When you download software you've requested through TechSoup or elsewhere, you might notice that a lot of applications and operating systems are offered in a 32-bit and a 64-bit version. Server applications and operating systems, in particular, have offered you this choice for some time. But desktop applications like those included in the Microsoft Office suite are also available in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions.
So what's the difference between 32-bit and 64-bit software, and which kind should you download?
This question really has two parts:
Pretty much all desktop computers and servers have either 32-bit or 64-bit processors. More and more personal computers now include newer 64-bit processors, which are faster and more efficient than 32-bit processors.
As you might've guessed, a computer with a 32-bit processor can only run a 32-bit operating system and 32-bit software. A computer with the more advanced 64-bit processor can run both 64-bit and 32-bit operating systems and software. However, if a 64-bit computer has a 32-bit operating system installed, it can only run 32-bit software.
If you're only interested in installing new applications under your existing operating system, you can just check if your operating system is 32-bit or 64-bit to determine which version of that application to download and install. If you're considering upgrading your operating system, you should check if your computer has a 32-bit or 64-bit processor.
Here's how to check.
If you're not interested in the knotty, arcane details of computer architectures, suffice it to say that 64-bit computers are faster and more efficient than 32-bit computers because the processor can swallow and digest larger chunks of data with each bite. The overall speed of a computer is determined by the number of bites it takes every second (in other words, the famous clock speed, measured in hertz, megahertz or gigahertz) and the size of those bites.
Another key advantage to 64-bit computer architecture is its ability to accommodate more system memory (RAM). The old 32-bit architectures could only address 3 GB of system memory (or 4 GB depending on whom you ask). Resource-hungry applications couldn't take advantage of the cheap and easy speed boost offered by adding more RAM to a computer.
But 64-bit architectures blow right past the 3-GB barrier, and they can theoretically address up to 18 exabytes, or 18 billion gigabytes, of system memory. However, the operating system can also impose a limit on the amount of addressable memory. For example, Memory Limits for Windows Releases shows that even the 64-bit Windows operating systems are limited in the amount of RAM they support. Those limits, though, are generally much higher than those of the comparable 32-bit versions. Some versions of Windows Server, like Windows Server 2012, are unlimited or nearly so in terms of how much memory they can utilize. So upgrading to a 64-bit platform will allow you to increase your system memory in most cases.
If you are considering replacing your old computers to get better performance, you should probably upgrade to 64-bit computers as long as your mission-critical software is 64-bit compatible. Most computers sold today have 64-bit processors, and more and more software is available in a 64-bit version. But it's important that you make sure all of the software you need to run your organization is available in a 64-bit version so you can continue to use it.
For nonprofits that manage many computers, an IT department might have trouble acquiring and supporting new operating systems, drivers, and applications. It's expensive enough buying the faster hardware, but getting a second set of software licenses for 64-bit operating systems and applications might be beyond the means of an organization with a limited budget. Furthermore, nonprofits, charities, and libraries often have to deal with erratic IT budgets and donated computers, which means they're more likely to wind up with a mix of 32-bit and 64-bit machines.
In these circumstances, some organizations opt to transition gradually, upgrading hardware first, then operating systems, then applications. Other organizations focus entirely on their servers and leave their desktop machines alone. Servers typically run the most resource-intensive applications, so they see greater benefits from upgrading to a 64-bit platform.
If your organization decides that now is the time to embrace 64 bits, keep in mind that most Microsoft products in the TechSoup catalog come with Software Assurance. This program allows you to download and install any version of the software you received from us, so long as you don't install more copies of the software than you have licenses for. This means you can download and install the 64-bit version of any Microsoft software if you acquired a copy of the 32-bit version with Software Assurance.
This benefit applies to Microsoft desktop and enterprise applications as well as to desktop and server operating systems. For example, if you request Office through TechSoup and download the 32-bit version, you'll be entitled to download the 64-bit version at Microsoft's Volume Licensing Service Center (VLSC).
In summary, every abstruse computer science experiment eventually matures into a problem that individuals and organizations have to deal with. After years in the early-adopter, cutting-edge stage, 64-bit architectures have become common enough that libraries, charities, and nonprofits have to start deciding when and how they'll transition away from 32-bit platforms. What you ultimately decide to do should be determined by the factors listed above, your budget, and your overall tech needs and goals.
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