Tech Tip Tuesday: 32-bit vs. 64-bit

What does 32-bit and 64-bit mean?

The terms 32-bit and 64-bit refer to the way a computer’s processor handles information. A 64-bit system handles large amounts of memory more effectively than a 32-bit system. This means a 64-bit system can be more responsive when running several programs at the same time and switching between them frequently.

The most important thing to understand is that a 32-bit system has a hard limit of 4 GB for the amount of memory it can address. If you have more than 4 GB of memory installed on your machine you will need a 64-bit processor and a 64-bit version of Windows installed in order to use the extra amount of memory.

So do I need more than 4 GB of memory?

While many users may find that a 32-bit system provides them with enough performance for the basics of computer use, like internet browsing and typing documents, applications that tend to use large amounts of memory (e.g. image and video editing software, 3D rendering utilities, and video games) show higher performance with the 64-bit processor and operating system.

Software companies have taken advantage of the increase in available memory of 64-bit systems by releasing 64-bit versions of their programs. The extra memory is especially useful for 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. Accessing more memory at once means more enemies on screen without lag and smoother performance from your graphics card.

Note that programs specifically designed for the 64-bit version of Windows won’t work on the 32-bit version of Windows. Most software is backwards compatible though, 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. If you’re trying to install a printer or other device that only has 64-bit drivers available, it won’t work correctly on a 32-bit version of Windows.