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Can I break my x64 laptop by running a x86 operating system? I've installed Windows 7 32-bit, and I would like to know if this can cause any problems in the long run.

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Depends. My brother-in-law has this story about a very expensive microscope running some very cheap software... end result, the software told the lens to advance 5 centimeters toward a plate that was only 1 centimeter away. One crunch later, the very expensive microscope was a very expensive piece of dead weight. – Martha Mar 1 '10 at 1:37
@Martha - same thing with CNC machines. But most of them nowadays has hard locks that prevent that sort of thing. So does decent controller software. – Rook Mar 1 '10 at 3:01
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Software cannot "break" hardware. It can significantly increase wear, by, for example, constantly writing to your hard drive, or running your CPU at maximum for long periods of time, which could eventually wear out your fans, but like Michael B said - the short answer is no. All a 32bit OS will do is not let you address more than 4GB of RAM, but that's all. Your hardware is in no danger.

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Software can break hardware. Drivers can accidentally overwrite firmware rendering certain devices useless. – user23307 Mar 1 '10 at 2:23
@justin - drivers and firmware are not the same thing. Not by far. Firmware can overwrite firmware, but that's a different matter. Also, it rarely happens by accident. – Rook Mar 1 '10 at 3:02
@justin; I disagree, the hardware isn't broken, just unusable until you reoverwrite the firmware. The actual hardware is not physically damaged – Phoshi Mar 1 '10 at 14:46

The short answer is NO.

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I've had this AMD 64 bit Sempron for 5 years and just installed a 64 bit OS for the first time two weeks ago.

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To answer your title question: Software can damage hardware, but it would require some very specialized knowledge about the hardware such that it is likely only to occur when intentionally done under laboratory conditions.

To answer your body question: An x64 processor (x86-64/AMD64/EM64T) is fully backwards compatible with the x86 software. 32-bit Windows 7 will work fine on an x64 processor. You'll just be unable to access memory > 4GB (actually something like 3.3 GB).

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