You’ve probably seen 32-bit and 64-bit options available whenever you download an app, or install a game. Your PC might even have a sticker that says it has a 64-bit processor.
But does it really matter? Most new PCs have a 64-bit processor, but why? Here’s the real difference between 32-bit and 64-bit.
Here’s why it matters
Simply put, a 64-bit processor is more capable than a 32-bit processor, because it can handle more data at once. A 64-bit processor is capable of storing more computational values, including memory addresses, which means it’s able to access over four billion times the physical memory of a 32-bit processor. That’s just as big as it sounds.
Here’s the key difference: 32-bit processors are perfectly capable of handling a limited amount of RAM (in Windows, 4GB or less), and 64-bit processors are capable of utilizing much more. Of course, in order to achieve this, your operating system also needs to be designed to take advantage of the greater access to memory. This Microsoft page runs down memory limitations for multiple versions of Windows, but if you’re running the latest version of Windows 10, you don’t need to worry about limits.
With an increase in the availability of 64-bit processors and larger capacities of RAM, Microsoft and Apple both have upgraded versions of their operating systems that are designed to take full advantage of the new technology. The first fully 64-bit operating system was Mac OS X Snow Leopard back in 2009. Meanwhile, the first smartphone with a 64-bit chip (Apple A7) was the iPhone 5s.
In the case of Microsoft Windows, the basic versions of the operating systems put software limitations on the amount of RAM that can be used by applications, but even in the ultimate and professional version of the operating system, 4GB is the maximum usable memory the 32-bit version can handle. While the latest versions of a 64-bit operating system can increase the capabilities of a processor drastically, the real jump in power comes from software designed with this architecture in mind.
Applications and video games with high performance demands already take advantage of the increase in available memory (there’s a reason we recommend 8GB for almost anyone). This is especially useful in programs that can store a lot of information for immediate access, like image-editing software that opens multiple large files at the same time.
Most software is backwards compatible, allowing you to run applications that are 32-bit in a 64-bit environment without any extra work or issues. Virus protection software (these are our favorites) and drivers tend to be the exception to this rule, with hardware mostly requiring the proper version be installed in order to function correctly.
The same, but different
The best example of this difference is right within your file system. If you’re a Windows user, you’ve probably noticed that you have two Program Files folders: One labeled simply “Program Files” and the other labeled “Program Files (x86).”
Applications all use shared resources on a Windows system (called DLL files), which are structured differently depending on whether it’s used for 64-bit applications or 32-bit applications. If, for instance, a 32-bit application reaches out for a DLL and finds a 64-bit version, it’s just going to stop working. That’s the problem.
32-bit (x86) architecture has been around for a very long time, and there are still a host of applications that utilize 32-bit architecture — though on some platforms that is changing. Modern 64-bit systems can run 32-bit and 64-bit software because of a very simple and easy solution: Two separate Program Files directories. When 32-bit applications are sequestered to the appropriate x86 folder, Windows knows to serve up the right DLL, aka the 32-bit version. Everything in the regular Program Files directory, on the other hand, can access the other content.