When you’re downloading Windows from Microsoft’s site or installing from a disc, one question you’ll have to answer is whether you want to install a 32-bit or 64-bit operating system (OS). If you’re not sure what these mean, this question might confuse you. Worse still, choosing the wrong option could limit your upgrade options in the future.
Let’s discuss the differences between 32-bit and 64-bit Windows, and which one you should choose next time you install Windows.
32-bit and 64-bit Differences
We’ve discussed all the differences between 32-bit and 64-bit Windows, but we’ll review the points briefly here. Whether your copy of Windows is 32-bit or 64-bit depends on your processor (CPU). Like Windows, modern processors are either 32-bit or 64-bit. 64-bit machines can process much more information at once, making them more powerful.
If you have a 32-bit processor, you must also install the 32-bit Windows. While a 64-bit processor is compatible with 32-bit versions of Windows, you’ll have to run 64-bit Windows to take full advantage of the CPU’s benefits.
To see what your copy of Windows and your processor are on Windows 10, open the Start Menu and type About to open the About your PC menu. Here, under System type, you’ll see if Windows and your processor are 32-bit or 64-bit. To check this on older versions of Windows, type System into the Start Menu to open the System Control Panel entry. Under System type, Windows will tell you if your system is 32-bit or 64-bit.
Note that x86 refers to 32-bit architecture, while x64 refers to 64-bit.
Which Version Do I Need?
Whether you should install 32-bit or 64-bit Windows depends on your current setup.
If you bought a PC ready to go from a store, Windows is likely 64-bit. As 64-bit is becoming the standard, only low-end machines will ship with a 32-bit processor. Since you’ll have a 64-bit version of Windows installed on a 64-bit processor, you don’t need to do anything else.
When you’re upgrading Windows, it’s a different story. If you’re upgrading to Windows 10 from an earlier version of Windows, first check to see if your processor is 64-bit using the above method. If it is, you should install the 64-bit version of Windows when you upgrade. This future-proofs your machine and ensures you won’t have to go through another upgrade later.
The two main ways to buy Windows are on a flash drive/DVD so you can install it physically, or simply by purchasing a product key. Some boxed editions of Windows 10 include both editions, but others only include one or the other, so make sure you check before you order.
If you want to go the digital route, anyone can download Windows 10 for installation using the Media Creation Tool. When you do this, you’ll choose if you want to install the x86 or x64 version of Windows. Purchasing a product key simply entitles you to activate and use Windows legally. These product keys don’t care whether Windows is x86 or x64.
What Are the Advantages of 64-Bit Windows?
We’ve talked about the gritty details, but what does using a 64-bit edition of Windows 10 actually do for you?
The most obvious change is that x64 Windows can handle much more RAM than a 32-bit edition. 32-bit operating systems limit you to using 4 GB of RAM or less. Thus, any RAM that you have installed above 4 GB isn’t used on 64-bit Windows. 64-bit systems can use more RAM than you’ll ever see in a lifetime (about 18 billion GB).
On a 64-bit Windows system, you’ll also notice two Program Files folders under your C: drive. Because 32-bit programs are inherently different from 64-bit software, Windows keeps them separate. Thus, whenever you install software that’s built for x64 systems, it goes to the Program Files folder. 32-bit software goes into Program Files (x86) instead. On a 32-bit system, you’ll only see one Program Files folder, as they can’t use 64-bit software.
Some software, like Chrome and Firefox, is available in a 64-bit flavor. These versions don’t provide massive improvements over the 32-bit versions, but are a bit more efficient and stable. We’ve compared the two versions of Chrome if you’re interested. Additionally, heavy software, like video editors, runs better on 64-bit Windows. Multi-tasking becomes more efficient, too.
Under the hood, 64-bit Windows is also inherently more secure. Most of the enhancements come from low-level tweaks, so we won’t discuss them in detail. However, 64-bit Windows includes additional protection against rootkits, and forces drivers to be signed. While these don’t make it immune to attack, it’s a more modern architecture that isn’t held back by old exploits.
Other Considerations With 64-bit Windows
As long as your computer/processor is within a few years old, you shouldn’t have any issues upgrading to a 64-bit version of Windows. If your computer’s processor was one of the earliest with 64-bit architecture, it might be missing support for a few minor features. This can cause issues with 64-bit Windows, but you can run a tool like 64bit Checker to make sure your hardware is ready to go for 64-bit Windows.
If you’re currently on a 32-bit version of Windows and are planning to upgrade, you must do a clean install. There’s no easy upgrade path like when you update Windows 7 to Windows 10. Check out our full guide on upgrading Windows 10 from 32 to 64-bit once you’re ready.
Finally, when running 64-bit Windows, you must ensure that your hardware is compatible. Windows Update should automatically find drivers for your internal components, but ancient printers or other peripherals might not have a 64-bit driver. Know that archaic 16-bit applications, like DOS games, won’t work on 64-bit versions of Windows, either.
Should I Use 64-bit Windows?
For most people, 64-bit Windows is the new standard and you should use it to take advantage of security features, better performance, and increased RAM. The only reasons you should stick with 32-bit Windows are if:
- Your computer has a 32-bit processor. Since you’d have to buy a new machine to install 64-bit Windows, stick with what you have for now. Be sure to buy a x64 machine for your next computer.
- You use ancient software or devices. Since 32-bit Windows was more common for years, older devices only had 32-bit drivers. If your printer is fifteen years old, it probably won’t work on 64-bit Windows. Hopefully, you don’t do daily work with 20-year-old software, but if you do, you should probably hold off on 64-bit Windows. In either case, consider updating those tools so you can modernize your system.
Next time you install Windows, you’ll know which bit option to pick!
Are you running a 32-bit or 64-bit system? If you’re using 32-bit, do you plan to upgrade to 64-bit? If you have any questions about the difference, we want to hear them!
Originally written by Mahendra Palsule on October 21, 2009.