Difference between Program Files and Program Files (x86)

If you’re using a Microsoft Windows operating system, then most likely you’ve come across the program files and program files (x86) folders on your hard drive. While they both seem to serve the same purpose, there is a slight difference, and that creates the question ‘Why?’


Program Files vs Program Files (x86)
A software identified as 32-bit, and so Program Files (x86) was automated to be its default directory for installation

Program Files

The ‘Program Files’ is the default name of a folder in a Microsoft Windows operating system. It is where applications that aren’t part of the system files (operating system applications and drivers) are usually installed. Most of the applications installed under the ‘Program Files’ automatically create a subdirectory (subfolder) for its application-specific resources. An accurate example would be ‘C:\Program Files\Adobe\’, the folder ‘Adobe’ here, is the said subdirectory created.

In a standard form of installation in Windows, the directory is typically at %SystemDrive%\Program Files. The %SystemDrive% will reflect on which drive your operating system was installed, on (C:\, D:\, or E:\). Either you are using a 32-bit or a 64-bit Windows operating system, but the default name always will be ‘Program Files’. However, if you are using the 64-bit version, there’s an additional folder named ‘Program Files (x86), and this can be confusing. It is somewhat similar to your ‘Program Files’, but it contains installed applications with a different instruction set, the 32-bit.

Program Files x86

As with the ‘Program Files’, the ‘Program Files (x86) is the default name of a folder in a Microsoft Windows operating system, where applications are usually installed. Only with ‘Program Files (x86)’, the folder name is only created when running on a 64-bit operating system. This means it does not, or should not exist when running a 32-bit operating system. This is because the ‘Program Files (x86)’ was created to simply provide you the location of your 32-bit software on your 64-bit operating system. One other folder, the ‘Program Files’ also exists, although it serves a different purpose, and that’s providing a location for your 64-bit software. To simplify, the ‘Program Files (x86) only exists on a 64-bit Windows operating system to separate the different architecture types of your installed applications.

Now here’s what you should know: while most Windows users think that the ‘Program Files (x86)’ exists to easily identify which ones are 32-bit and 64-bit applications, it exists for a much bigger reason. With the way Windows manages their Dynamic Linked Libraries (the popular error-popping *DLL files), the separate ‘Program Files’ folders make it easy for redirecting requests from 32-bit applications to 32-bit DLLs. This is to ensure that 64-bit applications won’t be confused for 32-bit DLLs and dish out errors. To simplify, the 64-bit Windows operating systems create the ‘Program Files (x86)’ to maintain Backwards Compatibility (64-bit OS can still run 32-bit applications smoothly).

Note: The ‘x86’ originated from the Intel 8086. It was used to help identify the Intel platform process computers that are 32-bit.

Program Files vs Program Files (x86)

What’s the difference between Program Files and Program Files (x86)? The answer lies on the computer architecture of your Windows operating system.

Currently, most operating systems run on 32-bit and 64-bit versions. You have probably already heard about this, but when running on a 32-bit operating system, the applications can only use so much RAM at a maximum of 4GB. 64-bit operating systems, on the other hand, can use so much more, theoretically 16 EB (16.8 million TB) of RAM. This means that at 64-bit, your system can utilize a much bigger RAM and thus can operate faster than with 32-bits.

In relation to the ‘Program Files’ and ‘Program Files (x86), the backwards compatibility is triggered. While 64-bit is the preferred architecture nowadays, developers and programmers can’t just eliminate the many 32-bit applications that are still viable, and so ‘Program Files (x86)’ was created. As mentioned earlier, its purpose is for Windows to easily redirect requests of applications to their correct DLLs.

To summarize, ‘Program Files’ are directories created by both 32-bit and 64-bit Windows operating systems, for applications with a synonymous architecture set. ‘Program Files (x86) on the other hand, exists only on the 64-bit Windows operating system, and contains 32-bit applications.

Comparison Chart

Program Files Program Files (x86)
Exists on 32-bit and 64-bit Windows operating systems Exists only on 64-bit Windows operating system
Contains applications that are of the same architecture as their operating system. (i.e. 32-bit software on 32-bit operating system) Contains 32-bit applications on a 64-bit windows operating system
Created to provide a directory for software and easy access for the Windows system Created to provide a directory for 32-bit software and maintain backwards compatibility