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May 25, 2020

Win10 2004 Ends 32-bit OEM Builds

Oho! Here’s an interesting information item, courtesy of the Windows 10 Minimum Hardware Requirements at Microsoft Docs. See Section 3.0 “Minimum hardware requirements for Windows 10 for desktop editions.” Note: this lengthy, detailed document shows its current publication date as 05/02/2017 as I write this article. However, it has surely been updated since then, because the relevant quote that confirms my title specifically mentions Windows 10 version 2004, aka 20H1 or the May 2020 Windows 10 Update (the bold emphasis that follows is mine, not Microsoft’s):

Beginning with Windows 10, version 2004, all new Windows 10 systems will be required to use 64-bit builds and Microsoft will no longer release 32-bit builds for OEM distribution. This does not impact 32-bit customer systems that are manufactured with earlier versions of Windows 10; Microsoft remains committed to providing feature and security updates on these devices, including continued 32-bit media availability in non-OEM channels to support various upgrade installation scenarios.

Let me translate what this means, in hopes of reassuring those who own 32-bit only Windows 10 systems. Microsoft will keep supporting such legacy hardware through “non-OEM channels” — which means regular updates via Windows Update and equivalent update downloads through the Microsoft Catalog. Thus, what MS is saying is aimed at those who build new Windows 10 systems. It tells them, in no uncertain terms: “Build no new 32-bit only Windows 10 hardware, because we won’t be furnishing you with operating systems to load on such machines.”

A Bit of 32-Bit History

The earliest days of personal computing made their debut on 8- and 16-bit processors. The Disk Operating System, aka DOS, that ran on many such systems was 16-bit. 32-bit support didn’t find its way into Windows until the Win32 API appeared in Windows NT 3.x in 1993-94. This was picked up in 1995 in Windows 95. But most, if not all, more modern PCs started sporting 64-bit CPUs in the early 2000s, and MS followed suit with a 64-bit version of Windows XP in April 2005. By the time Vista came out, 64-bit was more commonly used than its 32-bit counterpart. Since the late 2000s, the vast majority of PCs sold have included 64-bit CPUs. Since that time, pretty much the only systems with 32-bit processors have been low-end, low-budget laptops and tablets aimed at price points under US$300 (in today’s dollars). Thus Microsoft’s decision to desist providing OEMs with 32-bit releases comes as nothing of a surprise, especially to OEMs who have no doubt been aware of this coming change since 2018 or 2019.

Will This Impact Low-End Devices?

It does mean that no new devices will include 32-bit CPUs. But very few of them currently include such CPUs anyway. Even some 32-bit tablets currently available (for example, those built around Intel Atom CPUs) support 64-bit instruction sets, even though they accommodate a maximum of 2 GB of RAM (which is what makes 32-bit acceptable and sensible, it being limited to 4GB maximum addressable memory). My gut feel is that this change won’t impact the bottom end of the market much, though it may incline OEMs to bump storage and memory capacities to the normal “bare minimum” for 64-bit OSes — namely 4 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of internal storage. Such systems are readily available right now for under US$300 (or not much more than that amount).

So Long 32-Bit Architectures…

But it definitely is the beginning of the end for 32-bit Windows hardware. As the incredible thread at TenForums entitled “Let’s run Win10 on really really old hardware” proves, given sufficient time, effort, determination, and experimentation, enthusiasts can keep Windows 10 running on some pretty improbable hardware platforms. This simply means that as such machine age out of the “active, everyday use pool” they’ll be joining this pool instead — though in reduced numbers, I’d reckon. But is something of an end of an era, or at least the beginning of that end, so I’ll simply say “Sayonara to new 32-bit Windows platforms.” They may be missed, but probably not all that much — and certainly not by me, nor the vast majority of Win10.Guru readers, either!

[Note: Here’s a shout-out to Martin Brinkmann at Ghacks.net. His article Windows 10 version 2004: no 32-bit versions on new PCs anymore brought this change to my attention. Wieder nochmals vielen Dank!.

Author: Ed Tittel

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran. He’s a Princeton and multiple University of Texas graduate who’s worked in IT since 1981 when he started his first programming job. Over the past three decades he’s also worked as a manager, technical evangelist, consultant, trainer, and an expert witness. See his professional bio for all the details.

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