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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.

By
Eric Escobar
February 13, 2013
Episode #065

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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?

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