32-bit vs 64-bit and Why Should I Even Care?

The question I put forward is quite tricky. Despite the fact that it seems to have a definite answer, it’s more a matter of personal taste.

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Firstly, I will picture the situation from a Windows user perspective. A brand new PC laptop or desktop will contain Windows by default. A year ago that operating system would have been Windows 7, now it is either Windows 8 or Windows 8.1 – all in 64-bit. If you want to have a 32-bit version, you have to buy it separately. Occasionally, Best Buy or other vendors offer older, refurbished PCs with Windows 7 32-bit (usually computers with 2 GB RAM or less), but it is getting harder and harder to find such a bargain. Let us then assume that a typical Windows user has a 64-bit Windows 7 or 8/8.1 as he/she refuses to pay additional money for a new operating system or is fully satisfied with the one he/she has.

Now, since 64-bit Windows can properly address 4+GB RAM and allocate that much RAM to 64-bit applications, how can we take advantage of that? The answer is – not so much…

Software offered by Microsoft, Adobe and some other companies is available in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Hence, one can get Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office in 64-bit editions. If someone doesn’t like Internet Explorer as the default browser, there is also Opera and Waterfox – both in 64-bit. Blender, a popular 3D graphics software is available in 64-bit, as well.

This sounds like a lot, but the majority of software is still 32-bit only. For instance, games. As a vivid gamer I couldn’t really take full advantage of the RAM I had, because my games would never address more than 2 GB RAM. This was a significant bottleneck in the case of Bethesda titles, such as Skyrim and Fallout, which relied heavily on RAM to pre-load content. In addition, there are constant compatibility issues between 64-bit applications and their 32-bit libraries, for example 64-bit internet browsers and 32-bit extensions. Even Microsoft claims that it is better to use their 32-bit Office suite as it is more solid.  In general, at least for a while longer 32-bit will be the prevalent format for Windows.

The big question remains though – Should I care?

If you use your computer for Internet browsing, writing documents, basic calculations, and such, my answer is ‘no’. Currently, the only advantages of 32-bit Windows versions are:

– Using native 32-bit software that for some obscure reason fails to run properly on 64-bit systems

– Using very old 8-bit or 16-bit software that will most likely not run at all on 64-bit systems

– Using less RAM

– Running on older hardware

All of those advantages are case-specific. 8-bit and 16-bit software can be initiated through various emulators (for example, Dosbox) and 32-bit software usually does work properly on 64-bit Windows.

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Things stand a bit differently in the Lands of Linux. There, the majority of software packages are available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, so that one could technically use a 64-bit only operating system. 32-bit systems are more geared towards older, single core PCs, which lack PAE necessary to run 64-bit operating systems. Also, contrary to popular belief, 64-bit software doesn’t consume more resources and the boost in performance is enormous. Clearly, the open-source community is ready for ‘a dawn of a new (64-bit) era’. What is actually preventing that from happening is commercial companies. Drivers, Windows applications ported to Linux, gaming platforms and games themselves are almost entirely in 32-bit format. That is somewhat puzzling, seeing how many pieces of software are already in 64-bit.

This leads me to the conclusion that the conversion from a 32-bit to a 64-bit computing world is a matter of ‘won’t’ not ‘can’t’.

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