32-Bit vs. 64-Bit

Do the Differences Really Matter?

A 64-bit vs 32-bit graphic
© Tim Fisher
Was this page helpful?

In the computer world, 32-bit and 64-bit refer to the type of central processing unit, operating system, driver, software program, etc. that utilizes that particular architecture.

You've probably seen the option to download a piece of software as a 32-bit version or a 64-bit version. The difference does in fact matter because the two were programmed for separate systems.

  • 32-bit hardware and software is often referred to as x86 or x86-32.
  • 64-bit hardware and software is often referred to as x64 or x86-64.
  • 32-bit systems utilize data in 32-bit pieces while 64-bit systems utilize data in 64-bit pieces. In general, the more data that can be processed at once, the faster the system can operate.

There are several other advantages to a 64-bit system as well, most practically the ability to use significantly greater amounts of physical memory. See what Microsoft has to say about the memory limits for different versions of Windows.

64-bit and 32-bit Operating Systems

Most new processors today are based on the 64-bit architecture and support 64-bit operating systems. These processors are also fully compatible with 32-bit operating systems.

Most editions of Windows 10, Windows 8, Windows 7, and Windows Vista are available in 64-bit format. Of the editions of Windows XP, only Professional is available in 64-bit.

All editions of Windows, from XP up to 10, are available in 32-bit.

Not Sure If the Copy of Windows on Your PC Is 32-bit or 64-bit?

The quickest and easiest way to see if you're running a 32-bit or 64-bit version of Windows is to check what it says in Control Panel. See Am I Running a 32-bit or 64-bit Version of Windows? for detailed instructions.

Another simple method to finding out which OS architecture you're running in Windows is to check the Program Files folder.

There's more information on that below.

To see the hardware architecture, you can open Command Prompt and enter the command:

echo %PROCESSOR_ARCHITECTURE%

You might get a response like AMD64 to indicate that you have a x64 based system, or x86 for 32-bit.

Important: This only tells you the hardware architecture, not the kind of Windows version you're running. It's likely that they're the same since x86 systems can only install a 32-bit version of Windows, but it's not necessarily true since a 32-bit version of Windows can be installed on x64 systems too.

Another command that works is:

reg query "HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Session Manager\Environment" /v PROCESSOR_ARCHITECTURE

That command should result in much more text, but then end with a response like one of these:

PROCESSOR_ARCHITECTURE REG_SZ x86
PROCESSOR_ARCHITECTURE REG_SZ AMD64

The best way to use one of these commands is to copy them here on this page and then right-click in the black space in Command Prompt, and paste the command.

Why It Matters

Knowing the difference is important so you can be sure to install the right kinds of software and device drivers. For example, when given the option between downloading a 32-bit or 64-bit version, a native 64-bit software program is the better choice.

However, it won't run at all if you're on a 32-bit version of Windows.

One of the only real, notable differences for you, the end user, is that it's possible that after downloading a large program, you'll find that you've wasted that time since it won't run on your specific computer. This is true if you've downloaded a 64-bit program that you expect to use on a 32-bit OS.

However, some 32-bit programs can run just fine on a 64-bit system. In other words, 32-bit programs are compatible with 64-bit operating systems. That rule, however, isn't always true, and that's especially the case with some device drivers since hardware devices require the exact version to be installed in order for it to interface with the software (i.e. 64-bit drivers are needed for a 64-bit OS, and 32-bit drivers for a 32-bit OS).

Another time when 32-bit and 64-bit differences come into play is when troubleshooting a software issue or looking through a program's installation directory.

It's important to realize that 64-bit versions of Windows have two different install folders since they also contain a 32-bit directory. However, a 32-bit version of Windows only has one install folder. To make this a tad more confusing, the 64-bit version's Program Files folder is the same name as the 32-bit Program Files folder on a 32-bit version of Windows.

If you're confused, look here:

On a 64-bit version of Windows are two folders:

  • 32-bit location: C:\Program Files (x86)\
  • 64-bit location: C:\Program Files\

On a 32-bit version of Windows is one folder:

  • 32-bit location: C:\Program Files\

As you can tell, it's a little confusing to plainly say that the 64-bit Program Files folder is C:\Program Files\ since that's not true for a 32-bit OS.