The x64 architecture is better than i386 in many regards but one surprise it reserved to programmers is that immediates remain 32 bits constants instead of being promoted to 64 bits like everything else. In case you do not know it already, an immediate is a constant in an instruction, for example, if you want to add N to the register rax, you would write addq $N, %rax. And in that case, we say that N is an immediate.

Because immediates are restricted to be only 32 bits long, it is impossible to add 233 to rax using one instruction only. One has to load the big constant in another register first (say rbx), and then perform the addition, like so: addq %rbx, %rax. This brings us to the following question, how does one load a constant into a 64 bits register? The answer to this is simple, if you do not care about the code size. But if you do, there are actually three different ways!

First, like most 64 bits instruction sets that allow operating 32 bits sub-registers, x64 zeroes the high bits of the larger parent 64 bits register for any 32 bits operation. (If you wonder why, lookup data-dependencies in computer architecture books.) So for instance, when the machine executes movl $42, %eax, the high bits of rax will be set to 0, and the full rax register will contain the value 42. This is our first way to load a value, it is also the cheapest way and uses 5 bytes only.

Because 32 bits operations are zero-extended, the previous technique is unsuitable to load a negative value into a 64 bits register. In that case we have to mention rax explicitely in the instruction: movq $-42, %rax. On x64, mentioning a full width register costs you two extra bytes (one of them is the REX prefix, required for all 64 bits instructions). So that gives us the second most economical load instruction, it uses 7 bytes.

Finally if the constant to load does not fit in 32 bits, one has to use the only x64 instruction with a 64 bits immediate. In AT&T syntax we write movabsq $4294967296, %rax. It really is a last-resort option because that instruction uses 10 bytes!

These three cases give us the following rules for compiling constant loads into rax on x64. (The same works for any other integer register.)

Isn't that crazy?