In the world of computer processing, everything depends on how many bits are available on a central processing unit (CPU). Most older processors came in 32-bit variations, but the standard has since graduated to 64 bits. There are numerous differences between the two types of chips and how they can be used, and it’s important to understand how the processor type can affect a computer’s capabilities.
What does 32-bit mean?
32-bit describes the number of bits that a processor can process or transmit in parallel. For each bit, there are two possible outputs: 1 and 0. Therefore, a 32-bit processor has 232 possible values. The 32-bit CPU was a successor to 16-bit and 8-bit microprocessors from the 1970s and 1980s.
Examples of 32-bit hardware and software
Most computers manufactured until the early 2000s used 32-bit processors, but 64-bit processors soon took over because of the improved performance they offered. New software applications started to emerge with higher computing requirements, so the hardware manufacturers needed to innovate to stay competitive.
Many hardware manufacturers and software developers no longer support 32-bit technology. For users who still want to run 32-bit devices, there are limitations on what kinds of software and operating systems are available.
For example, Apple’s iOS 9 and earlier are 32-bit operating systems, as are Android KitKat OSes and earlier. For laptops and desktop computers, users can choose from Windows 7, 8, Vista, and XP or any Linux distribution. In 2019, Apple dropped support for all 32-bit applications with the Catalina version of macOS.
What does 64-bit mean?
64-bit is similar to 32-bit, but has double the number of bits that a processor can process or transmit in parallel. Instead of 232 possible outputs, also called memory addresses, a 64-bit processor has 264 possible outputs. The increase in outputs means a 64-bit processor can perform more calculations per second, and therefore can accomplish more tasks—and more complex operations—in a shorter amount of time.
Examples of 64-bit hardware and software
64-bit processors started to replace 32-bit CPUs in desktop computers and mobile devices in the mid-2000s with Advanced Micro Device Inc.’s introduction of the Athlon 64 processor family. Most computers that are manufactured today use 64-bit chips. A 64-bit processor can run 32-bit applications, but 32-bit CPUs do not have enough processing power to run 64-bit applications.
In terms of operating systems, all versions of macOS since Mountain Lion have been built using 64-bit architecture. Additionally, all Windows editions and Linux distributions—even the earliest ones—have been re-designed to make full use of 64-bit processing capabilities.
32-bit vs 64-bit processor comparison
The table below shows a comparison of 32-bit and 64-bit processors:
|32-bit processors||64-bit processors|
|232 accessible memory addresses||264 accessible memory addresses|
|Used in computers with 4GB of RAM or less||Used in computers with more than 4 GB of RAM|
|32-bit applications and operating systems only||32-bit or 64-bit applications and operating systems|
|Common among older computers||Common among all modern computers|
|Can store up to ~3.5GB RAM||Can store up to ~17 billion GB RAM|
Which is better: 32-bit or 64-bit?
In most cases, 64-bit processors will deliver better results than 32-bit processors. 64-bit systems are ideal for multi-tasking and support high-performance applications that cannot be run on 32-bit devices. One example is video editing software, which uses a significant amount of computer memory to render smooth graphics and video playback. Similarly, customer relationship management (CRM) applications like Salesforce process a tremendous amount of data and therefore require CPUs with a larger number of bits.
Further, 64-bit processors are available in multiple core configurations, whereas 32-bit processors are only available as single-core systems. Having multiple cores allows multiple applications to run smoothly at the same time.
64-bit processors also offer more in terms of cybersecurity. For example, the 64-bit version of Windows offers kernel patch protection in the form of PatchGuard, which prevents device drivers from patching the Windows kernel. 64-bit Windows also offers Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR), mandatory driver signing, and data execution protection. All of these measures help maintain a device’s security at the foundational level.
64-bit processors and applications are better for practically every need unless your existing hardware is outdated. If your computer has a 32-bit CPU, it will only be able to run 32-bit applications. Although the performance and flexibility will be limited, this category of software is the only option available.
How to know if your operating system is 32 or 64 bits
The process for determining how many bits a device uses varies by operating system.
- Click the Apple menu at the top left corner. Select About This Mac.
- Locate the processor information.
- Reference the table below to determine the number of bits the processor uses. The example above uses an Intel Core i7 processor, which has 64 bits.
|Processor name||Number of bits|
|Intel Core Solo||32-bit|
|Intel Core Duo||32-bit|
|Intel Core 2 Duo||64-bit|
|Intel Quad-Core Xeon||64-bit|
|Dual-Core Intel Xeon||64-bit|
|Quad-Core Intel Xeon||64-bit|
- Press the Windows and Pause keys at the same time to open the System Properties window.
- Select the About menu. Locate the processor and operating system information under Device Specifications. The example below indicates the processor has 64 bits.
- Open your preferred command line terminal window.
- Run the lscpu command. Locate the processor architecture information. The example below indicates the processor has 64 bits.