What’s the Difference Between 32-bit and 64-bit?

You’ve likely heard the terms “64-bit” and “32-bit” when it comes to computers. But what do they mean? Tech Talker explains just what these bits are and why the difference matters to you.

Eric Escobar,
February 13, 2013
Episode #065

If you’ve purchased a new computer or new software in the past few years, you’ve probably run across the question, “Is your computer 32-bit or 64-bit?” In this week’s episode, we’ll be going over what the difference is between 64-bit and 32-bit, why it matters, and how to find out which you have! But first…>

What Is a “Bit”?

bit is actually a contraction of the term “binary digit.” It’s thebasic unit of information in computing. Eight bits form a byte. This might sound familiar if you’ve checked out my series on BitTorrent. If you recall, BitTorrent is a way to stream and share large files over the web. In other words, BitTorrent is a way to share many bits of information with others online.

What Is the Difference Between 64-bit and 32-bit?

The complicated explanation for what 64-bit really means is that a 64-bit computer processor can handle memory and data addresses represented in 64 bits. To the average computer user this means nothing. To put it in better terms, a 64-bit computer can handle more memory than a 32-bit computer. If it were a bank, a 32-bit computer would have 32 tellers available, while a 64-bit computer would have 64 tellers.

So a 64-bit processor can address more memory. Why is this important? Well, 32-bit machines have a limit of the amount of RAM they can utilize. The standard 32-bit computer can only use about 3.25GB of RAM. You can always add more RAM to your computer, but the computer simply would not be able to utilize it. On the other hand, 64-bit systems can handle virtually unlimited RAM. Well, there is a theoretical limit of 17 billion (with a “B”) gigabytes of RAM! This is one major benefit of a 64-bit system.

See also: Open Heart Surgery on Your Computer

Another benefit is the speed boost of 64-bit processors. Taking a look back at the example I gave about the bank, if 64 windows are open at a bank, that means that you could serve the same amount of people as a 32-teller bank, but do it twice as fast!

If you have a 32-bit computer, then you will not be able to run 64-bit programs.

Clearly we can see that 64-bit systems have some real advantages. But what exactly makes a computer 64-bit versus 32-bit? As you may have already guessed, the main item that gives your computer this designation is the processor. If you have a fairly new computer (purchased in the past 3 years), then odds are you will have a 64-bit processor. I recommend finding out for sure. You can do that super easily right now. Just click Windows, if you have a PC, or Appleif you have a Mac, and you'll get easy instructions on how to find your processor capacity.

Now that you know which processor your system is running, the next question is: How does the processor type affect your user experience? The biggest difference will be the software that you install. If you have a 64-bit system, then you can run 64-bit programs and 32-bit programs on your computer. If you try to run a 32-bit program on a 64-bit computer, the program will work fine but you will not see any speed improvements as you would in a 64-bit computer. Basically, your 64-bit machine would only work as fast as a 32-bit machine running that specific program. So as a rule of thumb, 64-bit programs should be used in a 64-bit machine whenever possible to get the fastest speeds. If you have a 32-bit computer, then you will not be able to run 64-bit programs.

An interesting thing to note is that if you compare two computers side by side, you’ll notice that while the 64-bit machine is faster, it may not actually be twice as fast as the 32-bit, which would be intuitive.

Why is that?

It’s because the computer world is in transition. We are transitioning away from 32-bit and moving to 64-bit. This transition is frustrating because when a software developer writes software, he has to write two versions, one 64-bit version and one 32-bit version. However, if a developer doesn’t have the resources to write both, then they will default to writing a 32-bit version because it works on both types of systems.

This is the biggest reason why 64-bit computers aren’t truly twice as fast as their 32-bit relatives. It would be like putting regular gasoline inside a racecar. Without optimized programs, the computer can’t meet its full potential. It is only a matter of time before we transition completely to 64-bit computers and software programs. But for now, it’s a good thing that many large software developers create software for both types of systems.

Here are your Quick and Dirty Tips for 64-bit and 32-bit systems:

  1. 32-bit systems are limited to 3.2 Gigabytes of RAM.

  2. 64-bit systems allow for faster processing and up to 17 Billion gigabytes of RAM.

  3. If you have a 64-bit system, you should use 64-bit software whenever possible (but can still run 32-bit software).

  4. If you have a 32-bit system, you cannot run 64-bit programs.

In this episode, I talked a lot about the different components in your computer. If you want to know more about each of these components, such as RAM and processors, be sure to check out my episode on the inner workings of your computer.

Well, that’s it for today! Be sure to check out all my earlier episodes at techtalker.quickanddirtytips.com. And if you have further questions about this podcast or want to make a suggestion for a future episode, post your comments on the Tech Talker Facebook page.

Until next time, I’m the Tech Talker, keeping technology simple!