installer. It includes a 32-bit version for your 32-bit browsers.

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If you use Java, you can download a 64-bit build of Java from the manual download page. The 64-bit build includes a 64-bit plug-in – if you use both 32 and 64-bit browsers, you’ll have to install both Java packages.

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Do you use a 64-bit browser? If so, do you see a speed difference? Share your experiences in the comments.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 04/2/12
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