The Only Difference Between 32 Bit and 64 Bit Architecture

If you have used computers or smartphones in your life, you have probably heard the term 32 bit and 64 bit architecture before Or perhaps in the gaming industry you have heard of 8 bit video games or 16 bit video games, right? We have all heard these things for the most part but, what do those terms actually mean? What are bits, and why are they important? how much is a bit worth? in our operating system. I will tackle all of those questions for you and more. But first, let's time travel to this. This is an IBM vacuum tube, one of the earliest more tangible representations of what a bit truly is. Let's start talking about bits.

Well it's kind of like how we abbreviate things in say the 80s or the 90s. We are referring to an era of changes in culture. In computers we may say 32 bit architecture or in gaming we may say 8 bit architecture. But these terms are really just there to summarize all of the technical changes in a given point in time. Pertaining to CPU's, here is the situation.

In general, a 64 bit CPU has the potential to perform faster and address more memory. But, this is an over simplification. So let's elaborate. 64 bit CPU's date back to the 70s but for all intents and purposes the 64 bit hype in the PC really started getting going when AMD released a 64 bit desktop CPU in 2003. Then Apple started pushing the Power Mac G5 with a 64 bit G5 Power PC processor in it. And then the hype got rekindled in 2013 when Apple released the iPhone 5S with a 64 bit processor.

Let's take a look at the advantages of 64 bit versus 32 bit number in terms of personal computing. We will take a look at those advantages and how all of this bit stuff actually works. To do that, we need to time travel and understand the history. It acts like a switch. If there is electricity in it, it is on. If there is no electricity in it, it is off. Like a light switch it's either on or off and like a gate, it's either open or closed. In all of these contexts there's two states on, off, open and closed.

Difference Between 32 Bit and 64 Bit

This is where binary number comes in the picture. The word binary comes from the Latin word binarius which according to Latin dictionary means consisting of or containing two.

In computers, we represent these two values with either a one or a zero, that one or zero is referred to as a binary number or a bit system for short. So, with 1 bit or one binary number we can have two different values. We can have an on or an off. And the more bits we have, the more binary numbers we have, the number of outcomes increases exponentially. The formula is really simple it works like this. You take two to the nth power, where n represents your number of binary numbers.

So for example if we had two binary numbers we could have four different permutations or four different values, 3 bits system can represent eight values, 4 bits system can represent 16 values, 5 bits system can represent 32 values, so on and so forth. So you are taking that nth power and putting in the amount of binary digits in to that variable. So two to the second power is four. Two to the third power is eight. Two to the fourth power is 16, and so on and so forth. If we break this down into binary number, our four values here are these four different permutations of the binary numbers like 00, 01, 10, and 11, there is no other permutations we can make out of that. With 3-bit we have eight permutations or values like 000, 001, and so on and so forth. And when you convert that to decimal you get zero, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and it just keeps going and going and going.

Difference Between 32 Bit and 64 Bit

This is for simplification, typically data is paired in bytes and one byte stores eight binary digits you would seldom go down to 2 bit or 3 bit systems but just to understand the math. I wanna simplify it like this.

So the term 64 bit can be used very loosely and that's why there is some confusion and that's just human nature we kind of fuzz our definitions of words sometimes. The term often refers to a generation of computers which use 64 bit processors. Kind of like when I talked about decades earlier like the 80s and the 90s you know they referred to an era of changes. In computing, the numbers and the units that we apply to those numbers can get really lengthy so we use a simple nomenclature to abbreviate them. Like how we use scientific notation to simplify large numbers, or we use cm to abbreviate centimetres.

So instead of saying something lengthy like This computer monitor displays 1 of 1024 unique color values per channel per pixel. We just simply say, well that is a 10 bit display. Instead of saying, This audio file contains 1 of 16,777,216 amplitudes per sample, we simply say it is a 24 bit audio file. Simply put, in the context of color depth and audio depth, more bits equals more resolution. As an example open up a DAW (digital audio workstation) software and turn down the resolution of a synth and listen to the differences. Also open an image in a program like Photoshop and export it with fewer colors. 1 bit would be two colors,4 bit is 16 colors and so on.

So where does this come into play in regards to my computer? Do I have a 32 bit system or a 64 bit system? 

Generally, if you had a computer manufactured between 2007 and 2010 plus, it is very likely that you have a 64 bit computer system. Now back to the other question, what does this mean for you? If you hear someone say 64 bit system that usually refers to the processor, the CPU. Bits apply to all types of hardware and all types of concepts. But in this case it is commonly the CPU that someone is referring to. In short, a 64 bit CPU can potentially offer faster performance and it can address larger amounts of RAM, random access memory. This is the hardware inside your computer that temporarily stores information that a CPU needs to access very rapidly. For most people the expanded RAM limits the biggest advantage for a 64 bit CPU.

A 32 bit CPU can address four gigabytes of RAM without any physical address extension tricks, but a 64 bit CPU can address 16 billion gigabytes of RAM, which translates to 16 exabytes. But, let's just say 16 billion gigabytes for now because that sounds cooler. But why those numbers, why four gigabytes and 16 billion gigabytes it seems kind of arbitrary. Well, let's go back to the math. Remember this, two to the nth power where n represents your number of binary digits. If we are talking about 32 bit, 32 binary numbers and we do the math, we get approximately four billion. If you divide that number up,do some dimensional analysis that number of bytes will equate to four gigabytes. Now if you take two to the 64th power you get approximately 18 Quintilian when you crunch the numbers on that, take that number of bytes convert it in to exabytes you get 16 exabytes or 16 billion gigabytes. Now that may sound amazing but remember those big numbers are only useful if your software knows how to leverage those large amounts of RAM in the first place. But, leave that up to the developers to figure out. 

Now, what About Speed?

A 64 bit CPU can theoretically offer faster performance but again, the software has to know how to take advantage of it. A 64 bit CPU can process 64 bits per clock cycle. Twice as many bits as as 32 bit CPU typically. So with every cycle, the processor can theoretically take on more information. If you have a three gigahertz processor that means your processor is running at three billion cycles per second. Giga means billion, hertz means per second, that is where that comes from. The limit of bits that a cycle can hold is commonly referred to as a word size. And those bits are stored in little parts of the processor called a register, that is where the data lives inside the processor as it is working with it, very rapidly. That data lives very briefly inside that register, inside the CPU. So those are some big advantages to 64 bit processors.

Difference Between 32 Bit and 64 Bit

However, there is another speed booster which is not exclusive to 64 bit processors but I think it is important that you know it exists, it is called SIMD or Single Instruction, Multiple Data. We could go down a really deep rabbit hole with this one, but in short SIMD uses large CPU registers to do multiple math operations simultaneously. Remember when you took those math tests in school and you had to use a calculator? Well imagine how much faster you could go if you could clone yourself and work on four calculators simultaneously. Simply put, that is what SIMD does.

In general, 64 bit processors have more modern design and newer features because 64 bit is a general term that is been used. So you will know for the most part as an end-user. And keep in mind, you will need a 64 bit operating system installed on your computer so you can fully leverage a CPU that is 64 bit. But for the most part, computers are already sold with that hardware software bundle so you should not have to worry.

Earlier I mentioned that bits can apply to other concepts and hardware and that is true. For example, your video card, your GPU on that card may have a 512 bus width where it processes 512 bits of data per cycle. Buses in this context are lines that connect processors to memory, so it's kind of like a highway for the data to travel on I guess you could say. We won't dive into all that stuff today but remember, bits can apply to bus width,registers, word sizes, addresses, integers,and a lot of other computer stuff that I probably don't even know exists.

Let's talk about those integers for a second. Those are whole numbers. These integers can apply to seconds in a clock or minutes in a battery meter. If you have ever seen a digital meter max out at a seemingly arbitrary number or a seemingly random date show up on a computer file that's like from the 70s or what ever it is because some anomaly or some sort of data corruption caused the integer to reset or max out at a specific limit. And those values are limited depending on how many bits are allocated to that data type.

Microsoft still sells 32 bit versions of Windows because there are people who have legacy software which simply does not work on 64 bit operating systems. In fact, and this is kind of a little secret for most people, most 64 bit CPU's are built on top of 32 bit architecture, but with 64 bit extensions which allow for wider buses, more registers, but this is how you also obtain that 32 bit backward compatibility on a 64 bit processor.

So in short, more bits can result in larger memory addresses, higher resolutions,potentially faster performance.  It will vary depending on what concept you are talking about. And if you have any questions just leave a comment. I will try to answer your queries. 

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