64-bit computer systems have been around since IBM created the 7030 Stretch supercomputer in 1961. However, it wasn't until Microsoft released a compatible version of Windows XP in 2001 that 64-bit power became useful to mainstream users. The difference between 32- and 64-bit processors relates mostly to processing power. How you use your computer will determine how critical it is that you have a 64-bit system. Operating systems such as Windows Vista, Windows and Windows 8 all ship in both 32- and 64-bit versions.
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Essentially, the difference between 64- and 32-bit systems is how they handle data. A 64-bit system can handle data at a rate of 64 bits at a time. A 32-bit can process only 32 bits at a time. Thus a 64-bit chip can better handle more intensive applications because of its higher data transfer rate. This also means that 64-bit processors are better able to fully utilize the benefits of extra system memory, as it can move data in and out of the RAM at a faster rate.
Multitasking, or running multiple applications simultaneously, is where the 64-bit system is most notably superior. The ability to handle twice the amount of data at a time as a 32-bit system allows a 64-bit system to multitask seamlessly. A 32-bit system can also multitask, but it will be slower. Even if the systems have the same amount of RAM, the 64-bit system will be faster because it can use the extra RAM more efficiently.
Powerful applications are usually sold in both formats. Running a 32-bit version of an application on a 64-bit system will work fine, but you will not have all the speed benefits as you would with a true 64-bit version. If you have a 32-bit system and are considering upgrading to 64-bit, consider how many programs you would have to purchase in the 64-bit version to truly get the most from your upgrade.
While a 64-bit system can run 32-bit software without a problem, the reverse is not true. Sixty-four-bit versions of software require that your processor can handle its operations at the higher speed. Other related hardware, such as hard drives and system memory, must also be 64-bit compatible.
The average user will not notice obvious benefits of having a 64-bit system. Simple tasks such as browsing the web or checking email will be just as fluid on a 32-bit system. For applications that process huge blocks of memory and complicated processes for long periods of time, however, 64-bit systems offer noticeable improvements. If you are using your computer for a job that involves multimedia editing or creation, 64-bit capability is essential for maximum productivity.