Most of us have probably heard the terms 32-bit and 64-bit when it comes to desktop computers or operating systems, but unless you’re a computer programmer, you’ve probably never had to worry about what that actually means. Almost all new computers use 64-bit operating systems, but until now, all smartphones were 32-bit.

Apple’s recent iPhones (5s) use a 64-bit operating system and that has made lots of headlines, but does it really make that big of a difference? And what does it even mean?

The 64 bit iPhone 5s Should You Upgrade Just for the 64 bit

iPhone 5s’s 64-bit Chip: How Advantageous Is That?

Computers and Memory Addresses

If you’ve had to learn the difference between 32-bit and 64-bit for a recent computer purchase, then you probably learned that 32-bit operating systems are limited to 4 GB of RAM, while 64-bit operating systems can use more. Most computers now have at least 4 GB of RAM, and they use 64-bit operating systems in case you ever want to upgrade. If you’re like most consumers, however, you’ve probably never thought about how much RAM your phone has. You might have compared screen size, battery life, and maybe even processors, but RAM wasn’t something that many smartphone manufacturers advertised vigorously until recently.

So how much RAM does the iPhone have? Both the iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C have 1 GB of RAM, double the 512 MB of the iPhone 4S. However, that’s still much less than the 4 GB limit of a 32-bit operating system. Unlike a commuter, you can’t upgrade the RAM in a phone. So, in some respects, a 64-bit operating system is an overkill for a smartphone. So, why did Apple make the upgrade? It certainly sounds nice in the specs. Obviously you want the iPhone with double the bits, even if you don’t understand what that means. More is better, or so we think.

64-bit: Looking to the Future

Really, the switch to 64-bit is about the future. Eventually, phones will be powerful enough that they need more RAM. And if we wait until that moment to switch, developers will have to re-create their apps for the newer operating system. By making the switch now, developers have more time to upgrade their apps.

The time when smartphones will have enough memory to justify a 64-bit operating system isn’t that far out, either. The Samsung Galaxy Note leads mobile devices in RAM, with 3 gigabytes of RAM. Since Apple has announced their 64-bit OS, other phone manufactures have rushed to announce their time-lines for creating 64-bit OSs and hardware. Apple’s announcement paved the way for more powerful, faster phones in the future.

iPhone 5s: Is it Worth Upgrading?

You’ve probably been enticed by Apple’s claim that the new A7 processor is twice as fast. It’s important to recognize that the new processor is, in fact, faster than the old one – just not because of the 64-bit operating system. In fact, because a 64-bit operating system uses twice as many bits to refer to memory addresses, it can be slower for some operations. So Apple’s new chip is faster because of other design changes, not the new operating system.

There are lots of reasons to upgrade to a new iPhone, like the fingerprint sensor in the iPhone 5S. Having a 64-bit operating system is a great step forward that will allow technology to advance in the future. However, the 64-bit memory alone doesn’t make a noticeable difference in the performance of the iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C.