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Windows Explorer Troubleshooting

Symptom: Slow to delete files


When deleting files with Windows Explorer it can sometimes be very slow to delete files, even a single file.

Possible causes and remedies:

  • The most likely cause of windows explorer taking a long time to delete a file is the recycle bin. Each time a file is deleted, windows explorer moves it to the recycle bin. If the recycle bin is full then when a new file is deleted (and moved into the recycle bin) explorer will delete something out of the recycle bin to make space. What takes the time is explorer deciding what to delete and the process of it then deleting it. It is worth noting that a large number of smaller files in the recycle bin (or contained in folders that in turn are in the recycle bin) is more likely to hit performance than a few larger ones.

    To determine whether this is indeed the cause of the performance problem on your system simply empty the recycle bin and try deleting another file. If when the recycle bin is empty the deletion happens almost instantly then the recycle bin is the root cause of the performance problem.

    Possible remedies:

    • Reduce the size of the recycle bin. It is worth noting that it is not the size of the recycle bin that is the issue but the number of files that are contained in the recycle bin that leads to the performance hit. Reducing the size of the recycle bin tends to have the natural effect of reducing the number of files that can fit and so will help.

      The default recycle bin size is 10%. For most (modern) systems this is enormous. Take a 20GB disk (which is small by today's standards), this means that the recycle bin is 2GB. That's enough to hold all the operating system files and a number of applications. So it is hardly surprising that explorer can take an age. Even the minimal recycle bin size of 1% would give 200MB of storage on a 20GB disk. That is still enough to hold a very large number of files.

      Windows Vista allows you to specify the size of the recycle bin in MB rather than as a percentage of the disk size (as in previous versions of Windows). Personally I find a recycle bin size of 250MB is quite adequate (YMMV).

    • Disable the recycle bin. This can be done by right clicking the recycle bin icon on the desk top and selecting 'properties'.

      Personally I wouldn't advise disabling the recycle bin because this stops you from being able to undeleting files.

    • Defragment the hard disk. Anything that does anything on the file system will benefit from the disk being defragmented. However the reality of the situation is that you are very unlikely to get any noticable performance gain from defragmenting the disk. If you have time then leave your pc to defragment occasionally. Defragmenting the disk is only likely to be of benefit to applications that thrash the disk. For most of us it is (mostly) a complete waste of time.
  • Less likely, but it is worth checking the disk for problems. A disk related problem (or file system corruption) can cause unnecessary reads and re-reads of the disk.

    Possible remedies:

    • A disk check can be done from explorer, right click the drive and select 'properties'. From there select 'Tools' and under 'Error-checking' click '[Check Now]'.
    • Personally I find that the command line utility 'chkdsk' seems to find errors that the standard disk-check misses. On NT, W2K and XP systems start a command session and enter:

      chkdsk c: /r

      Assuming the disk is NTFS it will ask you if you wish to schedule the check for the next time the system restarts - let it, but be aware that it may take a while to run.

About the author: is a dedicated software developer and webmaster. For his day job he develops websites and desktop applications as well as providing IT services. He moonlights as a technical author and consultant.