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Computing 101: 32-Bit or 64-Bit Windows?

Every few years, we encounter a massive change in computing standards, like when televisions went from black and white to color, or when serial and parallel ports were replaced with USB. These days, we're in the midst of a transformation from 32-bit to 64-bit computing, and a lot of folks still don't understand it. We're here to help.

What is 64-bit?

First of all, when we talk about 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems, we're referring to a very geeky aspect of technology - it refers to how long, in bits, the data can be. That has far-reaching implications, including how much memory your computer can use and how fast it can process certain kinds of calculations. Until recently, Windows was a 32-bit operating system, but now it comes in both 32-bit and 64-bit varieties.

Can any computer run either version?

No. 64-bit Windows will not run on 32-bit architecture, and, in fact, you can't even install it. That said, you can install and run 32-bit Windows on any hardware, both 32-bit and 64-bit.

What are the advantages of 64-bit?

32-bit Windows can only access about 3GB of memory (even if you install 4GB), but if you install 64-bit Windows, there's no practical limit to how much memory you can install. (The real memory limit varies by version of Windows, but you can run anywhere from 8GB to a couple of terabytes.)

Not only can you install more memory, but some programs will run faster in 64-bit. And due to the way that 64-bit drivers are written, Microsoft claims that they're more stable and more secure.

In addition, you aren't necessarily blocked from using 64-bit Windows if your favorite program isn't yet available in a 64-bit version. 64-bit Windows can accommodate both 32-bit and 64-bit programs, generally without any problems at all.

What are the disadvantages of 64-bit?

While 64-bit Windows can run both older and newer programs, the same isn't true of hardware drivers. You must have genuine 64-bit drivers for all of your hardware and devices (such as printers and scanners). If not, that device simply won't work. So if you have a mission critical printer, for example, you need to wait for a 64-bit driver or just replace it with a newer printer before you can upgrade.

How do you get a 64-bit version of Windows?

Easy -- every copy of Windows 7 comes with both 32-bit and 64-bit flavors in the box. And if you buy a system, it seems that many companies are installing 64-bit Windows 7 by default, unless you specifically ask otherwise.

What else do you want to know?

Did that answer your 64-bit questions? Let us know in the comments if there's anything else you want to know.