32-Bit versus 64-Bit Versions of Windows 8.1

If you’ve settled on, oh, Windows 8.1 as your operating system of choice, you aren’t off the hook yet. You need to decide whether you want the 32-bit flavor or the 64-bit flavor of Windows 8.1. (Similarly, Windows 8.1 Pro and Enterprise are available in a 32-bit model and a 64-bit model.)

Although the 32-bit and 64-bit flavors of Windows look and act the same on the surface, down in the bowels of Windows, they work quite differently. Which should you get? The question no doubt seems a bit esoteric, but just about every new PC nowadays uses the 64-bit version of Windows for good reasons:

  • Performance: The 32-bit flavor of Windows — the flavor that everyone was using a few years ago and many use now — has a limit on the amount of memory that Windows can use. Give or take a nip here and a tuck there, 32-bit Windows machines can see, at most, 3.4 or 3.5 gigabytes (GB) of memory. You can stick 4GB of memory into your computer, but in the 32-bit world, anything beyond 3.5GB is simply out of reach. It just sits there, unused.

    The 64-bit flavor of Windows opens your computer’s memory, so Windows can see and use more than 4GB — much more, in fact. Whether you need access to all that additional memory is debatable at this point. Five years from now, chances are pretty good that 3.5GB will start to feel a bit constraining.

    Although lots of technical mumbo jumbo is involved, the simple fact is that programs are getting too big, and Windows is running out of room. Although Windows can fake it by shuffling data on and off your hard drive, doing so slows your computer significantly.

  • Security: Security is one more good reason for running a 64-bit flavor of Windows. Microsoft enforced strict security constraints on drivers that support hardware in 64-bit machines — constraints that just couldn’t be enforced in the older, more lax (and more compatible!) 32-bit environment.

And that leads to the primary problem with 64-bit Windows: drivers. Many, many people have older hardware that simply doesn’t work in any 64-bit flavor of Windows. Their hardware isn’t supported. Hardware manufacturers sometimes decide that it isn’t worth the money to build a solid 64-bit savvy driver, to make the old hardware work with the new operating system. You, as a customer, get the short end of the stick.

Application programs are a different story altogether. The 64-bit version of Office 2010 is notorious for causing all sorts of headaches: You’re better off running 32-bit Office 2010, even on a 64-bit system (yes, 32-bit programs run just fine on a 64-bit system, by and large). Some programs can’t take advantage of the 64-bit breathing room. So all is not sweetness and light. Office 2013, on the other hand, does just fine in 32-bit or 64-bit incarnations.

Now that you know the pros and cons, you have one more thing to take into consideration: What does your PC support? To run 64-bit Windows, your computer must support 64-bit operations. If you bought your computer any time after 2005 or so, you’re fine — virtually all the PCs sold since then can handle 64-bit.

But if you have an older PC, here’s an easy way to see whether your current computer can handle 64 bits: Go to Steve Gibson’s SecurAble site. Follow the instructions to download and run the SecurAble program. If your computer can handle 64-bit operations, SecurAble tells you.

If you have older hardware — printers, scanners, USB modems, and the like — that you want to use with your Windows computer, do yourself a favor and stick with 32-bit Windows. It’s unlikely that you’ll start feeling the constraints of 32 bits until your current PC is long past its prime.

On the other hand, if you’re starting with completely new hardware — or hardware that you bought in the past three or four years — and you plan to run your current PC for a long, long time, 64-bit Windows makes a lot of sense.

Did this glimpse into the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 8.1 leave you longing for more information and insight about Microsoft's personal computing operating system? You're free to test drive any of the For Dummies eLearning courses. Pick your course (you may be interested in more from Windows 8.1), fill out a quick registration, and then give eLearning a spin with the Try It! button. You'll be right on course for more trusted know how: The full version's also available at Windows 8.1.

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