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HTG Explains: Should You Use the 32-bit or 64-bit Edition of Ubuntu Linux?

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Until Ubuntu 13.04, Ubuntu recommended all users use the 32-bit edition of Ubuntu on its download page. However, this recommendation has been removed for a reason — users of modern PCs are better off with the 64-bit edition.

While Microsoft has been installing the 64-bit edition of Windows on modern PCs by default for years, Ubuntu has been slower to recommend the use of its 64-bit edition — but that has changed.

32-bit vs. 64-bit: What’s the Difference?

We covered the difference between 32-bit and 64-bit computing when we looked at the difference between the 32-bit and 64-bit editions of Windows 7.

In a nutshell, all modern Intel and AMD processors are 64-bit processors. 64-bit processors can run 64-bit software, which allows them to use larger amounts of RAM without any workarounds, allocate more RAM to individual programs (particularly important for games and other demanding applications), and employ more advanced low-level security features.

However, 64-bit processors are backwards-compatible and can run 32-bit software. This means that you can install a 32-bit operating system on a 64-bit computer. While 64-bit operating systems were getting their kinks worked out, 32-bit operating systems were recommended.

Note that you can still run 32-bit software on a 64-bit operating system, so you should be able to run the same programs, even if you opt for a 64-bit operating system. In fact, the majority of programs installed on 64-bit editions of Windows are 32-bit programs. On Linux, the majority of programs will be in 64-bit form, as Linux distributions can recompile the open-source software for 64-bit CPUs.

Past 64-bit Problems

Like Windows, which had teething problems with 64-bit consumer operating systems back in the “Windows XP 64-bit Edition” days, Ubuntu and other desktop Linux systems have experienced a variety of problems with the 64-bit edition of their software.

  • Flash (and other browser plugin) Compatibility: Adobe’s Flash plug-in was once only available in 32-bit form, while a 64-bit browser came with the 64-bit edition of Ubuntu. This meant that users had to install a separate 32-bit browser or use nspluginwrapper, a hacky solution that allowed 32-bit plugins to run in 64-bit browsers. Eventually, Adobe released a preview version of its 64-bit Flash plugin, but even this plugin had some issues. At this point, a stable version of Flash for 64-bit systems is available, so browser plugins should work fine on both 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems.
  • Software Compatibility: 32-bit applications can run on 64-bit operating systems, but they need the appropriate 32-bit libraries to function. A “pure” 64-bit edition of Linux wouldn’t be able to run 32-bit applications because it doesn’t have the appropriate libraries. At this point, the 32-bit compatibility libraries have been fairly well tested and can be quickly installed from the package manager — they can even be automatically installed when you try to install a package that requires them.
  • Bugs: Fewer users used the 64-bit editions of Ubuntu, so they weren’t as well-tested and bugs occasionally cropped up — particularly with the 32-bit compatibility libraries. However, many more people now use the 64-bit edition of Ubuntu, so bugs are fixed much more quickly.
  • Installation Problems: One of the main reasons Ubuntu recommended new uses download the 32-bit edition was that it was guaranteed to install on their systems, whether they had 32-bit or 64-bit processors. If Ubuntu recommended the 64-bit edition, users with old computers might try to install it and fail to do so. However, 64-bit systems have become more and more common — unless you use a very old computer, your computer probably has a 64-bit processor.

Luckily, Linux uses primarily open-source drivers, so you shouldn’t need old hardware drivers that are only available in 32-bit form.

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Why You Should Probably Use the 64-bit Edition

At this point, the kinks are worked out — Flash works, it’s easy to install 32-bit software, bugs aren’t common, and you probably have a 64-bit CPU. If you’re on the fence, it’s time to take the dive and use the modern version of Ubuntu.

  • Performance: Phoronix has taken a look at the performance difference between the 32-bit and 64-bit editions of Ubuntu 13.04. They found that the 64-bit edition of Ubuntu had superior performance in real-world benchmarks.
  • UEFI Compatibility: The 32-bit edition of Ubuntu doesn’t work with the UEFI firmware found on recent computers that come with Windows 8, so you’ll need to install the 64-bit edition of Ubuntu on them.
  • Memory and Security Features: The same memory and security factors we mentioned for Windows 7 also apply to Linux. If you want your system to have the ability to assign more memory to individual processes and use the latest low-level security features, you’ll need the 64-bit edition of Ubuntu.

The main problems with 64-bit editions of Linux have been solved, so it’s a good time to switch to the 64-bit version.

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When You Should Use the 32-bit Edition

If you still have a 32-bit processor, you’ll want to use the 32-bit edition. You may also want to use the 32-bit edition if you have proprietary hardware drivers that are only available in 32-bit form, but this is very unlikely to happen on Linux — it should primarily apply to Windows users.

To test whether your Ubuntu computer has a 32-bit or 64-bit CPU, run the lscpu command in a terminal. A 64-bit CPU will be able to run in both 32-bit and 64-bit modes, while a 32-bit CPU will only be able to run in 32-bit mode.

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Have you found any issues with the 64-bit edition of Ubuntu, or have you been using it for a long time without any problems? Leave a reply and share any experience you have!

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 06/12/13

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