What's the difference between 16-bit, 24-bit, and 32-bit color?

Updated: 11/13/2018 by Computer Hope

Nearly all computers and displays over the last five to ten years come standard with support for at least 16-bit color, with newer computers supporting 24-bit and 32-bit color. Is there a different between the different levels of color? The short answer is yes. All three color bit depths use red, blue and green as standard colors, but its the number of color combinations and alpha channel that makes the difference. Whether you are viewing pictures, watching a video, or playing a video game a higher color depth is more visually appealing.

16-bit color

With 16-bit color, also called High color, computers and monitors can display as many as 65,536 colors, which is adequate for most uses. However, graphic intensive video games and higher resolution video can benefit from and use the higher color depths.

24-bit color

Using 24-bit color, also called True color, computers and monitors can display as many as 16,777,216 different color combinations.

32-bit color

Like 24-bit color, 32-bit color supports 16,777,216 colors but has an alpha channel it can create more convincing gradients, shadows, and transparencies. With the alpha channel 32-bit color supports 4,294,967,296 color combinations.

As you increase the support for more colors, more memory is required. However, almost all computers today include video cards with enough memory to support 32-bit colors at most resolutions. Older computer and video cards may only be able to support up to 16-bit color.

Can my eyes tell a difference?

Most users cannot tell much of a difference between 16-bit and 32-bit. However, if you are using a program with gradients, shadows, transparency, or other visual effects that require multiple colors you may notice a difference.

What are the advantages of having a higher color depth?

With higher color depth, you get more visually appealing features like gradients and transparencies. Many people report the picture being brighter and being less strenuous on their eyes when running at a higher color depth.

What are the disadvantages of having a higher color depth?

With a higher color depth it requires more system resources that make the computer work more. If your computer is running low on memory, it may slow down the system. Also, with gaming a higher color depth may decrease your FPS (frames per second) depending on your video card and the game you are playing.