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32-Bit and 64-Bit Explained Part Two


In part one of our series about 32-bit and 64-bit processors [1], we defined basic terms. This segment will deal with processing speed, memory, and how the balance of hardware and software affects performance.


Processing speed, referred to as clock speed, is generally measured in megahertz (MHz) which amounts to one million cycles per second, or gigahertz (GHz) equaling one billion cycles per second.

A computer’s architecture is a significant contributor to that processing speed, so CPUs (computer processors) with the same clock speed may not perform functions at the same rate. While a fixed number of clock cycles is required for each command (instruction), a faster clock will execute more instructions per second, and the machine will perform those instructions more quickly.

However, clock cycles (or clock ticks), like so many other terms in this bewildering lexicon jungle, is a term with multiple meanings. On one hand, a clock cycle is as described above, the relative speed of a processor, but it also refers to the internal system clock, which always runs at 66 MHz (66 million clock ticks per second). So, more powerful CPUs can execute instructions more rapidly than their less sophisticated counterparts, while still displaying the same number of units per cycle.


While the clock speed of the CPU is the primary indicator of processing capability, RAM (Random-Access Memory) also plays a significant role in performance. When a CPU requests information from the hard drive, it’s put into RAM, where it can be accessed with greater efficiency. But, if the memory (RAM) isn’t sufficient, the information may have to be returned to the hard drive before the next request can be answered, thereby slowing overall performance.

Hardware and Software

Hardware and drivers (the software that controls the hardware) must match the device’s system type, and this should be a primary consideration when upgrading a 32-bit system. For information about how to check device driver availability for 64-bit, click here [2]. For a more in-depth look at the processors themselves, see the article, Switching Processors [3]. While some software is system specific—antivirus programs are good examples—many will run effectively on either system type. To learn about software compatibility, go to either the Windows Vista Compatibility Center [4], or the Windows 7 Compatibility Center [5].

What all this means is that, with each operation, 64-bit processors can handle bundles of information that are twice the size of those processed by 32-bit systems, and the speed at which these bundles are delivered is determined by the overall balance of system resources (RAM, processors, etc.). In researching this article, I was directed to an analogy of a two lane highway that had been converted to a four lane highway to relieve bottlenecks. But, while that’s a good comparison, the benefit is more than just a method of efficiently moving traffic. 64-bit is not just an increased amount of data per bundle, it’s also higher quality data, as images, audio, and video files comprised of 64-bit elements are richer, with more depth and texture, than those made up of 32-bit elements.

The final article in this series, How to Determine if a System is 64-Bit Capable, will explain how to tell whether a system is 32-bit or 64-bit, and whether upgrades are possible (or practical).

I hope this has been as enlightening to read as it was to write.