Difference between a 32-bit and a 64-bit operating system

Updated on September 21, 2015

Not surprisingly, many users still don’t know the difference between a 32-bit and a 64-bit operating system. It usually pertains to our Personal Computer’s operating system, and we all know that sooner or later it will require troubleshooting and management. With the advancement of technology, a little knowledge will help you understand today’s and tomorrow’s operating systems.


32-Bit Operating System

To fully understand how a 32-bit operating system works, it is quite important to know where the term “32-bit” came from. It actually refers to its capability of transferring 32-bits at a time, and in this case, bit is the unit size of information and digital communications being transferred. But while it is capable of transferring those units, the speed of the process will then depend on how much Memory RAM and “Addressable Space” you have.

A 32-bit operating system will run efficiently at 4 GB memory, but no more than that. This is because its architectural design won’t exceed a certain integer value, the addressable space. That integer value refers to your “bit” which is binary (0 or 1). Now if you have a 32-bit, you’ll have 2(0 and 1)32, which would then be equal to 4 billion bytes or 4GiB of addressable space. This limitation will always be in effect either you’re using a 32-bit Windows, 32-bit Linux, or Mac OS X.

One thing to note on this matter is the common misconception about a memory and addressable space. While some may think they are the same, they actually are far from the same. To explain further, simply picture a memory as being the car, and an addressable space being the garage. Even though you own 8 cars, you can only park 4 cars in a 4-car garage. This means that you can have 8 GB of memory and at the same time have only 4 GiB addressable space. The extra 4 GB can now then be swapped in and out of that addressable space while acknowledging its limitations. Also, a 2 GB of RAM can only be allocated through your applications and programs. Meaning if you have a 32-bit Photoshop, it can only access 2 GB of addressable space.

A sample of a 64-bit operating system on Windows 8

64-Bit Operating System

Now with your 64-bit, the calculations would still be the same as with your 32-bit. So if you now have a 64-bit, you’ll have 264 that would total up to a large 16 Exbibyte (1.1529215 × 109 gigabytes). It would now be your addressable space. However, since most of it won’t be fully utilized, OS’s will have its limits like a 64-bit Windows with a maximum 8 TB.

Even though a 64-bit operating system will have an almost unlimited addressable space, there will still be a limit on how much memory it can fully utilize. That limit will then depend on what OS you’re using and its version/edition. Take Windows 7 Home Basic for instance; it can only use 8 GB of RAM while Windows 7 Ultimate can go up to 192 GB of RAM.

Comparison Chart

32-Bit Operating System64-bit Operating System
Addressable Space of 4 GiB (Can use up to 4 GB of RAM)Addressable Space of 16 Exbibyte (Can use up to 192 GB of RAM or higher)
64-bit applications/programs won’t workMost 32-bit applications/programs will work
2 GB physical memory barrierNo limit
Not recommended for Multi-tasking and stress-testingIdeal for Multi-tasking and stress-testing
Requires lower RAM to run (1 GB for Windows)Requires higher RAM to run (2 GB of RAM for Windows)
Does not require a 64-bit processor to runRequires a 64-bit processor to run

32-bit vs 64-bit Operating System

What’s the difference between a 32-bit and a 64-bit operating system? There are actually a lot of differences between the two if we were to consider its architectural design, but focusing on its usage and performance, there are some notable differences.

Starting with its performance, a 64-bit OS would definitely be faster and more reliable. Since a 64-bit operating system can contain more RAM than your 32-bit operating system, heavy applications like Photoshop can run much faster especially when you have more than 4 GB of RAM. Not to mention the fact that  a 32-bit OS has a physical memory barrier of 2 GB. Although, when running small applications like MS Word, it will likely have no significant differences.

Now for your usage, 64-bit will again get the upper hand since most 32-bit applications can run with a 64-bit OS, while ALL 64-bit applications won’t run on a 32-bit OS. A good example of a 32-bit application that isn’t compatible would be your Antivirus software. Due to its encryption, it simply won’t run and so will need a 64-bit equivalent.

To summarize, a 64-bit operating system has more functionality than a 32-bit one. You could also say that 32-bit applications are still being made up to this day just because lots of people still use a 32-bit OS.


The video below will provide you with benchmark results between a 32 bit and 64 bit operating system

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