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What do I do if a program requires 16 bit color?

I’m downloading a game, and it’s failed to download because I have
24 bit color and it requires 16 bit color. Should I take the game back
or can i change it and is it wise to change it?

First, I’m certain that it downloaded just fine. A download won’t
fail simply because of your color settings.

What it probably did was fail to install, which is what
happens after the download completes.

There are a few different ways to handle this without resorting to
returning the game.


Let me start by explaining just what 16 bit versus 24 bit color means.

Your screen is made up of dots or “pixels”. If you have, for example, a 1024 by 768 screen, that means it’s 1024 pixels wide by 768 pixel’s high for a total of 786,432 pixels total.

Each pixel can be set to a different color. How many different colors are available for each pixel to be set to is a function of the screen and video adapter abilities. Very old monitors could handle just black or white – two colors, so the pixels would be assigned either a 0 or a 1 to be on or off. Next to come along in the PC world was 16 colors, or a number between 0 and 15. Then came 256 colors, 65,536 colors, and the currently popular 16,777,216 colors.

The “bits” we talk about are the number of bits required to represent those numbers:

“For most people the difference between 16 bit color and 24 bit is visually almost imperceptible.”
  • 1 bit color: 0 or 1, hence back and white.

  • 4 bit color: 0-15, or 16 colors.

  • 8 bit color: 0-255 or 256 colors.

  • 16 bit color: 0-65535, or 65,536 colors.

  • 24 bit color: 0-1677215 or 16,777,216 colors.

The “down side”, if you want to call it that, is that with increased color depth, as it’s called, comes increased memory requirements. With 1 bit color, that 1024×768 screen can theoretically be represented in just under 100 kilobytes. In 24 bit color that balloons to around 2.5 megabytes.

That impacts not just storage, but actual processing requirements as applications try to manipulate images on the screen.

Applications like games.

For most people, the difference between 16 bit color and 24 bit is visually almost imperceptible. Certainly for many types of games even if it were noticeable, it might be considered unimportant. Hence, designing a game to require 16 bit color instead of 24 bit color might well make that game easier to create and faster to play.

There are two viable solutions:

  • Change your system color depth to 16 bits. As I said it’s likely you won’t even notice the difference.

    In Windows XP, right click on the desktop and click on Properties, then the Settings tab. In the “Color quality” dropdown, select 16 bit and click OK. That’s all there is to it.

  • Adjust the shortcut that starts the program to automatically switch to 16 color mode. I’ve detailed how to do this in an earlier article: Why does my screen resolution change when I run this program?. In that article it was happening accidentally, but in this case you’ll alter the setting on purpose.

In either case, the color requirements of your game should no longer be an issue.


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5 comments on “What do I do if a program requires 16 bit color?”

  1. Hum… You said the difference between 16 and 24 bits is almost imperceptible so that it’s false, it’s very perceptible.

    That’s between 24 and 32 bits, that it’s imperceptible… Cuz 32 bits doesn’t have more things than 24 bits, only the Alpha (Transparency)

    This documentation isn’t impressive, anyone know that if you want to change the resolution or the color depth, you go in Control Panel, Display and finally “Configuration” tab… Not impressive!

  2. Umm, this didn’t help me. I was looking for how to have the color quality not go back to 24-bit, immediately after i clicked “OK”… do you have any advice on that?

  3. ok i installed windows xp pro on my computer and everything went fine all but my color scrambled. it stuck on 4 bit and wont let me change. What can i do?

  4. If you’re going to criticize his article (personally, it worked for me) then at the very least use capital letters correctly.


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