1 4 8 12 16 18 24 26 31 32 36 48 60 64 128 256 512
16 32 64
Floating point precision
×½ ×1 ×2 ×4
Floating point decimal precision
32 64 128

In computer architecture, 32-bit integers, memory addresses, or other data units are those that are at most 32 bits (4 octets) wide. Also, 32-bit CPU and ALU architectures are those that are based on registers, address buses, or data buses of that size. 32-bit is also a term given to a generation of microcomputers in which 32-bit microprocessors are the norm.

A 32-bit register can store 232 different values. The signed range of integer values that can be stored in 32 bits is -2,147,483,648 (-1 × 231) through 2,147,483,647 (231 - 1); the unsigned range is 0 through 4,294,967,295 (232 - 1). Since 232 is 4,294,967,296, a processor with 32-bit memory addresses can directly access 4 GiB of byte-addressable memory.


  • Some historical and technical perspective 1
  • Architectures 2
  • 32-bit application 3
  • Images 4
  • 32-bit file format 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Some historical and technical perspective

Memory as well as other digital electronic circuits and wiring was expensive during the first decades of 32-bit architectures (the 1960s to the 1980s). Older 32-bit processor families (or simpler and cheaper variants thereof) could therefore have many compromises and limitations in order to cut costs. This could be 16-bit ALU, for instance, or external (or internal) buses narrower than 32 bits, limiting memory size or demanding more cycles for instruction fetch, execution and/or write back.

Despite this, such processors could be labeled "32-bit" based on the fact that they still had 32-bit registers and instructions able to manipulate 32-bit quantities. As an example from the late 1970s, the original Motorola 68000 was a 16-bit based design with 32-bit registers and a 32-bit based instruction set. Such designs were sometimes referred to as "16/32-bit".

However, the opposite is often true for newer 32-bit designs. For example, the Pentium Pro processor is a 32-bit machine, but the external address bus is 36 bits wide, giving a larger address space than 4 GB, and the external data bus is 64 bits wide, primarily in order to permit a more efficient prefetch of instructions and data.[1]


Prominent 32-bit instruction set architectures used in general-purpose computing include the IBM System/360 and its 32-bit successors, the DEC VAX, the NS320xx, the Motorola 68000 family, the Intel IA-32 32-bit version of the x86 architecture, and the 32-bit versions of the ARM, SPARC, MIPS, PowerPC and PA-RISC architectures. 32-bit instruction set architectures used for embedded computing include the 68000 family and ColdFire, x86, ARM, MIPS, PowerPC, and Infineon TriCore architectures.

32-bit application

On the x86 architecture, a 32-bit application normally means software that typically (not necessarily) uses the 32-bit linear address space (or flat memory model) possible with the 80386 and later chips. In this context, the term came about because DOS, Microsoft Windows and OS/2[2] were originally written for the 8088/8086 and/or 80286, 16-bit microprocessors with a segmented address space where programs had to switch between segments to reach more than 64 kilobytes of code and/or data. As this is quite time-consuming in comparison to other machine operations, the performance may suffer. Furthermore, programming with segments tend to become complicated; special far and near keywords and/or memory models had to be used (with care), not only in assembly language but also in high level languages such as Pascal, compiled BASIC, Fortran, C, etc.

The 80386 and its successors fully support the 16-bit segments of the 80286 but also segments for 32-bit address offsets (using the new 32-bit width of the main registers). If the Operating systems like Windows or OS/2 provide the possibility to run 16-bit (segmented) programs as well as 32-bit programs. The former possibility exists for backward compatibility and the latter is usually meant to be used for new software development.


In digital images/pictures, 32-bit usually refers to RGBA color space -- 24-bit truecolor images with an 8-bit alpha channel—i.e., 8 bits each for red, green, blue, and transparency; a total of 32 bits per pixel. A few other much more rarely used images formats also require 32 bits per pixel, such as RGBE image format.

In digital images, 32-bit sometimes refers to high-dynamic-range imaging formats that use 32 bits per channel—a total of 96 bits per pixel. 32-bit per channel images are used to represent values brighter than white; these values can then be used to more accurately retain bright highlights when either lowering the exposure of the image or when it is seen through a dark filter or dull reflection.

An example of this is the reflection seen in an oil slick; even though the reflection is only a fraction of that seen in a mirror surface, the reflection of highlights can still be seen as bright white areas, not dull grey shapes.

32-bit file format

A 32-bit file format is a binary file format for which each elementary information is defined on 32 bits (or 4 Bytes). An example of such a format is the Enhanced Metafile Format.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ There were also variants of UNIX for the 80286.

This article is based on material taken from the Free On-line Dictionary of Computing prior to 1 November 2008 and incorporated under the "relicensing" terms of the GFDL, version 1.3 or later.

External links

  • HOW Stuff Works "How Bits and Bytes work"
  • 32-Bit Vs. 64-Bit WindowsKen Colburn on LockerGnome.com: