Skip to main content

32-bit vs. 64-bit: Understanding what these options really mean

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 when most new PCs have a 64-bit processor? 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 can store more computational values, including memory addresses, which means it can access over 4 billion times the physical memory of a 32-bit processor. That’s just as big as it sounds.

Get your weekly teardown of the tech behind PC gaming
Check your inbox!

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 can utilize much more. Of course, 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 Windows 10, you don’t need to worry about limits.

With an increase in the availability of 64-bit processors and larger RAM capacities, Microsoft and Apple both have upgraded versions of their operating systems designed to take full advantage of the new technology. The first fully 64-bit operating system was Mac OS X Snow Leopard in 2009. Meanwhile, the first smartphone with a 64-bit chip (Apple A7) was the iPhone 5s.

AMD Ryzen 5 2400G & Ryzen 3 2200G Review fingers motherboard
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

In Microsoft Windows, the operating system’s basic version puts software limitations on the RAM amount that applications can use. 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 drastically increase a processor’s capabilities, the real jump in power comes from software designed with this architecture in mind.

Applications and video games that demand high performance 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 simultaneously.

Most software is backward 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 to be installed to function correctly.

The same, but different

You can find an excellent example of the data processor capacity differences through your computer’s file network. On a Windows computer, there are two Program File folders: Program Files and Program Files (x86).

Through the Windows system, all applications use the same shared resources called DLL Files. These files are structured slightly differently depending on whether you’re running a 32-bit or 64-bit application. You’ll run into some obstacles if a 32-bit application tries to reach for a 64-bit DLL version. In those instances, the application will typically stop working. 

Many applications still use the 32-bit operating system because its design has been on the market for a long time. However, that’s changing on some platforms. Some developers have found a solution; on Modern 64-bit systems, you can run both 32- and 64-bit software. The computer uses two specific Program File directories. If your 32-bit app is in the correct x86 folder, your computer will be able to access the correct 32-bit version. Beyond that, the applications in your Program Files directory can access other available content.

Editors' Recommendations

Jon Martindale
Jon Martindale is the Evergreen Coordinator for Computing, overseeing a team of writers addressing all the latest how to…
AMD Radeon VII vs. Nvidia RTX 2080
AMD Radeon VII

Nvidia's RTX graphics cards are everywhere you look, whether in desktops or laptops. Ray tracing controversies aside, they're powerful cards. But AMD has powerful cards of its own.

The AMD Radeon VII is a true successor to the Vega 64 in more ways than one. It's built on the second-generation, 7nm Vega architecture, and it's the first high-end graphics card AMD released since its Vega predecessor. There's no question that it's more powerful than that card, but how does it fare against its main competition? We pitted the AMD Radeon VII versus the Nvidia RTX 2080 to find out.

Read more
Intel Core i7 vs. i9: What’s the difference?
Intel Core i7-11700K processor.

Intel's top two CPU lines are known as Core i7 and Core i9, but other than that mild numerical difference, what does that actually mean in terms of real-world features, performance, and pricing? A higher number generally indicates better performance, but there's a little more to the story than that.

Intel's most recent desktop and mobile generations blur the lines between the i9 and i7 markers. To help you decide which is the right CPU for you, we've pitted the Intel i7 versus Core i9 to see how much you really get by upgrading.

Read more
AMD Ryzen 9 3900X vs. Intel Core i9-9900K
AMD Ryzen 9 3900x pins.

The period between late 2018 and early 2019 was an inflection point in the ongoing battle between AMD and Intel. In late 2018, Intel continued its dominance in the gaming space by releasing the i9-9900K, which was the first CPU outside of Intel's Extreme range to sport the i9 marker. AMD followed up shortly after with the Ryzen 9 3900X. Although AMD had been competitive in productivity apps in its two previous Ryzen generations, the 3900X proved that team red still has the power to go up against Intel.

The 3900X marks a return for AMD, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's better than the 9900K. Let's dig into the details to find the better CPU.
By the numbers

Read more