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32 Bit vs. 64 Bit: What’s the Difference?

f you’ve ever looked around the internet for new Windows software, or tried to install a major version of Windows, you've probably faced the dilemma of choosing between the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of otherwise identical software. And if you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to choose incorrectly, you know what a headache it can cause.

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Let's illuminate what’s really at the heart of the 32-bit vs. 64-bit divide, and how you can stay on the side that’s right for you.

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The bit size of a computer, whether 32 or 64, is a hardware specification pertaining directly to the CPU, and indirectly to the RAM and mathematical precision.

 

When someone distinguishes a computer as 32-bit or 64-bit, they’re primarily indicating either a 32-bit processor or a 64-bit processor. A 32-bit processor is capable of reading in, holding, and operating on 32 bits of data at a time, while a 64-bit processor can do all those things 64 bits at a time. The ability to work on more bits at a time means much faster computing, regardless of how “fast” the processor is (i.e. how high its clock speed).

 

But bit size has a few second-order implications for computers than just how many bits the processor can handle at once. For one thing, it dramatically expands the maximum amount of memory a computer can have. Because a 32-bit processor only has 32 bits, it can also only count, and thus access, 232 different addresses of the RAM unit (that is, all possible 32-digit binary numbers). In other words, since the processor can’t count above 232, it can’t tap into memory with more than that many addresses. This puts a hard limit on the amount of memory a 32-bit computer can have, which is around 4 GB.

 

On the other hand, 64-bit processors can read double the number of digits, and because the maximum number of addresses double with every digit added, this means an order of magnitude more addresses. How much are we talking? Think supercomputer levels of RAM — so, more than enough for most people.

 

One obvious consequence of this is that each address in memory of a 64-bit computer has to hold double the number of bits of that of a 32-bit computer. It also means every line transmitting data within hardware must send more data at a time, too, or there will be a bottleneck negating the benefits of the bit increase in the first place.

 

The last major impact of a larger bit size is greater precision in calculations. As with the number of addresses that can be read, the jump from 32 to 64 allows for much bigger numbers to be calculated. This extends beyond simply crunching pure math better, but defining values to more decimal places and, thus, greatly sharpening the accuracy of everything, from the placement and color values of pixels on your screen to the precision of edited photos and audio.

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