Differences between System32 and SysWOW64 in Windows 10/11

by Teodor Nechita
Teodor Nechita
Teodor Nechita
Software Managing Editor
Eager to help those in need, Teodor writes articles daily on subjects regarding Windows, Xbox, and all things tech-related. When not working, you may usually find him either... read more
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If you were ever curious and have browsed the content of your computer from time to time, you may have noticed something interesting.

Those of you that have a 64-bit version of Windows 10 installed have 2 folders labeled Programs, the only difference being that one is also noted with (x86) at the end.

Besides these 2 folders, 64-bit versions of Windows also come with two separate DLL library folders, known as System32 and SysWOW64.

Many of you may be curious as to what precisely is the purpose of these folders. That is precisely why we’ve created this article: to explain the difference between System32 and SysWOW64 folders in Windows 10.

System32 vs SysWOW64 in Windows 10

1. System32

System32 contains Windows system files, both .DLL library files used by programs and .EXE program utilities which are a part of Windows. Additionally, most of the files that are present here belong to the Operating System.

However, third-party applications can come with their own DLL files, and they can be stored here as well.

Finally, regardless of where you actually install a program, the system-wide libraries that they use ar regularly located in System32 and SysWOW64.

For fixes related to missing .DLL files, check out this in-depth guide

2. SysWOW64

The 64 in the name actually refers to the fact that it can also contain Microsoft’s Windows 32-bit on Windows 64-bit software, which is a part of the operating system.

This is what lets Windows to run 32-bit programs on a 64-bit version of Windows.WoW64 automatically redirects file access to ensure programs will work properly.

There are two possible scenarios when installing a program:

  1. If you install a 32-bit program on a 64-bit version of Windows and it tries to write to the C:\Program Files folder, WoW64 directs it to C:\Program Files(x86)
  2. If it wants to access the C:\Windows\System32 folder, WoW64 points it at C:\WindowsSysWOW64
    • Windows does this by itself using a file system redirector

3. System32 and SysWOW64

On a 32-bit computer, the data is stored as follows:

  • 32-bit programs store their files in C:\Program Files
    • The system-wide library location is C:\System32

On a 64-bit computer, the data is stored as follows:

  • 64-bit programs store their files in C:\Program Files
    • The system-wide C:\Windows\System32 folder contains 64-bit libraries
  • 32-bit programs store their files in C:\Program Files (x86)
    • The system-wide folder is C:\Windows\SysWOW64

Why are the names so confusing?

In the end, it seems that it all boils down to habits and hardcoding. 32-bit applications were hardcoded to use the C:\Windows\System32 directory.

When they were recompiled for 64-bit versions of Windows, developers continued to use the C:\Windows\System32 directory. As such, the library kept its name in order to avoid complete coding overhaul.

If you want more articles about the most commonly-asked questions,  let us know in the comments section below.


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