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I have a 32-bit laptop that I've had for like two years. I'm getting a new one now, and I'm now noticing that lots of laptops come with Windows 7 64-bit. I've always heard that it's harder to find certain software for 64-bit OS's than 32-bit. Is there any truth to that? Am I significantly limited as far as useable software on a 64-bit machine as opposed to a 32-bit machine?

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The 64-bit OS will the 32-bit with compatibility libraries. I think what you may have heard before is that it's hard to find actual 64-bit versions of most software yet (at least on Windows). – Keith Jun 2 '11 at 4:43
Oh, it does chew up some more memory when you mix 64-bit and 32-bit apps, since you will have two whole sets of libraries (DLLs) loaded. – Keith Jun 2 '11 at 4:45
Remember that, SuperUser's tagging system notwithstanding, there isn't just one "64-bit" in the world. What may have been said about the Itanium doesn't necessarily apply to x86-64 (and vice versa, of course). – JdeBP Jun 2 '11 at 10:08
The only thing you can't run is 16-bit apps, but it is exceedingly unlikely that you are still using any of them, and even then you could use an emulator like DosBox. – Callum Rogers Jun 2 '11 at 11:11
@JdeBP: I think the premise of a choice between 32-bit and 64-bit Windows excludes Itanium. – Ben Voigt Jun 2 '11 at 18:22
up vote 16 down vote accepted

Virtually all 32-bit software will run on a 64-bit computer: There are compatibility features built in, like the "\program files(x86) directory, and the WOW registry keys. There is still not a lot of native 64-bit applications, but even there, Office 2010 now comes in a 64-bit version (both on one DVD actually). The only thing you really have to worry about is device drivers, like for your printer, but nowadays, even those are not rare, so you probably only need to worry if your printer, scanner or other devices are pretty old. Just check the manufacturer's web site for drivers before you buy.

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My printer is actually pretty old. The Windows native drivers take care of them very easily. So I wouldn't even worry about that. I would only worry about drivers if you have a very old, unique peripheral for a special purpose. If that is the case, you would probably still be able to run it in Virtual XP mode though, I think. – Ben Richards Jun 2 '11 at 4:40
It is true that many older printers have had drivers added to Windows, but not all. It is still worth checking. – KCotreau Jun 2 '11 at 4:45
@sidran: Drivers are about the only thing that Virtual XP mode can't handle... drivers require direct hardware access, which virtualization interferes with. Or maybe you have a different working definition of driver than I do. – Ben Voigt Jun 2 '11 at 13:48
@Ben, you are likely correct. I have not used Virtual XP mode too greatly... now that I think about it, it would have to interface with a correctly installed driver on the host OS, right? Thanks for the correction. – Ben Richards Jun 2 '11 at 17:51
@sidran32: And even among drivers, there are some significant exceptions. USB drivers, for example, don't talk directly to hardware, they talk to the driver for the USB host controller. Some virtualization solutions (such as VMWare Workstation) forward USB requests to the host OS in a generic enough way to make USB drivers work in the client. Not sure about XP Mode handling of USB. And things like PCI devices definitely can't be accessed by a driver in the VM. – Ben Voigt Jun 2 '11 at 18:20

Absolutely not. You can run any 32 bit application just fine on 64 bit Windows. Windows XP 64 bit was a bit unstable but Windows has matured much since then. I would recommend 64 bit to anyone. It will work fine. Plus, on 32 bit systems you won't be able to use more than 3 GB of RAM. As most systems ship about 4 GB and over these days, I would say the reasons of getting 32 bit is a very short list.

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Correction: Any 32 bit application that runs correctly on 32-bit Windows will work just fine on 64 bit Windows. But there are a lot of poorly written 32 bit applications out there, which made assumptions about drive letters, or directory layout, or administrator rights -- those broke on a relatively small number of XP installs, and will be broken on most or all 64-bit installs. – Ben Voigt Jun 2 '11 at 13:50

Some laptops released as recently as three years ago do not provide drivers for 64 bit windows. You may be able to solve this by enumerating every bit of hardware not detected by windows in the machine and looking on the original manufacturer's website, but the bundled utilities are unlikely to function in 64 bit windows. Depending on how useful those utilities are, this may or may not be a problem.

If the support website for your laptop has 64 bit versions of the drivers and utilities, there's probably little reason not to move to 64 bit, particularly if you have more than 3GB of memory installed (32 bit windows may have trouble addressing all of this). If you want to run some very old (16 bit) windows programs, you may also hit trouble, but there's XP mode for this, and it's only likely to be a problem in corporate environments with very old legacy software.

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I would extend that to "depending on how useful the hardware is, this may or may not be a problem". Lack of a driver for a fax/modem, or an SD card reader, probably doesn't bother most users terribly. – Ben Voigt Jun 2 '11 at 13:52

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