Why Windows Explorer pauses and how to fix it

Summary:Hello everyone, I'm George Ou and I normally write for my security corner.  I've just come on board here at Ask Bloggie to field questions on PC and Wireless Networking questions.

Hello everyone, I'm George Ou and I normally write for my security corner.  I've just come on board here at Ask Bloggie to field questions on PC and Wireless Networking questions.  This is my first reply.

Murph recently received this help letter on sluggish Windows Explorer performance.  Our reader sees very slow performance in Word when browsing for documents using the File Open dialog which is heavily reliant on the Windows Explorer (not to be confused with Internet Explorer).

Our reader sees the following symptoms:

Left click (LC) on Word icon:very fast access
LC on "Open":very fast access
LC arrow next to "My Documents":painfully slow.
LC on Volume 4:access very fast.
LC on "Word":very very slow
LC on the file I want to access:access very fast.

Then the reader writes:

Is there a way to "fix" something so that these long waits can be avoided? I am using XP Pro and when it was first installed (about 1 month ago) every thing was very fast. Since then a gremlin has entered the system. I do regular Norton checks and have had no virus activity. I also check with AdAware and Spybot and have had no significant problems reported in that area.

I am really looking forward to your response and will be watching your new column as it should be both interesting and helpful.

Here is my reply to our reader:

While I'm not sure what you meant on the fifth line by "Left click on 'Word'" being very slow, I am very familiar with the third line where clicking on the arrow next to "My Documents" causes a severe pause.  I'll bet this is actually the same behavior you get when you click on "My Computers" on your desktop.

Note:  This problem is so common and annoying that John C. Dvorak actually wrote this article complaining about Windows sluggishness.  While Dvorak is correct in identifying a problem, his assessment and solution was way off and wrong.  By the way John, flash disks are not an elixir and they actually have slower transfer rates than hard drives and Vista actually boots much faster than Windows XP.

The problem is poor design in the Windows File Explorer.  Windows File Explorer attempts to seek volume statistics whenever you open "My Computer" so that it can give you a bird's eye view of your available resources.  The problem arises when one of those resources, like a CD-ROM drive with a bad disk inside or mapped network drive, is unavailable and forces Windows Explorer to wait endlessly for volume statistics before it times out after a painful 10 to 30 seconds wait time.  Frankly, this is probably one of the most annoying aspects of Windows and contributes to the perception that Windows is sluggish when it doesn't really need to be.  As time goes on, more dead drive mappings accumulate on the system and makes it seem like your computer is slowing down.  I wish Microsoft would fix this issue because it really makes their flag ship product look bad when people are stuck waiting 10 to 30 seconds every time they come across the "My Computer" folder in Windows Explorer.

The way to work around this is to un-mount all the network drives and make sure there are no bad disks in the CD or DVD drive.  Bad floppy disks are also pretty notorious for causing these problems.  To un-mount all the network drives, you can right-click on the mapped drive and hit "disconnect network drive".  The other thing that seems to help is to clear your most recently accessed documents list.  This was an old Windows 98 trick which had a severe pause whenever something on the recently accessed document list isn't accessible because it's on removable media like a floppy disk.  This doesn't seem to be a problem with Windows XP anymore, but I'm still paranoid about that issue so I still like to clear out that list.  You can do this by right-clicking on "Start" - "Properties" - "Customize" - "Clear".

Note:  Corporate notebooks are notorious for this problem because the corporate domain controller will often mount network drives for you as soon as you log on to the domain.  In this case, un-mounting the network drives won't keep them from coming back and you'll need to demand that your Windows NT or Active Directory administrator stops mapping drives for you.  If they refuse, take it over his/her head and escalate the issue and demand this change.  Now before you windows administrators jump all over me and say "what about my standard drive mappings we need", I'd like to remind you of a thing called a shortcut.  You can easily place shortcuts on the desktop pointing to network shares using UNC paths.  UNC comes in the form of "\\servername\share\%username%" which will dynamically point to the actual username folder of the user who invoked the shortcut.  The nice thing about shortcuts is that Windows Explorer doesn't bother to scan for shortcut resources which avoids the dreaded dead resource wait.  You can even push out the desktop shortcut via login script or Active Directory group policy using a simple batch file or windows script.  The only reason drive mappings were invented was because of legacy DOS applications that didn't know how to handle UNC paths.  This really isn't relevant today and there is no reason to use drive mappings especially when dead mappings cause so many problems.  Drop those drive mappings like a bad habit!

Now there is no guarantee that this will fix our reader's problem, but it is a very good place to start.  If it still doesn't fix the problem, we'll need to go in to MSCONFIG and disable all the startup gunk that was placed in there since the clean Windows install.  This not only fixes all sorts of mysterious Windows problems, but it also brings Windows XP boot time to about 30 seconds on a modern PC.  I'll leave that for another blog.

Topics: Windows

About

George Ou, a former ZDNet blogger, is an IT consultant specializing in Servers, Microsoft, Cisco, Switches, Routers, Firewalls, IDS, VPN, Wireless LAN, Security, and IT infrastructure and architecture.

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