Reason Why 32 bits processors are called x86 and 64 bits processors called x64 and Major Difference Between Them


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Published 2 Years Ago On Wednesday, February 16, 2022
Updated 2 Years Ago On Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Whether your computer architecture is 32-bit or 64-bit depends on the processor (CPU) inside your computer. There are three levels that can each be 32-bit or 64-bit: the CPU, the OS, and programs. Your CPU and OS each affect the level above them, so if you have a 32-bit CPU, you cannot install 64-bit Windows. And on 32-bit Windows, you can't install 64-bit programs.
64-bit CPUs are the dominant architecture nowadays. 32-bit CPUs are obsolete in today's market, so unless you have an old computer, chances are your processor is 64-bit.
64-bit processors are exponentially more powerful than their 32-bit predecessors because they can hold and process so much more information. To understand the magnitude of the differences between 32-bit and 64-bit, you have to understand a bit about counting in binary. Unlike our decimal system, which has 10 possible digits per place, binary only has two: 0 or 1.

Thus, a 32-bit number has 2^32 possible addresses, or 4,294,967,296. Conversely, a 64-bit number's capacity is 2^64, or 18,446,744,073,709,551,616. Comparing ~4 billion bytes (about 4 gigabytes) to ~18 quintillion bytes (about 18 billion gigabytes or 16 exabytes) showcases the vast difference.

You can choose between the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows that Microsoft provides when you download and install the OS. Windows 11 is only available in 64-bit; Windows 10 through Windows 7 are available in both forms.

X86 is colloquially used nowadays as a synonym for 32bit processors in the PC space. Similarly, x64 is used to denote 64bit processors in the PC space. But 32bit is absolutely not equivalent to x86 likewise 64bits is not equivalent to x64. This is because they’re completely different things. In 1978, Intel released the 8086 microprocessor.
It was a 16bit processor that could address 1MB of memory, built to compete against the threat that was the Zi log Z80 as well as upcoming 16bit and 32bit processors from the likes of Motorola and National Semiconductor. Intel’s own 32bit processor project, the Intel iAPX 432 had been delayed until 1981 and the company wanted a stop-gap until that chip was finalized.

The 8086 was the first processor in a family of processors called “X86”. More precisely, it was the first processor that used the x86 Instruction set architecture (ISA) which defines which instructions the processor can execute, how they are to be used also called semantics as well as their encoding. Intel would release a cost-reduced version of the 8086 called the 8088, which notably reduce the size of the data bus from 16bits to 8bits wide, reducing the amount of bandwidth to memory. The 8088 offered most of the performance of the 8086 though it was still a 16bit processor and was subsequently used in the IBM PC model 5150 (the “IBM PC” for short), which set the standard for desktop PCs during the 80s and 90s, basically forcing Intel to keep the x86 Instruction set architecture (ISA) alive.

From the 8086 we got the 80186, the 80286 until we got the 80386 in 1985. So, Instead of writing 8088, 8086, 80186, 80286, 80386 and 80486, we started referring to them as the 80x86 because that way we only had to use one name. By the time the Intel Pentium came along it was supposed to be the 80586, but marketing needed a trademark name, and you can’t trademark a number. this was why it was shortened to x86. The 386 was the first processor of the x86 line to be 32 bits wide. New 32bit x86 designs were introduced over the years, such as the original Pentium, but in 2003 AMD (another x86 processor manufacturer) released the Opteron and Athlon 64 processor families. These were still fundamentally x86 processors, but AMD had extended it in order to support 64bit execution. The new extended x86 was referred to as x86–64, or AMD64 for short. This extension would later be adopted by Intel in the later Pentium 4 designs and the original core 2 series, such as the core 2 duo and core 2 quad lines. It is still used today. The x86 family is made up of 16, 32 and 64bit processors. While officially known as x86–64, that extended was known as x64. To differentiate between 16bit and 32bit x86 versions, the 16bit designs would (colloquially at least) be referred to as x86–16, with the 32bit designs simply being referred to as “x86”. This has nothing to do with deeper technical links between 32bit architecture and x86, it’s just that 32bit Intel and AMD designs have been referred to as x86 for simplicity. 64bit windows operating system separates native 64bit programs from the legacy 32bit programs. The 64bit software is installed into folder called “Program Files”, while the old 32bit software gets installed into a folder called “Program Files (x86)”. This seems to imply that 32bit architecture = x86, which simply isn’t true.

On 64-bit Windows operating system, the 64-bit system files go in c:\windows\system32 and the 32-bit system files go in c:\windows\Syswow64. And then in the registry we have wow6432node for values written by 32-bit applications. wow64 stands for (Windows 32-bit on Windows 64-bit).   

80186 was rarely used, and mostly used only in embedded systems, which is why you may not have heard much about it. Intel stopped naming CPUs this way after the 80386 because it lost a copyright lawsuit with AMD. The judge ruled that Intel could not copyright a sequence of numbers, so Intel started with names such as Pent`ium. So, the whole x86 nomenclature has not been used on any Intel CPU since 1991. AMD64 is AMD’s implementation of a 64-bit extension to x86. Intel's implementation (which uses the same spec) is Intel64. Both terms are brand names. X86–64 is just the generic term used to denote a 64bit x86 extension.

Ways In which Windows Operating System Differs Between 32-Bit and 64-Bit Versions

If you're using a 64-bit processor, you also need to use a 64-bit version of Windows to take advantage of its increased capabilities. 32-bit versions of Windows work on 64-bit processors, but are limited to what the 32-bit OS can do.

You can't install a 64-bit version of Windows on a 32-bit processor. However, 64-bit Windows is backward compatible with 32-bit software.

There are two major places you'll notice the difference between 32-bit and 64-bit in Windows. One is that a 32-bit version of Windows can only utilize up to 4GB of RAM (or less). Thus, if you have 16GB of RAM in your computer, but it's running 32-bit Windows, it won't actually use more than 4GB.

The other place you'll find a difference is the Program Files folder. On a 32-bit version of Windows, apps will install to the only Program Files folder. 64-bit systems have an additional Program Files (x86) folder for 32-bit software. This is because writing software for a 32-bit architecture is vastly different from writing it for a 64-bit system.

When programs want to grab some shared information, like DLLs, they need to look in the correct Program Files directory. This is why Windows keeps them separate. A 32-bit program would have no idea what to do with a 64-bit DLL.

Ancient versions of Windows, like Windows 3.1, ran 16-bit software. 32-bit versions of Windows are backward-compatible with these legacy programs. If you have a 64-bit machine, however, you can't run archaic 16-bit software. You'll have to emulate a 32-bit operating system to run these old programs.

Most of the time, 64-bit Windows requires 64-bit device drivers. If you have an old printer or something that only offers 32-bit drivers, it won't work on your modern 64-bit system

Differences Between 32-Bit and 64-Bit Programs

When you install software, it varies by vendor whether you get a 32-bit or 64-bit version. Some developers only provide a 32-bit version, sometimes they let you choose, and still others automatically install the right version for you.

If you're running a 64-bit version of Windows, you should install the 64-bit versions of software whenever you can. But don't fret if a vendor doesn't offer a 64-bit version, as the 32-bit edition should work just fine in most cases. For example, popular apps like Discord and Spotify are only available in 32-bit flavors.

64-bit versions of programs probably won't blow you away with increased speed. However, they do take advantage of the increased security of 64-bit architecture and can utilize more than 4GB of RAM at a time. They're thus often more stable and efficient than their 32-bit counterparts, especially for heavy-duty software like video editors.

Keep an eye out for links such as Versions or Editions on vendors' download pages to see if they offer a 64-bit version. Because 32-bit software works on every system, it's understandably the default for some vendors.

Of course, if you're on a 32-bit system, only 32-bit software will work for you. For more, take a look at how to run really old software on a 64-bit PC.

Am I Running 64-Bit or 32-Bit Windows?

Now that we've discussed the differences between 32 and 64-bit versions of Windows, we can find out if you're using 32-bit or 64-bit Windows.

On Windows 10, right-click the Start Button and choose System. You can also browse to Settings > System > About. Here, you'll see a Device specifications header.

Next to System Type, Windows lists whether your installation is 32 or 64-bit, as well as your processor architecture.

On Windows 7 and earlier, right-click Computer in the Start Menu and choose Properties. Use the Win + Pause shortcut to open this menu on any version of Windows. You'll see the System type entry with your OS and CPU architecture.

Both panels also list your Installed RAM here. On a 32-bit system, this will note something like 4GB usable if you have over 4GB installed.

Can I Upgrade 32-Bit Windows to 64-Bit Windows?

Your processor and operating system architectures should match. But if they don't, you might not be able to upgrade. If you're running a 32-bit version of Windows 10 on a 64-bit processor, you can follow our guide to upgrade to 64-bit Windows.

Those running a 32-bit version of Windows on a 32-bit processor can't upgrade on their current hardware. You'll need to upgrade your CPU or purchase a new machine to take advantage of 64-bit. Any computer available now should include a 64-bit processor and 64-bit Windows. If you build your own PC, any modern processor you find will be 64-bit too.

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