Why Windows Explorer pauses and how to fix it

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.

TOPICS: Windows

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.

Topic: Windows

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  • What arrow next to my doc's?

    There is no arrow next to my documents on my 2000 desktop. If there is an arrow, the shortcut was created the wrong way.
    • It's the down arrow

      This opens up "My Computers" view and that's what's locking up.
      • Your talking about the drop down box

        Of browse dialog box? If so, those are nortoriously slow. Not just network drives and removable storage are bad also this can be caused by registry bloat. Usually on gaming PC where game installed and uninstalled constantly. Another problem is many directories with extremely long paths. Not to common that you would have hundreds of those but I have seen it.
        • You're right, happens both places

          You're right, this happens in both the drop down box and the browse box. This is a really bad design in Windows File Explorer. I really wish they'd fix it or at least let me turn off resource scanning and lower the timeout variables.
          • Optical drive = worst offender

            Everytime I do that drop down, Windows spins up the optical drive (you can hear it) to read it's information. I simply do not understand this behavior. Windows knows when a disk is inserted or ejected. Why does it need to re-cache this data (Each file dialog only seems to do it once, multiple drop downs once the dialog is open don't make it re-read the disk)? Why can't Windows get this data ONCE when the disk is inserted, store it in memory, and let the file dialog get that information from there?

            Justin James
          • Sloppy coding

            I wish they'd fix this.
  • Bad advice!

    Do NOT ditch those drive mappings! At least don't do it without testing the impact. A lot of legacy apps that are still in use on production machines don't recognize a UNC path and require a mapped drive. And a lot of users (those change-resistant people who, after all, are the only reason we have jobs) are accustomed to going to "My Computer | N: | My Documents ... Change comes in excruciatingly slow increments, and I'm sure helpdesks around the world will curse your good name when thier phones start ringing off the hook with the 'where did my data go' calls.

    A better solution would be to dynamically clear mapped drives, and re-enable then as required. A simple 'net use /del <drive letter>:' in the logon script followed by the correct mappings would accomplish this. Once that process is going, just turn persistent mappings off, and you're golden.
    Real World
    • Agreed...

      I totally agree with everything you've said here. I've seen a number of applications that totally spaz out when fed a UNC path. Also, a lot of apps do not properly follow shortcuts.

      And yes, I *despise* users who have that drive letter fetish. I do the sys admin work at my company (small company, I have many hats) and it's at least once a week that I want to scream in anger in frustration over the way others use the networked drives. At this point, most of my users here actually have TWO drives mapped to the same UNC path, because they wrote 1,001 programs and scripts and macros with the drive letter baked in, and there used to be two separate network drives.

      That being said, I would love to see Microsoft ditch drives letters once and for all, and go to a Unix type of system where all "drives" get mounted into the file system at the appropriate place. Have some little control panel item let you map drive letters to those paths, and never show those drive letters ANYWHERE. And add a real symlink system to NTFS, shortcuts are worthless.

      Justin James
      • drive mappings

        "I would love to see Microsoft ditch drives letters once and for all, and go to a Unix type of system where all "drives" get mounted into the file system at the appropriate place."

        HAHA, yeah, then they can call it MS innovation!

        One more example of how DOS/Windows has set the computer world back 20 years....
      • Is this really a "legacy apps" problem?

        There are rarely any "legacy apps" that really can't do UNC. It's just that people get lazy and script to drive letters. I've don't plenty of scripts that rely purely on UNC. Some of these guys just don't feel like rewriting their scripts.
        • I must be lazy

          I script to drive letters because that is better than UNC, IMHO. If I have a script that looks to O drive then if I have to move that to another server, the script still works. If, however, I have to move that directory to another server \\server2\scripts\..... will no longer work and I would have to go through EVERY script and change that. And we use alot of scripts in AutoCAD.

          And yes, this has happened to us. First when we had small servers and were having to do directory management (they didn't want to pony up for more drives). And again when we finally upgraded our servers and had to use different names for the servers.
          Patrick Jones
          • Be a little creative

            "I would have to go through EVERY script and change that"

            No you don't. Just use something like NoteTab and do a global search and replace on the entire directory containing all of your scripts with references to something like "j:\".
          • True

            But then I would have to do that every three years when we upgrade our servers. With directories, I can re-map everything in about 2 minutes. Since I litterally have hundreds of scripts/lisp routines in a multitude of directories, it would take ALOT longer to do it your way.

            Also, I do have some programs that are mapped by UNC that I use since I don't have a drive mapped to that part of the server (SYS volume). I have a few problems with them. One is that Windows conveniently "forgets" how to get to them - i.e. I will double-click them and the "searching for program" dialog will appear. Two, when they do work, they are slower to open than the other programs. (As a note, if I think something is slow, it is REALLY slow :) ) Maybe it has to do with Novell, I don't know.
            Patrick Jones
          • Not if you use DFS

            DFS in Windows Active Directory lets you map virtual UNCs.
          • DFS is your friend

            As George points out, using dfs can solve the problem you speak of quite nicely. We use dfs for software deployment. It enables us to use on software deployment policy to deploy software to every site, and it allows machines (laptops) that move from site to site to allways get software updates from the local network.

            For example, every machine gets Office 2003. In the policy the machine is told to install the software from the "\\domain.com\dfs\softdeply\office2k3\". At every site, there is a mirror of the softdeply share, and when a machine tries to access the share above, they are automatically pointed to the copy on the local network.
          • I will have to look that up because you have lost me

            So, let me see if I understand this correctly. What you are saying is that after I have switched out my servers, I can use DFS and map \\newserver to \\oldserver? This way any UNC that says \\oldserver is really pointing to \\newserver? And that will work with my Novell servers?

            Unfortunately, I know I have a few programs that still use drive mappings. Heck, they were for Windows 3.1 and don't even like long file names. And no, they will never be updated and yes, we still need them. Well, the only way they will be updated is if we rewrite them. Since we didn't write them i the first place and have no source to look at, I don't think it will be anytime soon.
            Patrick Jones
          • Whoops

            I replied to you but hit the wrong button. My reply is [url=http://www.zdnet.com/5208-6037-0.html?forumID=1&threadID=14373&messageID=289133&start=-19]here[/url].
        • In my case, yes

          I work at an educational instutution. Educational apps are usually very expensive and rarely updated. As a result, once departments find apps that suit their needs they use them for years. As a result, we have several apps in use that are keep data on the network and require drive letters.

          As for our staff, this problem isn't there - but we do give them an "x:" drive to keep stuff on the network. We looked into folder redirection and/or keeping profiles on the server, but after a short time of testing we realized we didn't have near the server storage/backup capacity to handle all of the data, nor did we really have the network infrastructure to keep speeds at an acceptable level. Maybe when get our SAN and upgrade to gigabit internal network we can look into it again. I would be nice to do away with mapped drives.
    • I hear that as an excuse

      "A lot of legacy apps that are still in use"

      I've never seen a single person prove this to me. They scream and scream and scream! But in the end they don't really need it. This is true 99% of the time.
  • Want to fix it? Use a sledgehammer

    Percussive maintenance. Gets the job done right