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What is the Difference Between a 32-Bit and 64-Bit Operating System?

John Lister
Updated May 16, 2024
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Today’s PCs come in two varieties: those running a 32-bit operating system and those running a 64-bit operating system. The difference is the amount of information the PC’s processor can handle at any precise moment. While a computer designed for this type of operating system has vastly more potential computing power, it requires fundamental changes to the way its software is designed.

The word "bit" refers to the way computers deal with information in binary, where all data is listed as a string of digits which can either be a 0 or a 1. Each of these digits is known as one bit, meaning a 32-bit processor can process 32 digits at once. Don’t confuse this with memory, which measures the total amount of information a computer can remember without needing to use a storage device such as a disk. While the figure for memory will be much bigger, a computer can’t process all of that information at once.

The software for a computer with a 32-bit processor, including operating systems such as Windows, has to be specifically written to match that processor. The same applies to 64-bit processors. Microsoft produced 32-bit and 64-bit operating system editions of Windows XP and Vista, and will do the same for Windows 7.

There are also some significant mathematical limits to the two different types of processor. A 32-bit processor can only work with a maximum of 4GB of memory, and this is usually limited to 2GB for any one program. A 64-bit processor could theoretically work with 17 billion GB of memory. A 64-bit processor can also carry out some tasks twice as quickly.

The memory limitations of a 32-bit processor started to become clear with Vista, which uses a large amount of memory and can make it difficult to run multiple programs at once without using up even a full 4GB of memory. Meanwhile, it once seemed impossible that any one program would need more than 2GB of memory, but some modern video games have hit that limit. For these reasons, 64-bit processors will likely start to become much more popular, which will increase the number of consumers interested in buying a 64-bit operating system.

The 64-bit editions of Windows can run some software designed for the 32-bit edition through a special compatibility mode, but the results can be very varied. Using a 64-bit operating system can also cause problems with drivers. These are small pieces of software that coordinate each hardware device with an operating system such as Windows.

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John Lister
By John Lister
John Lister, an experienced freelance writer, excels in crafting compelling copy, web content, articles, and more. With a relevant degree, John brings a keen eye for detail, a strong understanding of content strategy, and an ability to adapt to different writing styles and formats to ensure that his work meets the highest standards.
Discussion Comments
By anon996637 — On Sep 21, 2016

So which is the best amongst 64bit and 32 bit?

By anon960636 — On Jul 11, 2014

Completely wrong. Intel CPUs have supported PAE since 1995. 32-bit Pentium Pro supported up to 64 GB RAM.

A 32-bit Linux supports as much RAM as you can stick to the motherboard. Mine boots up happily with 48 GB and can use it all just fine. Per process is limited to 3 GB at once.

The 32-bit Windows natively supports also way more than 4 GB, but most versions are limited to something lower. 4 GB is an arbitrary choice. This limitation can actually even be removed. Some bad drivers may have trouble with this, though. Most work fine.

Still not convinced? Check how much RAM 32-bit Windows 2008 supports.

The 4 GB myth is strong, but it's really only a myth.

By anon303690 — On Nov 15, 2012

The 32 bit will still be the best for many years.

By anon243474 — On Jan 27, 2012

My 64 bit win 7 gives a print command slowly when I connect to the printer installed on xp 32 bit in a server domain environment.

By anon234260 — On Dec 11, 2011

An HP laptop has 40 HDDl; 512 memory; bluetooth;

pentium M.

Do you advise me to buy it for autocad program running?

What other things should I consider before buying it? Please advise me.

By anon158018 — On Mar 05, 2011

ankit198 - it depends of CPU. My Intel Core i3 can support up to 16 Gb of RAM.

By anon140095 — On Jan 06, 2011

thanks for the information.

By anon139951 — On Jan 06, 2011

please tell me about 32-bit 86x.

By anon116599 — On Oct 07, 2010

Does unix have this option?

By sudheerjami — On Sep 25, 2010

very good article. Thanks for sharing.

By anon103811 — On Aug 14, 2010

right click-properties-run in compatibility mode.

By anon101391 — On Aug 03, 2010

wow that was an excellent article. Now i am familiar with 32-bit and 64-bit systems. Great.

By anon80062 — On Apr 26, 2010

what about java application? Does a java application depend on bit or not?

By anon76754 — On Apr 12, 2010


By anon74675 — On Apr 03, 2010

Good article, as it states that 32bit OS supports max 4gb RAM while we install 4gb RAM on 32 bit OS machine and it showing only 3gb usable. why?

By anon67350 — On Feb 24, 2010

Very informative article, and I think I now understand. So I should have no problem converting a machine from a 64 bit OS to 32 bit OS should I need to downgrade (ie Win 7 64 to Win XP 32)?

By anon50596 — On Oct 29, 2009

The article states: "A 64-bit processor could theoretically work with 17 million GB of memory."

By gldnretvr — On Jul 28, 2009

I have a 32 bit CAD program I want to try loading to operate on my 64 bit 8 MB RAM machine (Dell Vostro 1720. Where shall I look to find a setting, "compatibility mode"?

By ankit1986 — On Jul 06, 2009

very good article but how many GB memory support by 64 bit processor?

John Lister
John Lister
John Lister, an experienced freelance writer, excels in crafting compelling copy, web content, articles, and more. With...
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