32-bit and 64-bit operating systems: what is the difference?

32-bit VS 64-bit operating systems

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It is likely that you have installed an x64 based operating system, but what does it mean? There are many ways to understand it, but when it comes to computers there is only one binary: 0 and 1. Each is considered a "bit". This means that for the 1-bit calculation, two possible values ​​are obtained; 2 bits means four values; then double the number to eight at 3 bits.

It continues exponentially and in the end you get 32 ​​bits (2 at the 32nd power) for a value of 4,294,967,296; 64 bits (or 2 of the 64th power) is worth 18.446.744.073.709.551.616 values. It's 18.4 quintillions. There are many bits and the numbers show how powerful a chip can be that supports higher bit processing. It is much more than double.

This is because every few years, the chips inside the computers (even the smartphones) and the software running on those chips make great strides in supporting a new number. For example:

  • The Intel 8080 chip in the 1970s supported 8-bit processing.
  • In 1992, Windows 3.1 was the first desktop version of 16-bit Windows.
  • AMD released the first 64-bit desktop chip in 2003.
  • In 2009, Apple created entirely 64-bit Mac OS X Snow Leopard.
  • The first smartphone with a 64-bit chip (Apple A7) was the iPhone 5s in 2014.

It's pretty obvious: 64 bits, sometimes in x64 style, can do more than 32 bits. You might know 32-bit as x86, a term that originally referred to any operating system with the instruction set to run on Intel chips like 8086 up to 80486.

These days, you're probably already working with a 64-bit chip with 64-bit operating systems, which in turn run 64-bit apps (for mobile devices) or programs (on the desktop, to settle for a nomenclature). But not always. Windows 7, 8, 8.1 and 10 are all available in 32-bit or 64-bit versions, for example.

Identify a 64-bit operating system

If you run Windows on a computer less than 10 years old, your chip is almost guaranteed 64-bit, but you may have installed a 32-bit version of the operating system. It's easy enough to know.

In Windows 10, go to Settings> System> Information or type Information in the Windows 10 search box. Under the Device specifications heading, you'll see it in System type: "64-bit operating system, x64-based processor" means that you're ok.

Mac users don't have to worry about this since MacOS has been working with 64-bit for a long time. In fact, as of the last version (10.14 Catalina), 32-bit applications on a Mac are not even technically supported.

Why 32-bit?

Why should you install a 32-bit operating system on a PC? The reason is that you have a 32-bit processor, which requires a 32-bit operating system.

Having such a CPU today is difficult. Intel began producing 32-bit processors in the 80386 range back in 1985; sold 64-bit processors in 2001. If you purchased a PC since the Pentium D chip came out in 2005, it's unlikely you have a 32-bit instruction set inside.

More likely, you have an old system with an installed operating system that only came in 32 bits. Any subsequent updates may not have brought your 64-bit installation. This could be fine: not all early 64-bit processors had all the features. 

You can know if your PC is really ready for a full 64-bit using software like 64-bit Checker. It works on all versions of Windows that date back to Windows 95.

Installing a 32-bit operating system on a 64-bit architecture system may work, but is not optimal. A 32-bit operating system, for example, has more limitations: the biggest limitation is that it can only use 4 GB of RAM

Installing more RAM on a system with a 32-bit operating system does not have a large impact on performance. However, increase the RAM with a 64-bit version of Windows and you'll notice the difference.

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The theoretical limit of 64-bit RAM: 16 exabytes. This is equivalent to 1 m of illion terabytes or 1 b of illion gigabytes. But we are very far from having hardware capable of supporting it. (However, buying a new laptop with 16 GB of RAM seems uninteresting, doesn't it?)

64-bit computing offers many other improvements, albeit in ways that may not be visible to the naked eye. Larger data paths, eight-octet memory addresses. It's all stuff that computer scientists can take advantage of, to make your computers even more powerful.

64-bit programs

You may also notice that some programs downloaded for your desktop operating system are available in 32 and 64-bit versions. Firefox is a good example, where the options are "Windows 32-bit" and "Windows 64-bit" (as well as "Linux" or "Linux 64-bit", the macOS version is only 64-bit).

Because? Because 32-bit operating systems are still available. These systems require 32-bit software: they generally can't even install a 64-bit program and certainly won't run them. However, a 64-bit operating system can support a 32-bit program, in particular, Windows has incorporated an emulation subsystem, called Windows32 on Windows64 or WoW64.

Search your disk C: sometimes: you will see two program folders: one for 64-bit programs, another called program folders (x86) only for 32-bit applications. You'll be stunned by the amount of 32-bit code still available.

On the Mac, it is less likely to find 32-bit code, which is why Apple is banning 32-bit apps in Catalina, or at least trying. But you can check your apps. In the Apple menu, select About this Mac, click System Report and highlight all the applications listed in the Software. 

A few 64-bit phones

As noted above, Apple's A7 chip was the first 64-bit processor to enter a mobile phone (iPhone 5s). In 2015, Apple imposed that all iOS software work at 64bit. Starting from June 2016, the opening of a 32-bit app in the latest versions of iOS has caused a "non-optimized" warning: "the use could affect the overall performance of the system".

If you have an iPhone 5s or later with iOS 10 or later, you can't use those old 32-bit apps that haven't had an update. This is the "best" thing about Apple's closed system: it can force this to happen.

On Android phones, it can be a bit more complicated to find out the details unless you are an expert on what chip it is in. If you're not using Android 5.0 Lollipop or later, you're still 32-bit. An app that will tell you is AnTuTu Benchmark; download and install it, click on the Info button and search for the Android line. It will tell you the Android version and if it is 32 or 64 bit. 32 or 64-bit processor? How to know which one is used on your smartphone

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For iOS and Android, it's not about opening the operating system to use more RAM. In fact, going to x64 is not a guarantee of better performance. Going 64-bit has other advantages: things like recovering even more data per cycle (and faster), better encryption and switching to new 64-bit chips with improved features, such as energy efficiency.

Ultimately, the 64-bit revolution is already here. And you don't need to know anything about x64 to be part of it.

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