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32-Bit and 64-Bit Explained Part One

Friday, October 28th, 2011 by | Filed Under: Hardware & Peripherals


In response to multiple reader requests, we decided to attempt to explain – and, in my case, to understand–32-bit and 64-bit operating systems. In this first segment of a three part series, we’ll define some of the basic terms. The next segment will review speed, memory, hardware, and software. In the third installment, we’ll demonstrate how to learn which system is being run and, if it’s a 32-bit system, whether an upgrade is possible and practical. If this information affects you the same way it did me, it will be helpful, confusing, a cure for insomnia, or all three.

In one context, 32-bit and 64-bit refers to how a CPU (computer processor) handles information. These terms also indicate the number of bits that comprise a single data element (for example, a pixel in an image). In that case, when dealing with resource hogging data like images, audio, or video, there is a distinct advantage to a 64-bit system. However, when writing emails or text documents, the benefits of 64-bit may be less apparent.

What is a bit?

A bit (short for binary digit) is the smallest unit of digital information, represented by either 0 or 1. Arranging a series of bits in sequence creates a binary math language that the processing chips can understand. As a result, CPUs are identified by their ability to process these sequences (32-bit or 64-bit). Eight consecutive bits in such a sequence equals a byte (short for binary term). Large numbers of bytes are then combined to create kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes, terabytes, etc. To further understand these terms, and to learn how to make conversions, please see the article, Gigabyte/Megabyte Conversions.

Not confusing enough?

The terms, 32-bit and 64-bit indicate the width of the registers, which are storage areas within the computer. The registers can contain either the address location in the computer memory where data is stored, or the data itself. All computer data is processed using information represented in these registers.

Each instruction (the most basic computer command) can process the number of bits indicated in the registers. So, a 64-bit machine processes a 64-bit width register with each instruction. Likewise, a 32-bit machine processes a 32-bit width register per instruction. While it would seem that a 64-bit processor would naturally be faster, the number of instructions executed per cycle (the fundamental unit of time measurement in a device) indicates actual processing speed, so that may not always be the case.

It’s the combination of hardware and software elements which make up the computer architecture that determines processing speed. This will be discussed in part two of this series, where we’ll take a more in-depth look at processors, memory, and how hardware and software interact to improve (or–if not correctly balanced–reduce) overall performance.


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12 Responses to “32-Bit and 64-Bit Explained Part One”

  1. Storm Ferguson says:

    Nice tip.

  2. Mark says:

    Not a bad article over all but byte isn’t short for anything, I don’t know where you got that binary term stuff but after 30+ years in the computer industry that is the first time I have ever heard that and it just isnt’ true. Sounds like someone that didn’t know just made up something. A byte is literally a bite respelled.

    From Wikipedia – The term byte was coined by Dr. Werner Buchholz in July 1956, during the early design phase for the IBM Stretch computer It is a respelling of bite to avoid accidental mutation to bit.

  3. Kevin says:

    Mark, you may very well be right. In an attempt to guarantee accuracy, most of the information was corroborated by several sources. However, I may have dropped the ball here. After reading your comment, I found very little to verify my statement. For what it’s worth, the abbreviation was originally found in the Webopedia definition of byte, “Abbreviation for binary term”. Thanks for the feedback. Keeps us honest.

  4. Bill says:

    Excellent tip and excellent response to Mark. Keep up the good work.

  5. Joey says:

    A very informative topic even ordinary people can understand, a humble reply to Mark. More power

  6. Mark says:

    I have never used Webopedia but it sounds like the author there may have been the one that made up binary term. I have seen that type of thing many times, someone doesn’t know so they come up with something and then that new meaning gets propagated.

    Thanks again for a good article.

  7. stye eye treatment says:

    Fantastic read. Applicants could learn a thing or two from you, Bella.

  8. […] the reminder, as this is a subject I’d planned to return to sooner. In the earlier articles, 32-Bit and 64-Bit Explained Part One, and Part Two, we attempted to define–and illustrate the differences between–the two system […]

  9. Reb says:

    OK, I have read part one, now how do I find part two?

  10. Kevin says:


    Just type (or copy and paste) 32-Bit and 64-Bit Explained into the WorldStart Tech Tip And Store Search field, and all three articles in the series will appear in the list of results.

  11. Barbara Mitchell says:

    I have this game that I played on my XP. I eventually had to get a new computer with windows 7. Love my xp. Anyway, this game was made for older versions like windows 98, ME, 2000 and XP under 32 bit. Is there any way I can get this game to run under windows? I have a cd for the game and the company has discontinued the game. I’ll probably out of luck, but I thought I’d ask. I want my XP back :) Thanks

  12. Joe says:

    I went head first into the 64 bit world only to discover that almost none of my prized 32 bit software would install let alone run. Less than 1 week later I obtained a 32 bit upgrade version of Win 7 and made the leap by installing it in place of the 64 bit version. The “downgrade” to 32 bits worked like a charm and ALL of my old 32 bit software is now working as expected. I have spreadsheets, many old programs I wrote in several of the common languages used in the 80’s and 90’s. They ALL work – or more correctly I have yet to find a single item that doesn’t work. The same programs wouldn’t work at all on the 64 bit install. Am I running slower, don’t know about that but my feeling is that I’m running much faster than my older XP machines so speed is just relative and I AM running again.
    If (and thats a BIG if) I ever decide to use Win 8 it will be the 32 bit version, only after I determine that my stuff still runs. No run means no install of Win 8. I am not willing to repeat my experience with the Win XP to Win 7 changes.

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