Ten years ago Dolphin was a very limited program designed to run in only one environment. It was a 32-bit Windows application that required Direct3D 9 with no alternatives. A lot of things have changed since then as Dolphin has expanded its goals. The emulator has become much more robust over time with support added for 64-bit Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, FreeBSD, and even Android phones and tablets!
Sometimes though, changes must be made. Some choices require months of preparation, discussion, examination, while others are inevitable. Maintaining features is a balance between cost and reward. The cost being development time, maintenance, debugging, bandwidth, money and more, with the reward being a better, cleaner experience for our users. The reward was obvious for 4.0.
Well over one third of our Windows downloads for Dolphin 4.0 were the 32-bit variant; a huge share of our userbase. Despite that, we still find ourselves at a crossroads just a few months later.
Why consider dropping 32-bit builds?
The Dolphin Emulator team is constantly searching for ways to improve the development pipeline. From the insane to the mundane, hundreds of ideas will come and go every year as for how to make things better. But the past few months have seen a reoccurring theme: 32-bit builds break, and many of the developers question its worth.
Windows XP has been unsupported for months
Dolphin has already dropped Windows XP support. With a little under 10% of our users still using the OS, Windows XP was a significant share of our users, but at the same time the team made a decision not to let any particular OS hold us back. The only reason for dropping XP support is because the latest Microsoft Visual Studio Compiler doesn't support Windows XP. The aging operating system's days were numbered simply by that, and once the move was made to C++11, there was no going back. The unintended side effect to that drop is that Dolphin no longer supported any operating systems that were primarily 32-bit. Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8 are all designed for 64-bit.
Dedicated 32-bit processors are very outdated and cannot run Dolphin at playable speeds
On the hardware side of things, x86_32 processors died a long time ago. It's only thanks to Microsoft selling 32-bit versions of their operating system that any sizable number of Dolphin users need 32-bit builds at all! Since 2003 when x86_64 processors debuted, the newer architecture has proven itself far superior to the original specs it was based off of. Any computer that needs 32-bit due to memory constraints or processor limitations simply won't run Dolphin at usable speeds, so what use is there in supporting it? Any computer that can run Dolphin is already using a 64-bit processor.
Dolphin's 32-bit builds are not indicative of the Dolphin experience
Most programs can have 32-bit builds and 64-bit builds without trouble or more commonly host only 32-bit builds and let 64-bit users use it as well. For those programs, the benefits of 64-bit don't matter much at all, and the end users need not worry about any of it!
This is not true with Dolphin, where some games still do not run full speed on any existing configuration. Dolphin sees very important and observable benefits in its 64-bit builds! With a 64-bit address space, Dolphin can reserve a 4GB area that maps to GCN/Wii memory boosts performance greatly and, more importantly, 64-bit has twice as many registers. This brings the emulator much closer to the number of registers to that of the PPC processor. Plus, since 64-bit is large enough to fit the DSP's 40-bit registers, it can run DSP JIT (Just In Time) recompiler for a nice speedup. 32-bit has to fall back on the CPU-intensive interpreter functions for most DSP instructions. In addition to all of that, compilers even generate better code thanks to the ability to do 64-bit memory operations without needing special alignment.
In preparation for this announcement, we did thorough performance testing to compare 32-bit builds and 64-bit builds with no idea how they would actually turn out. While we knew that 32-bit was a little slower, the results were shocking.
One of the more annoying aspects of 32-bit Windows support is that the operating system lacks critical features for development. This means that menial changes that work on other other platforms break it again and again. For Dolphin's Just In Time Compiler (JIT), that means making special code for 32-bit builds all the time. This is not only is frustrating, but also stunts development as it slows down developers and prevents them from undertaking projects in the first place!
Worse yet, there is a severe lack of testing on the 32-bit builds. For 100 revisions, there were a total of zero issue reports despite the fact that 32-bit builds were totally nonfunctional! This makes it harder for developers to figure out what broke the builds, and forces them to go back into old projects that were already considered complete.
There is also the case of compiling the builds themselves. Windows requires twice as many buildbots thanks to requiring 32-bit support, taking twice the space and using twice the processing power of our servers. To put it simply, it has become very difficult to maintain 32-bit builds. This even causes confusion among many users; according to advanced statistics gathered from the downloads page, more than 60 percent of the 32-bit downloads are done by 64-bit OSes. The majority of 32-bit users are 64-bit users needlessly using an inferior build!
32-bit support is one of Dolphin's oldest features. But just like D3D9 before it... times change. 32-bit has become a weight around all of our necks, slowing down users and developers alike. With the 32-bit userbase shrinking quickly, the builds becoming harder and harder to maintain and the benefits dwindling, the developers have decided to discontinue the 32-bit Windows buildbot, and cut away 32-bit support entirely. 32-bit ARM devices are not affected by this decision and will continue to be supported. For loyal users that are stuck on 32-bit Windows machines, the current builds are not going anywhere and will be archived permanently, and Linux is a free 64-bit operating system with full Dolphin support.
For any console, emulation progresses in stages. First is initial support, grasping at straws fighting for even basic functionality. Then comes playable games. As time progresses, accuracy and compatibility become the goal. And finally, it reaches enhanced emulation, where emulation is not only accurate, but improved upon through advanced features like netplay and HD graphics. In all other consoles that have been emulated, each of these stages was fulfilled by a different emulator. But for the GameCube and Wii? Dolphin has fulfilled them all. It is the freedom to change and grow that has allowed Dolphin to continue to evolve and grow in this manner. Shedding hindrances, cleaning code, attracting new talent; Dolphin excels at these things, allowing it to grow and evolve in ways no emulator before has ever achieved. Removing 32-bit support is just one more step on this journey.