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

25 mayo, 2021

There are many ways to count, but when it comes to computing there is only one way: in binary. This means associating a 0 or a 1 to each bit. This is what we could call one-bit computing, so we have two possible values. With the two-bit we would have four possible values, with the three we would have eight (two to the third power, that is, two cubed) and so on.

Doing an exponential calculation, a 32-bit processor gives us 4,294,967,296 possible values, while a 64-bit processor offers us a range of 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 values, which represents a large number of bits with which to to work. However, the differences go beyond the numbers. How are 32-bit and 64-bit systems different?

For starters, we can pull the most obvious: a 64-bit chip (whose architecture we sometimes refer to as x64) can do much more than a 32-bit. Today it is more than likely that you run 64-bit systems on processors with architectures of the same type, something that has even reached the mobile world. The first smartphone with this architecture was the iPhone 5s.

However, not all modern operating systems correspond to this architecture. Windows 7, 8, 8.1 and 10, in addition to some versions of GNU / Linux (such as Ubuntu and its flavors), also offered in 32-bit architectures. How can you tell which one you have?

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Identifying a 64-bit operating system

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Let’s say you are running Windows on a computer that is less than ten years old. Your chip is more than likely 64-bit, but you may have a 32-bit system installed. It is very easy to check. Open the file explorer and right click on “This computer”. If you then select “Properties” you will see a summary of your system, where you can check what you are running, as you can see in the image that presides over these lines.

You can also type “About your PC” in the search box of the Start menu, which will give you the same result. Another way to quickly identify it is to use the 64-bit Checker program.

That being said, why would no one install a 32-bit system on a computer? The main reason is because has a 32-bit processor, which a 64 system does not support. That this happens today, however, is highly unlikely.

Intel started manufacturing 32-bit processors with family 80386 in 1985 and was already selling 64-bit processors by 2001. If you have bought a computer since the release of Pentium D processors in 2005, then it is unlikely that its architecture is 32-bit. Now, if you have a netbook that was sold with such fury a few years ago, such as any computer from the Aspire One family from Acer, the story may be different. Computers that, unsurprisingly, did not catch on with users.

What happens if I install a 32 bit OS on a 64 processor?

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The answer is absolutely nothing, but it is not optimal. A 32-bit operating system has more limitations, the main one being that it only supports 4 GB of RAM. Increasing the amount of random access memory beyond this figure doesn’t have much of an impact on performance, but on a 64-bit system it is quite noticeable.

To be clear on the memory issue, Windows 10 may come to support up to 512 GB RAM in its Pro version (for the 128 of the Home version). The theoretical limit for RAM on a 64-bit system is 16 exabytes. In other words, a real outrage. There is no hardware that can support this amount … yet (although there is still a lot left).

64-bit computing offers other improvements, albeit in ways that cannot be seen with the naked eye. These are characteristics that a great majority of users do not even think about, but that help computer engineers to get the most out of computing.

Why can I download programs in 32-bit and 64-bit versions?

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Firefox is a great example of this. If you go to the page where all the browser downloads are listed, you will see up to five different versions Installer:

  • Windows
  • 64-bit Windows
  • OS X (which is 64-bit only)
  • Linux
  • 64-bit Linux

Why do this? Because there are still 32-bit operating systems. They need software written in their architecture to function, and as we have already said they cannot run 64-bit programs. Now, as it was already clear when we talked about operating systems, the reverse is perfectly possible.

In particular, the case of Windows is striking, where a emulation subsystem called WoW64. To check it, just go to the C: drive, where there are two Program Files folders and where one of which has the suffix “(x86)”, where all 32-bit programs go. There are still many programs written for this architecture.

Mac users will not find as many 32-bit programs for their platform. From the Snow Leopard release In 2009, Apple only produced 64-bit operating systems. Most of the applications available for Mac are already built with only this architecture in mind.

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In Genbeta | How to tell if a Windows program is 32-bit or 64-bit