32-Bit Vs. 64-Bit Windows

What’s the difference between 32-bit Windows and 64-bit Windows? – Spencer

This question is one that is deeply rooted in technology and one that could easily take more space than is available in this column, but here is my digest version.

In the computer world, bottlenecks are what cause those performance delays that we all detest and anything that can reduce the bottlenecks can improve performance.

In simple terms, the data path on a 32-bit operating system is half the size of 64-bit operating systems. That means that your computer can be slogging twice as much data around at any given time with a 64-bit OS.

Think 32-lane highway vs 64-lane highway: twice as much traffic can use the highway at any given time.

In the computer world, however, in order to take full advantage of the 64 lanes you need specially designated cars that are capable of using the extra lanes. Think of the extra lanes as only available for car pool vehicles that run on alternative fuels that are the color green.

In order for a 64-bit version of Windows to be of value to you, you will also need a 64-bit processor and 64-bit versions of the software that you plan to run. Without all three, you would be wasting your time.

Additionally, the 64-bit version of Windows can run faster because it can address more physical memory (generally referred to as RAM – Random Access Memory) and avoid using the much slower hard drive for active memory needs.

The 32-bit limitation for RAM access is @ 4 GB which means as soon as Windows needs more working memory it has to swap out information in temporary free space created on the hard drive (referred to as the swap file) and this is only if you have that much RAM installed.

Since most of us have much less than 4 GB of RAM, we are using the hard drive much more often for working memory, which is why we often find ourselves waiting for the computer to respond to our requests (meanwhile the hard drive light is flashing almost solid).

To really make things zing on a 64-bit system, you would want to install huge amounts of RAM (8GB or more) and again, only if your software programs can address this additional memory.

While all of this sounds like exactly what we have all been waiting for (both Linux and the MacOS have been 64-bit for many years), the reality in today’s computing environment is that you will be more likely to suffer from the compatibility issues that have always plagued the 64-bit Windows world than benefit from the advancements that it provides.

Unless you are building a computer that is specifically designed to run a special application such as 3D modeling, video gaming or work with massive amounts of data AND you have the discipline to only install applications that have been written as 64-bit programs or you do the research to ensure that whatever you install including your printer, scanner or digital camera software will not cause a problem on 64-bit Windows versions, your likely better off sticking to the 32-bit version that provides less headaches.

The best way that I can explain how to navigate this question is, if you have to rely on this column to make your decision about which way to go, stick to the 32-bit version.

Those technically savvy enough to make 64-bit Windows function well have little use for my advice column!

Ken Colburn
President of Data Doctors Computer Services, Host of the award-winning Computer Corner radio show, and Author of Computer Q&A in the East Valley Tribune newspapers.

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  • Lee

    Or, you could just use 64-bit Ubuntu Linux, which comes with all the 64-bit software and drivers you need — thousands of packages, in fact.

  • Harry

    Windows 32-bits can actually use more than 4 GB of memory, thru Physical Address Extension (PAE). The real limit is 2 GB per application, and this can also be enlarged to 3GB.

    See the following articles:
    Physical Address Extension (PAE) overview:
    http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc775523.aspx
    Boot Parameters to Configure DEP and PAE:
    http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/aa468629.aspx
    I haven’t tried it though – 4 GB are enough for me.

  • Shawn

    I have been using Vista x64 at home since June of 2007. It was painful initially, but has gotten easy in the last year since most programs support x64 now. I have recently upgrade my work computer and laptop x64 from 32 also.

    The disclaimer at the end of the article is priceless!

  • Sunfell

    The question of whether or not I should get a 32-or 64-bit system is moot, since I found a nice quad-core system running 64-bit Vista at a price I could not resist.

    I have a whole stack of older software that l hoped would run, but a visit to the Compatibility Center quickly killed that idea. Happily, most of my newer stuff will run on the machine, plus I now have a system powerful enough to play real games on.

    Vista runs beautifully on this computer, and I am happy with its performance so far. It runs my printers, too- even my old Samsung laser printer. But I won’t buy another scrap of hard- or software without consulting the Compatibility site.

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  • J X

    Ah, I think this response to this age-old question is out of date.

    Vista, unlike what ridiculous ads by the competition would have you believe is as compatible as any new operating system has ever been (with software designed for previous versions). That being said, Vista is not 110% compatible with every piece of software ever released. Part of this is due to money-making-schemes by Adobe (Adobe CS2 doesn’t run well on Vista quite deliberately… they want to sell you CS3 and CS4).

    In any case, switching to a new OS has always had its hurdles, the hurdles used to be gargantuan (Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X was a sloppy mess for example) or from (PowerPC Mac to Intel Mac) even going from Windows 98 to Windows XP was a bigger problem. Vista by contrast, is one of the easiest transitions to make. Office 2003 is fully supported in Vista as well.

    Finally, and this is my whole point: Vista itself has some compatibility issues, the 64-bit version is only slightly less compatible. You DO NOT need “special cars” to run on 64-bit Vista… 32-bit apps runs very smoothly on it, and since systems can have a lot of RAM these individual apps can make use of 2GB+ of RAM just for themselves (which they like). Rather than your description, 64-bit Vista with 8GB or more of RAM (which is VERY affordable, again, more affordable than ever) is like having a playground wherein you can run a bunch of 32-bit sandboxes. The sandbox can be as big as the whole playground used to be… the sandbox likes that.

    32-Bit is simply obselete at this point… and my advice would go precisely the other way: If you don’t know: then 64-bit. Now, if you know the limitations of 32-bit and you fully understand how crippled your system will be… then get 32-bit. I have both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Vista and from the user perspective there’s not much difference other than selecting 64-bit drivers when downloading drivers. The other huge difference is that Vista loves having 4GB+ of RAM (at least 3GB) so it definitely runs smoother (not faster most of the time, just smoother… more consistent) on the machine that has 8GB (and is running 64-bit).

    This comment is, I guess too “techy” … but a las I hope you’ll revise your advise. I’ll tell you another reason why: Users don’t like transitions… I think most people don’t get a new computer but every 3+ years (I get 3+ computers a year) so if 32-bit systems (particularly desktops) look slightly crippled, in 3 years time they’re be severely crippled.

    8GB is $80.00 for a desktop. For a laptop… sure 32-bit is fine… most laptops won’t benefit as much since they’re more limited to begin with (generally!)

  • rasmasyean
  • Fox

    If you really want perfomance try Windows 7 64 bit. I installed it on an additional dirve and it flys. On my other drive I have XP pro 32 bits- I removed Vista Pro that came with the machine that one really sucked. I’m running a Core2Duo Quad q6600 2.40 Ghz. with 4GB kingston mem (2 x 2GB) runnig oon dual chanel. 2 S-ATA disks. Gforce 9500 GT video. Realtech Sound. Almost everything runs great. Only thing that my Lexmark p3150 multifuncion does not work no drivers for 64 bit- of course they also dont provide drivers for Vista either. Anti virus Nod32, excelet opcion for 64 bits. Great adevantages can access all of my memory, xp handles a little bit over 3GB only. But if your thinking of going 64 bit don’t think about it any more, go Windows7 64 bit, you wont belive your eyes, Its pure speed.!!!

  • mnd

    32bit apps can fully utilized under 64bit os. + u re ok with 32bit drivers too. all you have to do is to disable driver signing requirement

  • chris

    I’d love to have an Intel i7 extreme on a Gigabit board, with maxed out 1200 mghz RAM fully taken to max the board can handle, with a NVIDIA 9 series or better on a 16x slot with SLI capability and a Samsung LED 32″ with either Velicoraptor HD or SSD (though I hear they slow down after plenty of use)!!!! And of course a wireless key board and mouse, all hooked to surround sound.

    And I say that cause Win 7 x64 would FLY on it!!! I would just frickin love that, but hell its not practical. Being that I don’t need it Win 7 64 bit still works awesome on my current system…
    Sanyo 26″ LCD HDTV
    FOXCONN board 2gb DDR2 max 533 FSB
    intel Celeron D 3 GHZ
    NVIDIA 8500GT
    Westgate Digital HD

    Now that should tell you how much better Win 7 is.

  • autocad

    Yes in did, even the AutoCAD 2010 works good on 32 bit system with 4GB of memory, only 3D studio MAX 2010 needs 64 bit system,and only if you have more than 16GB of memory, for office 2007 or mathematica 7 no deferent of.

  • leroy

    Is it possible to both install 32-bit and 64-bit Windows 7 on the same PC.

    I currently have a desktop PC with 32-bit Vista Ultimate installed; and a laptop with 64-bit Vista Premium installed. I would like to install 64-bit Windows 7 on both, but the problem is that Canon either won’t or can’t release a 64-bit driver for my DSLR. So I have to connect it to my desktop to update the time or change copyright information.

  • Adam

    @leroy:

    Yes you can install two different operating systems on the same hard drive. What you have to do is create an extra partition on your hard drive. So let’s say you have a 500GB hard drive, then you can create a partition (there are several ways to create partitions, just check google) of 250GB if you have 250GB of free space. Partitioning your hard drive is like splitting it so that you actually have two. You can set however much space you’d like but just make sure it’s enough to install Windows and some programs (at least 10-15GB).

    After you have created a partition then you just have insert your Windows 7 64-bit DVD into your computer and boot into it. It should ask where you want to install it, and all you have to do is select the partition created earlier. You could actually create a partition right here at this point, but I think Windows would require you to format first.

    This is called multi-booting and after you finis the installation, every time you boot your PC from hereon you can select which you want to boot into, the 32-bit or the 64-bit edition. You can do this with any operation system, from Linux to Windows to even Mac on your PC (yes, I have done it before, and there are even people who have all three OS on their computer at once).

    However let me also warn you: it’s dangerous for your hard drive if you keep creating and deleting partitions and formatting. Your hard drive can only write so much data and after a certain point IT WILL FAIL. There is no denying that after too much use of a hard drive it will break. So be careful and always back up data that is important to your. In the future, when Solid State Drives (SSD, which are flash drives) become cheaper our data will become a little more secure in the long run. But that’s not saying your data is permanent on flash storage devices either.

    HAVE FUN MULTI-BOOTING.

  • Ren

    Boy, that’s some mis-information.
    64 bit OS does not run faster than 32 bit OS. There’s actually a small hit for the addressing. The ONLY real advantage is it will cross the 4GB barrier of ADDRESSABLE space.
    Now, The question to ask SHOULD be: why would you NOT use 64 bit windows7.
    You can also easily dual boot by using VHD files in windows 7 . No need for partitions.
    My advice: Use 64 bit version. You will sooner or later anyways.

  • Ralph Tyrebyter

    I agree with Ren. Given the fact that memory access times (either DRAM to cache or cache to processor) will not change, it is hard for me to believe that a 64 bit OS will be faster. Program loading will be slower, because the executable files will be bigger. But I arrive at a different conclusion: stick with 32 bits and avoid the hassle with drivers.

  • Scott

    I had 32-bit Vista on a 2+ year old system with a Q-6600 cpu and 4 GB memory. I just installed Windows 7 Pro 64-bit version. I do not notice any particular speed differences between the two operating systems aside from Windows 7 boots faster since I haven’t loaded it with as much crap yet. Oh, and I get to address all 4 GB of my memory in x64 instead of missing about 3/4 of a gig.

    I was a little afraid that some of my old software wouldn’t work in x64 version, but I was completely wrong. I even have some custom software I wrote about 10 years ago in Visual Basic 6 to work with a home automation module that connects to the serial port and has to do some unusual stuff with the port itself. Even it works just fine. I know it’s not hip to say anything nice about Microsoft, but their 32-bit compatibility layer (WoW64) that runs the 32-bit software seems to be extremely good, though I’m sure there are some things out there it doesn’t run if people look far enough, but all the main apps I have are fine.

    Yeah, I’m sure the compatibility layer isn’t quite as fast as running the native 32-bit OS, but I have tons of cycles and memory to spare for everything but the most demanding things (maybe new games). Do I notice if an operation takes 9.5 miliseconds instead of 9 milliseconds?

    At this point in 2009, the corner of 64-bit computing has been turned and even a year ago, many/most computers were being sold with Vista 64 bit.

    The most likely issues with a 64-bit OS are driver problems which really are more about the new operating systems dropping support for some very old and proprietary hardware (32-bit drops most of the same hardware, also).

    Sure, 32-bit will run fine for now, but the 64-bit runs very smoothly will help future-proof the computer in terms of software and memory addressing further into the future.

    At this date (Oct. 2009) I’d advise exactly the opposite of this article and say go with 64-bit for any new or modern computer you’re getting.

    BTW, Window 7 professional comes with a virtual machine and a licensed version of Windows XP to run in it so that even very old/bizarre software will probably work. I just don’t see the significant downside of going 64-bit these days.

  • Tom F

    Morons at microsoft made a gazilla number of vista versions – 32/64bit x OEM / non-OEM x Uppgr/New x ultimate/pro/prem/home/basic. Can you become more wrong in the theory of retail? They copy all worth in Windows from Apple anyway, so why not look att the OS there is One (1) version! That made me finally decide to never ever buy any windows ever again.

  • Rob

    I agree with you Tom…I’m thinking of buying a Mac or Macbook as my next computer…I don’t forsee any problems with gaming since I do most of my gaming on consoles these days

  • Walliot

    I knew that sooner or later the Mac fans would begin to show up… Oh well, whatever floats your boat… Personally I find it hard to find compatible programs and new games to play on Mac OS. Did any one of you check out this beautifull Quad core lappy with NVidia GeForce 9700m graphics card?
    Acer Aspire 8930g laptop 18.4 inch screen (desktop replacement)
    Check it out on youtube… for the price of a regular mac, you could get this baby and blow everything away… I own one and it plays Crysis and all of todays modern games with settings ON HIGH!

    Oh, one other thing. When you think of a “gaming” laptop under $1500 Mac fans begin to get worried !!! lol

  • http://www.sokobanja.co.cc/ Sokobanja

    I have installed 64bit of Win7 on Inetl core2duo with 2gb ram, but because I keep lot of memory sucking programs I must bought extra 2gb/s of ram to add. But on working place on Amd dual core on Windowx xp 32bit Adobe Photoshop runs much fuster than on my computer.

    Are aplications faster on XP 32bit than on Win7 64bit???

  • Alexa

    Can I put Windows 7-32 bit on a 64 bit computer?

  • Monty

    I just got a laptop with a 64 bit processor and Win 7 64 bit OS. Neither of my ancient but most useful programs, one CAD and one financial will run on it. If I partition my hard drive and install XP on it, will my aplications run?

  • Scott

    Its funny, I remember making little programs with 8 bit instructions. lol

    Are there that many instructions, you need 64 bits ?
    I think not.

    If you press the letter “a” on your keyboard is it saving 60 zero bits and a few one’s ? lol

    yes 64 bits would be cool for some stuff, but on average it is a waste of 1/2 of your computer.

  • Rith

    i think window 7 64bits is not support with many program.

  • SHY

    Hey buddies!
    I gonna buy hp pavillion dv6 1319tx. Which comes wth c2d t6600, 4gb ddr3, & win-7 hme premium 32-bit. Will these combination give me a gd gamin experiance? Or i should go for 64-bit.

  • karthik

    i m confused between the 32bit processor and 64bit processor.
    my main application is for designing ( softwares such as catia and pro e)
    pls suggest me which to go for as i plan to buy one in the next 3 days.
    awaiting response

    thank you

  • http://jeffreyobrien.blogspot.com Jeffrey OBrien

    got ripped off Aug 2009 Harvey Norman sold many 4GB packed laptops all with free upgrade to Win 7 Home Premium well I was sucked in they HP made a special 32 BIT copy of win 7 HP which as Microsoft said if I want 64 bit I should go and buy it.Well what do you think I said which was very well appreciated because till this was pointed out MICROSOFT couldnt care less how many customers they loose because when push comes to shove they dont care if its 32 or 64 Bit either way we are ripped off paying foe extras that a 32 bit O/S wont run

  • Michael Halberstadt

    Windows 7 64-bit flies on my computer. If you find you have issues with 32-bit only software, try going virtual with software such as VMWare. Also, for those that want to dual boot with Linex, just install Wubi. Gives you all the options of Linex and Windows 7 with a slight hit to performance. Definitely better than trying to shrink your hard-drive.

    And to the Mac users, when the day come where I can completely customize every aspect of hardware for a mac and have the price comparable to what I can get for a PC, I might consider getting one. Of course, pigs will fly and elephants will win the highjump.