What is the difference between a 32-bit and 64-bit OS?

So you just bought a fancy new computer, and it’s got a big sticker on it that says “64-bit!”. Have you found yourself wondering why this particular computing buzzword is so prominently featured on your new hardware, and what exactly it means? Modern computing has been shifting towards 64-bit for a few years now, and it has saturated the market to a point where even entry-level computers are equipped with these new, more powerful processors. Even with the manufacturers pushing the new CPUs, your computer may not be able to take full advantage of the technology, and getting to that point may cost you more money in software than it’s worth.

What are bits?

The number of bits in a processor refers to the size of the data types that it handles and the size of its registry. A 64-bit processor is capable of storing 264 computational values, including memory addresses, which means it’s able to access over four billion times as much physical memory than a 32-bit processor! The key difference: 32-bit processors are perfectly capable of handling a limited amount of RAM, 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.

How many bits?

As a general rule, if you have under 4 GB of RAM in your computer, you don’t need a 64-bit CPU, but if you have 4 GB or more, you do. While many users may find that a 32-bit processor provides them with enough performance and memory access, applications that tend to use large amounts of memory may show vast improvements with the upgraded processor. Image and video editing software, 3D rendering utilities, and video games will make better use of a 64-bit architecture and operating system, especially if the machine has 8 or even 16 GB of RAM that can be divided among the applications that need it.

Through hardware emulation, it’s possible to run 32-bit software and operating systems on a machine with a 64-bit processor. The opposite isn’t true however, in that 32-bit processors cannot run software designed with 64-bit architecture in mind. This means if you want to take full advantage of your new processor you also need a new operating system, otherwise you won’t experience any marked benefits over the 32-bit version of your hardware.

Operating System Differences

With an increase in the availability of 64-bit processors and larger capacities of RAM, Microsoft and Apple both have begun to develop and release upgraded versions of their operating systems that are designed to take full advantage of the new technology. 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, 4 GB is the maximum usable memory the 32-bit version can handle. While 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.

Software and Drivers

Applications with high performance demands already take advantage of the increase in available memory, with companies releasing 64-bit versions of their programs. This is especially useful on programs that can store a lot of information for immediate access, like image editing and software that opens multiple large files at the same time.

Video games are also uniquely equipped to take advantage of 64-bit processing and the increased memory that comes with it. Being able to handle more computations at once means more spaceships on screen without lagging and smoother performance from your graphics card, which doesn’t have to share memory with other processes anymore.

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 and drivers tend to be the exception to this rule, with hardware mostly requiring the proper version be installed in order to function correctly.

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