I got a great question last week. Is a 4GB 32-bit computer OK for simple tasks like web browsing and word processing today? Or are 32-bit computers obsolete? The answer, of course, is that it depends.

A 32-bit computer with 4 GB of RAM can handle simple computing tasks, but at the cost of speed. If you’re willing to not multitask a lot, you may be able to get by with a 32-bit machine.

Memory isn’t the only factor

Is a 4GB 32-bit computer OK for web browsing and word processing?

A computer this old won’t be good for much anymore, but a slightly newer 4GB 32-bit computer can still do light web browsing and word processing.

First things first: With an older computer, memory isn’t the only factor. If you have a slow CPU and a slow hard drive, the system will crawl, regardless. My 1.6 GHz 2-core laptop feels sluggish these days running 32-bit Windows 10. If you have a CPU that’s a little faster and newer than mine, it will be better.

Putting an SSD in the system also helps. The system is going to page to disk some, and if you have an SSD, that disk access becomes a lot more tolerable. People used to laugh at this advice, but you can get a 256 GB SSD for $30 now. That’s not a significant amount of money to increase the useful life of an aging PC, and if you ever decide to upgrade, you can reuse the SSD in the new system.

It also helps to disable Cortana and do some other basic Windows 10 speed tricks.

When 4 GB isn’t 4 GB

One problem with 32-bit computing is that you don’t actually get the full 4 GB of RAM. The system reserves some of that last gig of address space for its own use, so that RAM ends up hidden. You might get as much as 3.8 GB if you’re lucky, or if you’re not so lucky, you might get as little as 3.2 GB of RAM.

To actually get a full 4 GB of RAM on a 4 GB system, you have to run a 64-bit OS. Cheap RAM did a lot to force the adoption of 64-bit Windows, because computer makers didn’t want to ship systems with 4 GB of RAM and 32-bit Windows and then field phone calls asking why they couldn’t use the memory they paid for.

Is a 4GB 32-bit computer OK for web browsing?

I remember when web browsing was considered a simple task. Not so much anymore, with ever richer apps running in the browser. When I open a browser on my 32-bit Windows 10 laptop and open a couple of tabs, it’s not long before the browser is chewing up anywhere from 256-512 MB of memory.

If you’re like me and keep a lot of browser tabs open, you’ll run up against the limits of only having 4 GB of RAM very quickly. If you visit one or two web sites at a time and then close your browser when you’re done, you might be OK with it. You just have to know the computer’s limits and live within them.

Is a 4GB 32-bit computer OK for word processing?

Believe it or not, word processing is usually a lighter duty task than web browsing these days. If you create huge documents with super high-resolution graphics embedded in them then yes, you can run up against the limits of that 4 GB system. But most of us don’t create 800-page monstrosities with ridiculously high-res graphics in them. I could probably still write 200 pages on a 32-bit machine if I had to, especially if I sized the images rather than just dropping them in full-size and resizing them in the word processor.

Realistically, most people don’t even do that. For writing letters and other relatively short documents, a 32-bit machine is fine. You probably don’t even need 4 GB of RAM for that. But if you intend to run your word processor and your browser at the same time, you’ll be happier if you do.