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How do I get 32-bit software to run on 64-bit Windows?


I just purchased a 64-bit PC with Windows 7 Premium. I realized before
getting this system that much of my 32-bit software would not work. I have
heard of downloadable and free programs that will enable a wider variety of
32-bit software to work on a 64-bit system. Can you make any suggestions where
to find such software?

Well, it’s one heck of a lot easier than I suspect you believe.

I’m running 64-bit Windows and can tell you first hand…

I think you’re starting with a very bad assumption.


It (Mostly) Just Works

In my experience, most 32-bit software “just works” in 64-bit Windows 7.

Yes, I did say “most”, so there are exceptions, but in my experience they’re actually not nearly as many as you might think.

I certainly would not get any “free downloadable programs” to somehow get 32-bit software to work, since as I said – most pretty much work already. I’d be very concerned that those downloads are something else – perhaps malware or perhaps trialware that leads you to eventually pay for software that you just don’t need.

“In my experience most 32-bit software ‘just works’ in 64-bit Windows 7.”

Windows on Windows (32!)

The processor – the actual CPU itself – actually has the ability to work in either 64-bit mode and 32-bit mode. In fact, believe it or not, for extreme backwards compatibility it also still handles 16-bit mode.

And it can switch between those modes “on the fly”.

64-bit Windows manages all this by transparently changing the mode as needed. In fact, there’s an interface layer called WOW32 – Windows on Windows – that provides a 32-bit interface to the 64-bit OS for 32-bit applications and handles that translation between 32 and 64 bits. (Once upon a time there was also a WOW16.) Since the Windows itself is 64 bits, that translation needs to happen as activities are handled and passed off between the 64-bit operating system and the 32-bit applications. (64-bit native applications don’t need this translation layer. It’s not an obvious performance win, though, for reasons beyond the scope of this discussion.)

One thing that this means is that the vast majority of software out there is still 32-bit software, including some of the software that comes with 64-bit Windows itself. Aside from drivers and such, which I’ll talk about in a moment, there’s not really been a pressing need to convert most applications to 64-bit – unless they were bumping up to some limitation like RAM access that a 64-bit conversion would benefit, or compatibility with some other software that has been converted.

The result? Pretty much everything I had running on my 32-bit Windows XP machine is now running seamlessly on my 64-bit Windows 7 machine without any additional effort. Case in point: I’m typing this article in a 32-bit application (Topstyle) on my laptop running 64-bit Windows 7 – there were no steps I needed to take to make that work, and certainly no software to download.

In fact, after a few additional installs and upgrades I’d be hard pressed to tell you which are 32-bit and which are 64-bit applications without firing up a utility of some sort to examine them and tell me. They all just work and that’s what matters.

64-bit Exceptions

There are some exceptions, of course – the most obvious being device drivers.

The 64-bit operating system itself is … well … 64-bits. Device drivers are part of the operating system and thus need (*) to be converted to 64-bits. That’s part of why 64-bit OS’s took a while even though the processors were ready and deployed and why some hardware drivers still aren’t available for 64-bit OS’s and may never be.

(*) There may be hacks for some types of drivers that might side step this requirement, but in general drivers need to be 64-bit native in 64-bit OS’s.

Other exceptions typically boil down to updates of existing applications. For example, Windows 7 comes with both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Internet Explorer. I recently updated to a 64-bit version of Adobe PhotoShop so that it could better take advantage of the available memory on my machine when processing large images.

But these are updates to existing versions. In many – if not most – cases, the prior 32-bit version would also work acceptably well.

In fact, specifically in Internet Explorer’s case, the 32-bit version is perhaps the preferred of the two simply because 64-bit support is not yet available for many popular plugins.

And of course there are applications that, by design or by accident, simply make assumptions of one sort or another that are valid in Windows 32-bit but are not in Windows 64-bit, even when running in WOW32. Those are few and far between, in my experience, and probably warrant an upgrade of the application rather than some “free download”.

When All Else Fails

Microsoft did something very interesting with Windows 7 versions “Pro” and better; if your hardware supports it you can get Windows XP “mode” as a free download. XP Mode is a copy of Windows XP that you run within a window inside of Windows 7. Within that copy of Windows XP you can run whatever it was that used to work in Windows XP but for whatever reason fails to run in Windows 7. It’s not completely seamless, but it is a solution for many situations where software updates are simply no longer an option.

That’s the only “free download” I’d even consider.

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26 comments on “How do I get 32-bit software to run on 64-bit Windows?”

  1. Is this also the case when trying to run 32-bit ‘earlier’ software on Vista 64?
    Some of the programs I own simply do not run once installed, or even balk at the install phase “This program only runs under ME / 2000 / XP Operating Systems”

    It’s not about “earlier” at all. Some 32 bit software – perhaps correctly, perhaps erroneously – checks for or does things that make it not work on Win 64. I’d check first wit the vendor of the software.


  2. I recently could not get Ulead Photoimpact to run properly on Win 7, 64 bit. I went to Windows 7 Compatability Center website
    and put in the software name. It showed that this would NOT work; however, gave me the version that did work on Vista. I purchased the recommended version, Corel Photoimpact X3, installed, and I couldn’t be happier. This website also shows hardware that is/in not compatible. Very simple.

  3. I’ve been using 64 bit Windows 7 for several weeks now and, as Leo said, Windows has handled the vast majority of my older 32 bit software just fine. Sometimes I install a program and a popup appears saying “this programme may not have installed properly” and giving me an option to reinstall with recommended settings, I always do this and have had no problems. The only major issue I had was with Wild Tangent games manager, my games wouldn’t finalize installation but, with help from their support team, I finally got it to work. Try right clicking on an application shortcut and selecting “Run as Administrator” for any software that is problematic, I’ve solved a couple of issues like this as well. I heard so many scare stories about 64 bit Windows and old software but I am very happy with mine and I’d say its essential for future-proofing a new PC at least as far as possible.

  4. Sorry, but….
    Veering ever-so-slightly off-topic, why do my old DOS programs no longer work in a DOS window ?

    I get this message:-
    16 bit MS-DOS Subsystem
    Command Prompt – [prog name]
    VDD. An installable Virtual Device Driver failed DLL initialization. Chooes ‘Close’ to terminate the application.
    [Close] [Ignore]

    If I click ‘Ignore’ the program runs – but that’s not a lot of use when that program is called by a batch file, etc…

    (REAL programmers use
    C:/ copy con


  5. Reply to Robin Clay:
    I’ve had that exact message, way back in XP. It had to do with a leftover from my Anti-Virus that was doing the ‘active protection’ bit on my e-mail program. I’d guess you’ve got a new AV program or version and a piece of the old one is getting in the way.

    Not a Win64 problem, I think. Try the support forums for your anti-virus program(s) or email.

  6. What Leo said about 64 bit windows 7 running 32 bit software is correct. However, I have been stumped by trying to install an old game from the original CD. I get an error message that says the program is incompatible. The best I can figure out is that the installer is 16 bit. Does anybody have a work around for that?

  7. Along the same lines (I think) I have a small company where I set up a filing system under Access 97 on a server and am running PCs on Windows 98. I’m preparing to buy a new PC with buku memory and windows 7. Should I anticipate having to buy a new Access program or will my PC still pick up from the old server? How about if I try to download the old access system into the new PC and go with 1 computer only?

  8. But Window Professional costs a pretty penny. And so far with Windows Home Premium, I have not found any way to download Adobe Flash Player.

  9. The only problem I had when I changed was with printer driver and scanner driver from Canon. Both devices were said to be compatible on the win64 page but neither worked. Canon where less than helpful other than to say they will advise when drivers updated. Over a year later still waiting for the update. Needless to say another company had my business for a new printer/scanner. Most other devices worked perfectly.

  10. I have XP-Pro 64-bit, which I am afraid will be an orphan. I think XP is approximately 50% bloat and Windows7 probably is 90% bloat. I have used DOS-Box for 16-bit scripts. Works very well for that if you go through the hoops. I haven’t tried anything with a GUI.

    If you have 16-bit apps that are irreplaceable, Virtual PC (I use the one from M$) is the way to go. It is free but (another) XP-Pro OS (32-bit for the VM) is not. I have found it to be surprisingly stable and it has other advantages. Doesn’t read thumb drives, though. And I don’t know how to set up a shared folder. Still, the “Real” PC should only be something to load “virtuals”.

    Some utility programs that start from a right-click menu will not appear there in a 64-bit OS. They will appear in the 32-bit version of Explorer, which is included with the XP-Pro 64-bit OS (How did that slip by marketing?) I have a shortcut to that on the desktop to use if I foresee the need. I’ve been shutting down 64-bit explorer windows before I open a 32-bit window. I don’t know that that is necessary.
    Epson scanner works great if it is installed to a new OS before almost anything else.

  11. One comment about Windows XP mode: it will only work if you have 1) Win 7 Pro or Ultimate versions and 2) CPU that supports hardware virtualization. Also, you’ll need to treat your XP virtual machine just like an independent regular machine– antivirus, updates, backups, etc. That said, I use it myself for some wheezing-geezer custom software that I still need at work, and it’s been a good solution for me.

  12. I use Windows 7Pro 64 bit. Most of the software i use for graghics and editing works great. All of my devices worked except Epson Perfection 1650 scanner and my web camera. I would like to get the scanner to work in here if possible. Epsons solution was to buy Hamrick Software. I tried the software but i do not like the way it scans. I use a small program shareware i bought by Graphic Corp., that i used in Windows 97, that I got to work in here. I tried the Virtual XP Mode too, but still could not get the scanner to work. Windows has a lot of Epsons drives for scanners in here, but not the one i need. I did purchase an Epson V30 scanner to work in here to scan the things i need, but i am not happy with the way it scans. I would prefer my old scanner instead.

  13. I am trying to get AutoDesk Land Desktop 2007 to work on a Windows XP 64 bit machine. It runs as a trial version but won’t run when trying to connect it to a license on a server. I get llicense error.

    We have to use this verison of the program for a particular project so I have to get it running for him or try to find a new machine with Windows XP 32 bit, which is not easy. I am down to 15 days on the trial so I need a solution before that happens.

  14. Resp sir,
    i am having windows 7 64 bit os and i want to learn programming language when i started operating c++ it say that it is not compatible and must run 32 bit. pls need a help from you sir.i had even try dos box but of no use.

  15. I have 64 bit window 7 os but i am not able to install my vpn client because while installation of this vpn one message is occure that is it not supported 64 bit.
    kindly give me the solution for same.

  16. We’ve had quite a dilemma brewing at my company regarding Windows 7 Pro. Our custom program that we use for taking orders, shipping and invoicing was written in 1999 in FoxPro 6.0. We still use it and have been looking for other software that has the same capabilities without implementing a full-blown ERP system. However, most workstations are on XP Pro, with 2 workstations on Windows 7 Pro 64-bit. The program does work on the newer workstations, but is incredibly slow, so much so that we can’t use it for invoicing. The original programmer says it is not the program, it is the environment. Our off-site tech people think it’s the program, but that just might be because they haven’t been able to solve the problem.

    So, it has been a major issue with our company and it really putting us in a pickle due to aging workstations and the need to get a different software package that can handle our requirements. Our techs already disregarded the 64-bit vs 32-bit because the program is slow on the Windows 7 32-bit OS also. Hate to think we will have to switch to something that isn’t what we need just because we can’t find a solution to our problem. And so it goes…

  17. Your article on running 32 bit programs on 64 bit Windows provided an excellent and simple solution. Does this same approach also apply to 16 bit DOS programs that functioned fine on the Windows XP command prompt?

    Kind of, but with less certainty. DOS is a different enough beast that I believe fewer old DOS programs will just work in Windows.

  18. Regarding DOS programs in 64-bit environments: I am able to run Lotus Agenda (1992 DOS program) in DOSbox 0.74 running on a 64-bit Windows 7 computer. Lotus Agenda works easily and well within the DOSbox window. However, I am unable to mark, copy, or paste from or into that DOSbox. I guess this is because the DOSbox program is unable to use the Windows clipboard. This is a severe limitation for me. Does anyone know if Windows XP mode of Windows 7 Professional version (or any other solution) will allow copying and pasting from the DOS window? This was definitely possible with 32-bit Windows Vista and prior versions of Windows. A solution to my question might help others on this string as well. Thanks very much. -dar

  19. Re 32 bit prog on 64 bit Win 7 OS.
    I have the opposite problem trying to run 64 bit on win 7 32 bit OS!
    I have a new ECG monitor with this problem. It 1/2 works! Any other ideas Leo please?

    You cannot run 64 bit software on a 32 bit operating system. The obvious solution is to upgrade to a 64 bit operating system. It’s also possible that some virtual machine technologies will allow you to run a 64 bit operating system as a virtual machine in a 32 bit operating system as long as you have a 64 bit CPU. I know Parallels Workstation can do this, not sure about others.

  20. @Mal
    The only solution to running a 64 bit device, would be to upgrade to Win 7-64 bit. This would only be possible if your processor is 64 bit. Otherwise you would have to find a 32 bit driver for your ECG monitor, providing such a driver exists.

  21. Your comments are a bit misleading: ” if your hardware supports it you can get Windows XP “mode” as a free download. XP Mode is a copy of Windows XP that you run within a window inside of Windows 7. Within that copy of Windows XP you can run whatever it was that used to work in Windows XP but for whatever reason fails to run in Windows 7. It’s not completely seamless, but it is a solution for many situations where software updates are simply no longer an option. That’s the only “free download” I’d even consider.”

    If your computer is using the home premium Windows 7, many 32 bit programs will not run unless you upgrade to Windows 7 Pro or better. These upgrades are anything but “free”. I’ve been trying to load my Autocad Lite 98 to my new laptop with Windows 7 Home premium, but so far no luck without upgrading to a higher version of Windows 7. Any ideas on how I can accomplish this without resorting to a Windows upgrade. Thanks

  22. I have a program that I use as a teacher that only runs on 32-bit. (I found it out when I bought an ultrabook that won’t run the program.) I contacted the software company, and they said to contact Microsoft; I contacted Microsoft and never heard from them. I didn’t completely follow your explanation of 32 vs 64-bit systems, but I now need a new laptop for work (my old Inspiron laptop which runs the software is getting creaky) and would consider buying a system that will run the software because I use it often, and no other publisher provides something similar. What’s your advice?

    You may not need a new computer – you may simply need to install the 32bit version of Windows. I’d consider instead looking into VM technology and perhaps keeping your 64 bit Windows, and running a 32 bit copy of Windows in a VM. Virtual Machines – What Are They?

  23. People say it’s easy to run older software programs on a 64-bit computer, but I have found it impossible. None of my older software CDs play on my 64-bit computer, and I have even tried, as many have suggested, running my machine in a 32-bit mode. Doesn’t work.


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