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So just what is the I386 directory anyway?

Question: I’ve seen you talk a lot about the I386 directory, particularly for folks that don’t have an installation CD for their system. But I’m still confused … not every machine has this I386 directory, or if they do, it doesn’t seem to have what you say it does. What is it, really? Should I have it? What if I don’t? Do I want it?

Whoa … seems my answers around the I386 direectory have been generating lots of additional questions as well. Let’s see if we can clarify they “I386 mystery”.

Let me start by answering a question you didn’t ask, because it’s related, incredibly important, and the reason that I386 appears in so many of my answers: In my opinion, you should never purchase a pre-installed operating system without also getting the CD-ROM of the operating system that came pre-installed.


Clear enough? Now, let me tell you why I feel so strongly, and how it relates to I386.

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If your machine has a “C:\I386” directory that contains several thousand files, and that directory takes up over 600 megabytes of disk space then that is the directory I’m talking about. It is most likely a copy of the Windows XP Installation CD-ROM, or the I386 directory that is on that CD-ROM. If you find an I386 directory elsewhere … say as a subdirectory buried somewhere else on your system, then that is not what I’m discussing here.

Note that I said it’s just a copy of the installation CD-ROM. It’s not created or installed automatically, it’s a copy of the original installation CD-ROM made by whomever set up your machine, usually for two reasons:

  • They didn’t give you an actual Windows XP Installation CD-ROM, so give you the copy on the hard disk only instead
  • It’s a shortcut to make it easier, later, if Windows asks for the installation CD-ROM

Those two are related.

As an example, when you add hardware to Windows – say you add a new printer – Windows needs to get the appropriate files to support that new device. Since it wasn’t connected to your computer when you set up Windows, those files were not installed then; they need to be added now. Where do they come from? The Windows Installation CD-ROM.

But what if you didn’t get a CD-ROM when you purchased your computer? By having a copy of an installation CD-ROM in the C:\I386 directory, when Windows asks for the original CD, you can tell it to look there instead. So even though the manufacturer didn’t give you a physical CD-ROM, everything you need is already on your hard disk, right there in C:\I386. When Windows needs something from the original install CD, it can locate it there instead.

Can you see the flaw in this setup?

What happens if your hard disk crashes? What happens if you need to reformat your hard disk? Everything is erased – including C:\I386. If you don’t have an actual, physical, CD-ROM to reinstall from, you’re screwed – to put it mildly.

The second reason for C:\I386 existing is simple convenience. Even if you have the CD-ROM, as you should, it’s often more convenient to keep a copy on your hard drive. That way, instead of reaching for the CD-ROM each time Windows needs something, you can just tell Windows to pick it up from C:\I386, already on your hard disk. In fact, it’s such a convenience, and disk space is so plentiful these days that copying the Windows XP CD-ROM to my hard disk is often one of the first steps I take when I’m about to set up a new machine.

So what does all this mean? Well, remember that C:\I386 is just a copy of a Windows Installation CD-ROM. Hence:

  • You may not have C:\I386 on your machine. It’s certainly not required. Hopefully you’ll have a Windows CD-ROM, should you need it.
  • You may have C:\I386, but no Windows CD-ROM. I encourage you to a) backup the C:\I386 directory you do have, and b) if you can, pester your computer manufacturer for a physical CD-ROM.
  • You may have both.

C:\I386 is not required for Windows to function. You can certainly copy it elsewhere, perhaps to a different drive, or back it up to CD-ROM or DVD. (Even though it’s a copy of a CD-ROM, some manufacturer’s appear to add to it, so that the actual C:\I386 will no longer actually fit on a single CD-ROM).

But it is convenient.

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48 comments on “So just what is the I386 directory anyway?”

  1. Hi leo

    I can’t seem to get your search engine to work. I was looking for the free office programme. I have seen it on your site but I don’t know how to find it again.


    Ron Barker

  2. Thans Leo, I’m learning again.
    Oeps, now there is commming up a question from me for you to.
    I love to work with servers and server 2003, do you know where i can vind a simple explenation how to set up an active directory from zero step by step (dhcp, dns and so on), with a commentation about why i have to make a step and what it does?
    When i’m searching the website of microsoft everything is there but all in small peaces, and for me in a not logical way, it’s like having 3 puzzles but don’t wich peace belongs where, when i could make a good start simply explained i could help myself the rest of the lurning process because i am a kwik learner.
    I have server 2003 standard installed and now working with a workgroup well, but i want to learn more more more.
    Can you help me?
    Thanks and best greeting from belgium.

  3. Could you please tell me why when I turn on my computer the system 32 box keeps coming up? Is that a problem or more of an inconvience. It just started doing it about 2 weeks ago.
    Thank you for any input you may have. I am not computer sauvy.

  4. I have purchased a dell Inspiron 9300. I am getting NO HELP FROM THEM WHATSOEVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!I NEED TO INSTALL WINDOWS XP AND I AM GETTING THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE:
    File \i386\ntkrnlmp.exe could not be found. The error code is 7. Setup cannot continue. Press any key to exit.

    I have the installation CD from Dell for Windows XP that they mailed to me. I have tried to use other Windows XP discs, Pro and Home and still get the error message. HELP!

  5. i am a comp-pro, been running repairs upgrades for a time but this errror is quite unique and i need help,when i tried to upgrdade a mate`s pc from win98 to xp it says setup cannot copyi386\mfc42.dll to c:i tried cleaning he disk its fine,even tried it on another machine was good, i manually copied the cd to a folder, tried installing from the drive still it says setup cant copy the file , i cant suspect the cd nor the rom can i , i need help sir
    yours looking forward

  6. Question. Can I delete old files from the i386 directory? And if so, how do I know what files to delete???? I know I have many many unnecessary files saved onto my computer…virus scan tells me over 160,000!! I still have a lot of free space on my c-drive but the computer runs much slower than it did when I bought it and seems to be “dragged down” and heavy. Thanks!! Carol

  7. Leo,
    I am rebuilding a laptop for my daughter. When Windows98 was the recent operating system I used to build systems by copying the 98 installation cd to C:\windows\options\cabs directory so when the the system needed a file it went directly to the installation source, I used to do this with NT40 also, but am having difficulty doing it with XP pro. The reasoning is when she is away at school if the system needs a file it goes directly to the source of the installation. So can you suggest anything?

  8. I often do exactly what you describe. If you copy, and then install from that copy, rather than from the CD, things often just work from then on. If you install from CD, and then copy the CD to the hard drive, the first time it asks for the CD, you can ok or cancel (I forget which), and it will then prompt for the location of the file. Point it at the directory thta you copied the CD to, and it should remember that thereafter.

  9. Hi Leo

    I’ve been trying for a week now to install windows xp pro on my old pc. I originally had xp on it. I decided to back up my files and format, to reinstall. I’m using the original cd and cd key but i’m getting the following error: “An error occurred copying file cdrom.sys to C:\$WIN_NT$.~BT\cdrom.sy_.

    Incorrect function”

    Then there were three options to skip file copy, retry or to exit setup.

    I also had a problem in the beginning saying NTLDR is missing. So i installed Windows 2000 Professional. There was also another error much earlier in the boot sequence saying:
    “File \i386\biosinfo.inf could not be loaded.
    The error code is 32768″

    I would gladly appreciate your help

    Port ELizabeth
    South Africa

  10. Leo: eMachines seemed to conviently ignore every request I made for a CD of my XP Home that they installed on my machine at the factory. Ya. NO CD.
    I was able to find C:/I386 and copied it to a CD. Thank you for the information about I386.
    Now my question. Can I386 be used to create a “Slipstream” DVD which also includes SP2?
    If so, how would one turn this into a boot disc?
    Or, am I way out there in the Ozone somewhere even thinking this is possible?
    Thank you for your time Leo

  11. Hi Leo,

    I am trying to load Windows XP on a formatted hard disk which originally had Windows 98. Each time i am getting the same error “File \i386\biosinfo.inf could not be loaded.
    The error code is 32768″
    Kindly let me know the reason.

  12. Hi, I have a copy of Windows Media Center on my second hard drive and I’m not sure how to install it properly on drive c. It’s in a folder that says i386 and in that folder its in a rar file that says MEDIACTR so I was hoping that you could instruct me on what to do. Thank You!

  13. 600MB of wasted hard disk space for pure convenience? You might as well copy absolutely all the CDs you have into .iso files on your hard disk and use a program like Alcohol 120% or Daemon tools, right? And it’s not like the Windows XP install CD is something people will need very often, at least compared to games they play a lot or something like that.

  14. Hey Leo, i386 takes up nearly 1gb on my hard drive! Could I copy it to a CD then delete it from my computer?


  15. If you don’t have a physical installation media, and you lose your Windows install then take heart … you’re in luck! You can download Ubuntu or any other user-friendly O/S and say goodbye to Windows once and for all. Unless you use Windows for gaming you’ll find the Linux alternative to be more performant, stable and best of all, free of charge.

    PS, thanks for letting me know what i386 is all about Leo!

  16. hi can i clean the i386 folder and what will happen if its full .will it slow my pc down or will it still function normal if i delete the files in it

  17. Just a comment – I have just been reinstalling from my MDG XP discs and the thing glitched when seeking i386 files (iExplore actually) saying it wasn’t there. In fact it was but, after a lot of confusion, time and tentative fiddling, is on Disc 1 (no change prompts were received after the previous ‘change to disc 2’ instruction).

    Now the cynical among us might think MDG had done this deliberately to confuse the not very experienced and somewhat faint hearted system re-installers among us, thus prompting a service call! Surely not ?


  18. Hi leo, thanks for providing such a great information about i386, actually i got a live CD of UBUNTO Linux but when i tried to boot from it , a message appeared saying that c:\i386 folder doesn’t exist, hope ur suggestion will work.
    hey man i too want to know about OS architecture(WIN XP) plz send me related comments on my email ID: [Email Address Removed]

  19. i m running a windows xp home edition. And i have c:\i386 in hard drive and i have only one partition in my hardisk that is C:
    Can anyone tell me that how can i create a CD from “CD image” or from c:\i386

  20. i have a i386 folder in a folder named “2aee58f7c2420a9ea05d75” on a hard drive enclosure, if its a back up of the windows cd why would it come on my enclosure? and it doesn’t give me rights to the folder so i cant even look in it to varify thats whats in it. any ideas on why it is or why its there? any insite you could provide would be greatly appriciated.

  21. I am using Fedora 4 and found a file Torrent for downloading Fedora 8 and it is confusing me. Simply, I just do not know wich one to choose from. I have a
    933 Mghz Intel Single In-line Socket Connector (non- PGA) w/ 768 sd memory. Tyan 1834 AT mother bord.
    My qusetion is are file Torrents safe and legal?
    Also which should i choose from i386, i686, or x86_64. Here is that url:

  22. If I understand correctly – I don’t have a hard copy of windows, but do have i386 folder, so I can copy that folder to disc and it will be like having an original copy. I would then be able to re-install Windows in the event I replaced the HD?

  23. I dunno…I think it might have been that i386 folder that saved my Inspiron 9300’s life. My laptop was a mess–weird pop ups were shooting up on the screen all the time due to a corruption in Roxio, not to mention the laptop had gone through a lot in its 3 year life. I decided to reset my laptop to its factory default by pressing Ctrl + F11 in the boot screen with the text. This enabled a complete renewal of my computer by accessing a partition on my laptop that contains a copy of what was on the computer when I started it up for the very first time. Now, even though I had to go through the whole process of deleting bloatware, downloading some free programs I had, and getting updates for most everything, it was TOTALLY worth it. My computer is cleaner, runs smoother, and no more Roxio pop-ups. After I learn how to make an image of my computer, I’m probably going to start reseting my laptop in this process once a year. I hear it’s a good thing to do.

    So if this is what the i386 folder does, DON’T get rid of it! I’m sure getting rid of it screws up your warranty anyway.

  24. If you buy a dell, then odds are your warranty will be slightly expired when you need it anyways. Like he said, get the actual cd’s when you purchase a computer. It will save you headaches. Hard drive failures happen a lot more than most people think.

  25. Hey Leo. Great article – very enlightening! One question for you.

    I installed XP SP1 from CD, right, and I’ve upgraded to SP2 via download. I came across this page talking about the I386 folder in the root of C:, but when I went to take a look at it, it wasn’t there! I installed Service Pack 2 about a week ago, so would it have deleted itself in the meantime? I’ve shown all hidden & system files, yet it isn’t in that directory! I’ve searched for it, and have found to others in C:\WINDOWS\DRIVERCACHE and C:\WINDOWS\ServicePackFiles, so I’m not really sure what’s going on.

    Enlighten me on this! I would like to make a back up of my Windows XP cd, just in case my original copy get damamged somehow, so I’d like to copy the I386 folder to a blank disc. That is possible, right? Maybe, if the folder existed in the root of C:!!

    Again, thanks for such great information in the page!

    The I386 folder at the root of the c: drive is optional. It may not be there. The other I386 folders are something else.


  26. I am running an installation repair for my Windows XP and recovering from CD. In file copy mode, I had a warning: “File c:\i386\apps\app19912\app19912.exe cannot be recovered.” I read your answer to what 386 is and it doesn’t seem important to the pc function, is that right?

  27. How can I create a Bootable CD from my i386 Folder ?

    You can’t, really. You might look into BartPE, which can build a bootable Windows CD from your existing installation.

    – Leo
  28. Re.

    “How can I create a Bootable CD from my i386 Folder ?
    You can’t, really…..”

    Yes you can. Do a Google search before you shoot from the hip. Try “Create a bootable XP CD” I get 32,000 results for that one, with clear instructions for using i386 for just that purpose within the top 10. Both the questioner and the advisor should investigate this new Internet phenomenon called the “search engine”. It works with plain english questions. And please, Leo, buy Google a latte.

  29. Re:
    “You might look into BartPE, which can build a bootable Windows CD from your existing installation.”

    And last I looked BartPE required an original Windows Installation Disk, since Bart was not trying to recreate it! BartPE’s function is to produce a LiveCD. You might try reading the info on that site, as well. If you do, and it affects your advice here, buy Bart a latte, too.

  30. Sure sure, very informative perhaps but not on the matter of finding the CD-ROM itself if you never got it! Microsoft doesn’t always give out the CD-ROM anymore because of software piracy issues, so we’re basically screwed if we don’t have it. NOW: is there any place to download the contents of the CD-ROM if you don’t have it or can’t get it?

    Search this site and you’ll find this article: Where can I download Windows XP?

    – Leo
  31. I just recently bought The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, and was told by several friends that I would need Applocale to run/install it. When I open Applocale and select the language needed to run the program, it says that the language support for that language has not been intsalled. So when I go to the regional options, and try to install the files for East Asian Language support, it tells me I need the CD.

    I have no CD.

    I have no i386 folder.

    How do I get this language support i need without eating up 800MB of space? And is there a way to put the language support onto a flash drive, so all I have to do is move a copy of the needed files to the required location(s) when I access a computer?

    (I can only access using public comps, and they use programs that completely wipe/reset the computer every time it’s shut down. It’s like DeepFreeze or something, brings the computer back to a restore point automatically.)

  32. Sorry Leo – I must be thicker than the average

    I have a Lenovo PC which has pre-loaded XP and I don’t have a CD for any of the programmes that it came preloaded with. Apparently they are buried away somewhere in the innards of the PC where they can be invoked if need be.
    However as so so succintly put it, if the drive goes down they might as well be made of smoke.

    So I was interested in your I386 articles.
    I have a directory C:\I386 with some 6226 files in it (including the winnt** files you specified)

    This is the thick bit
    Can I simply copy this directory to a new CD and write on it the product key (thanks for the link to that programme also). Having done this when my hard drive dies I will have the means to reload a new hard drive {{I have no intention of cheating Mr.G and have a product which I did actually pay for even if it was bundled into a PC}}


    Yes, BUT … the one thing you won’t have is something to boot from. (Copying the I386 folder as you describe does NOT create a CD you can boot from.) Unfortuantely those steps are more complex than I can get into here, but one could start at

    – Leo
  33. Thank you!!!! I’ll be bookmarking your site. I’m trying to go open source, but do not speak tech. Trying to figure out which file is supposed to work with my “achitecture or operating system” is insane. .tars, .wars… I have no idea. I now have a backup disk for my new Vista laptop! Whoo hoo! On to looking up AMD64 now…

  34. Just out of curiosity, is the I386 directory only connect to windows installation or is the directory the same for other thing like say lter windows programs that are not supported by the original installation cd but will still run on your current version.

  35. One other reason not to rely on an i386 directory – more than once I have seen malware modify or replace files in that directory with its own permutations. Think you’re going to fix your infected pc by reinstalling from files stashed on your (infected) HD? Think again.

    At least you can rest assured that the files on the original install CD ARE still the original files.

  36. I have tried to recover an emachine pc. I have recovered all but 1, c:/1386/netclass.IN it says file is corrupted is there anything I can do. OS

  37. I have windows xp on my PC but I do not have original CD, all I need to enable Arabic language on my PC so when I go to Control Panel and choose languages automatically need the CD but I do not have . Do You have the mentioned file or active link to enable Arabic Language

  38. Just noticed your remark that the i386 directory may be too large to fit on a CD (even an extended CD). I don’t know whether it is still done, but where a directory is duplicated in a file tree, space can be saved by removing all but one copy of the directory and placing links to the remaining copy where the deleted copies are supposed to appear. If you only read the structure top down, then (so long as there are no cycles in the digraph) all the content appears to be where it should be but the overall space taken is drastically reduced. Before DVDs became common this was often done to make everything fit on one (small) CD.

  39. The Directory i386 Means 32-bit or x86 it does nothing to the System it only appears on 32-bit system on XP it also appears if you have installed another version of Windows without removing the Previous version ive tried this several times on test systems also called test computers

  40. Thank you and then thank you again. Finally a bit of tech information that is easy to read, and easy to understand. Now I understand why I don’t have an OS disk for my Windows XP from Dell. What I don’t know is why my tech guy didn’t know about the copy in the i386 directory. This means that when I search on .exe files that I think are suspicious and they show up where indicated they should AND the i386, it’s NOT a virus, etc., just someone’s idea for a shortcut. If only they would include that simple information — but then maybe they did and I missed it. Thanks again.

  41. but i have a origin dvd-rom installation ,
    do you think it’s something wrong with h.d.d because was formated from vista 32 bit,
    h.d.d still can get the system vista &windows 7 but not windows xp?

  42. A little more please…Does i386 change at all-for instance with service pack updates or any other reason? Thanks for all the great work and info!


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