Why Are Most Programs Still 32-bit on a 64-bit Version of Windows?

Your computer is probably running a 64-bit version of Windows. But take a look at Task Manager and you’ll see that many apps on your system are still 32-bit. Is this a problem?

Most modern computers—definitely those sold since around the Windows 7 days—are 64-bit capable and ship with a 64-bit version of Windows. If you’re unsure about your own PC, it’s easy to check whether you’re running 32-bit or 64-bit Windows. There are many differences between 64-bit and 32-bit versions of Windows—enough that if your PC and apps support it, you should be running the 64-bit version. Even if every app you run is a 32-bit app, running a 64-bit OS is still going to be more secure and reliable.

But, what about those apps? Things get a bit trickier, there. The first thing to know is that 64-bit versions of Windows can run 32-bit apps, but 32-bit versions of Windows can’t run 64-bit software. Another little wrinkle—and one that applies only to a very small number of people—is that 32-bit versions of Windows can run old 16-bit apps, but those 16-bit apps will not run on a 64-bit version of Windows. So, let’s dive into that a bit more and see when it might matter to you.

How to Check Which of Your Apps Are Still 32-bit

You can use Task Manager to see which of your programs are 64-bit and which are 32-bit. To open it, right-click any open area on the taskbar, and then click “Task Manager” (or press Ctrl+Shift+Escape).

On the “Processes” tab, take a look under the “Name” column. If you’re using a 64-bit version of Windows 8 or 10, you’ll see the text “(32-bit)” after the name of any 32-bit app. If you’re using a 64-bit version of Windows 7, you’ll see the text “*32” instead. In all versions, 64-bit apps have no extra text after the name.

Windows also installs 32-bit and 64-bit apps in different places—or at least, tries to. 32-bit apps are usually installed to the C:\Program Files (x86)\ folder on 64-bit versions of Windows, while 64-bit programs are usually installed to the C:\Program Files\ folder.

This is more of a guideline, though. There’s no rule forcing 32-bit and 64-bit apps into their respective folders. For example, the Steam client is a 32-bit program, and it gets installs properly into the C:\Program Files (x86)\ folder by default. But, all games you install through Steam are installed to the C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam folder by default—even 64-bit games.

If you compare your two different Program Files folders, you’ll find that most of your programs are probably installed to the C:\Program Files (x86) folder. They’re likely 32-bit programs.

Is Running 32-bit Apps on 64-bit Windows a Bad Idea?

On the surface, it might seem like running 32-bit apps in a 64-bit environment is bad—or less than ideal, anyway. After all, 32-bit apps aren’t taking full advantage of the 64-bit architecture. And it’s true. When possible, running a 64-bit version of the app provides additional security features to apps that are likely to come under attack. And 64-bit apps can access much more memory directly than the 4 GB that 32-bit apps can access.

Still, these are differences that you’re just not likely to notice running regular apps in the real world. For example, you’re not going to suffer any kind of performance penalty by running 32-bit apps. In a 64-bit version of Windows, 32-bit apps run under something named the Windows 32-bit on Windows 64-bit (WoW64) compatibility layer—a full subsystem that handles running 32-bit apps. Your 32-bit Windows programs will run about the same as they would on a 32-bit version of Windows (and in some cases, even better), so there’s no downside to running these programs on a 64- bit OS.

Even if every program you use is still 32-bit, you’ll benefit because your operating system itself is running in 64-bit mode. The 64-bit version of Windows is more secure.

But 64-bit Programs Would Be Better, Right?

As we mentioned earlier, there is an advantage to running the 64-bit version of an app, if one is available. On a 64-bit version of Windows, 32-bit programs can only access 4 GB of memory each, while 64-bit programs can access much more. If a program is likely to come under attack, the additional security features applied to 64-bit programs can help.

Many apps offer both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Chrome, Photoshop, iTunes, and Microsoft Office are a few of the most popular Windows programs, and they’re all available in 64-bit form. Demanding games are often 64-bit so they can use more memory.

Many apps haven’t made the leap, though, and most never will. You can still run most ten-year-old 32-bit Windows programs on a 64-bit version of Windows today, even if their developers haven’t updated them since 64-bit versions of Windows came along.

A developer that wants to provide a 64-bit version of their program has to do additional work. They have to make sure the existing code compiles and runs correctly as 64-bit software. They have to provide and support two separate versions of the program, as people running a 32-bit version of Windows can’t use the 64-bit version.

And in many apps, people just wouldn’t notice a difference anyway. Let’s take the Windows desktop version of Evernote as an example here. Even if they provided a 64-bit version of Evernote, users likely wouldn’t notice a difference at all. The 32-bit program can run just fine on a 64-bit version of Windows, and there’d be no noticeable advantages with a 64-bit version.

In short, if you have a choice, definitely grab the 64-bit version of your app. If you don’t have a choice, get the 32-bit version and don’t worry about it.

Getting 64-bit Apps

How you get 64-bit apps when they’re available differs based on the app. Sometimes, when you go to a download page for an app, the page will detect whether you’re using a 32-bit or 64-bit version of Windows and automatically direct you to the right installer. Apple iTunes works this way.

Other times, you’ll download a single installation app that contains both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of the app. When you launch the installer, it will detect at that point whether you’re using a 32-bit or 64-bit version of Windows and install those files. Photoshop for Windows works this way.

And still other times, you’ll actually get a choice on the app’s download page to download the version you want. Sometimes the version will say “64-bit,” sometimes it will say “x64,” and sometimes both. When you see a choice like this, go ahead and download the 64-bit version.


In the end, what’s important isn’t making sure you’re running 64-bit apps—it’s making sure you’re running apps that work well for you. If there’s a 64-bit version of an app, by all means use it. If not, using the 32-bit version is just fine. For most apps, you won’t even notice the difference.

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+.