Last Updated on April 1, 2023 by Dave Farquhar
On older machines, and even sometimes on not-so-old machines, Windows Explorer can get sluggish, and painful to use. It may happen suddenly and it may be happening all the time. In either case, here’s how to fix it when Windows Explorer is slow.
When Windows Explorer is slow, there are several options regarding how it displays files and what it displays that you can reconfigure to speed things up. And if you’ve been working with Zip files, restarting Explorer frequently makes a big difference.
The fix when Windows Explorer is slow all the time
If Windows Explorer is slow all the time, showing the hourglass after you do something simple like renaming a file or taking forever to open a window, try this first.
Try navigating to the parent folder, then right-clicking on your folder and picking Properties. Under the tab marked Customize, look at the top option labeled Optimize this folder for and make sure the option General Items is checked. You’ll probably want to check the box labeled Apply this template to all subfolders.
Give it a minute to work, and this will usually help.
Also, clicking on View and switching to the small icons or list, view tends to be faster than the large or extra large icons view, or the details view in some cases.
When the details view is slow, some columns slow Explorer down more than others. Of the four defaults of name, date modified, type, and size, size tends to slow Explorer down the most. So if you like the details view but can live without the size, right-click on any the column headings in your Explorer Window and uncheck the check mark labeled Size. If you’ve enabled extra details outside of those four, try unchecking those one at a time to see which one is slowing things down.
Disable thumbnails if Windows Explorer is slow
Showing a generic icon is much faster than showing a thumbnail of certain file types. So if Windows Explorer is slow for you consistently, it probably has something to do with the types of files you have on your computer. Showing thumbnails of images and video files can make identifying a specific file easier for you. But it also increases overhead. So if you can live without the thumbnails, Explorer is a lot less slow after you disable them.
To disable thumbnails, click the Windows logo/start menu to bring up the Windows search bar, type file explorer options, then open File Explorer options from the list. Click the View tab. Then uncheck the first option at the top of Advanced Settings, Always show icons, never thumbnails. Showing icons instead of thumbnails in Explorer windows dramatically decreases the amount of memory and CPU overhead and disk thrashing Windows Explorer has to do. While you’re there, uncheck the options labeled Display file size information in folder tips and Display file icon on thumbnails. This also decreases overhead.
Scrolling down a bit further, there’s an option labeled Launch Folder Windows in a separate process. Enabling this option decouples Explorer windows from the taskbar that displays all the time, allowing Windows to manage the memory and CPU usage involved in Windows Explorer more dynamically. That way, when you open an Explorer window and then close it, the increased CPU and memory usage is much less likely to become permanent.
And while you’re in this section, scroll down to the end of the list in Advanced Settings, to the section labeled Navigation Pane. The more of those options you can live without and disable, the faster Windows Explorer will be. I usually uncheck all of the options except Show Libraries.
Disable File Explorer history and Quick Access
By default, Windows stores a history of recently accessed files so you can find those files again and pick up where you left off in the future. This is super convenient, especially if you work in a fast-paced environment where you get interrupted a lot. But it also increases overhead. So on a marginal computer, tracking all of these lists can cause Windows Explorer to slow down below tolerable levels.
Assuming you closed File Explorer Options in the last step, click the Windows logo/start menu to bring up the Windows search bar, type file explorer options, then open File Explorer options from the list.
Inside File Explorer options, click the General tab. In the drop-down menu labeled Open File Explorer, change the option from Quick Access to This PC. In the section at the bottom of the menu labeled Privacy, uncheck the two options labeled Show Recently Used Files in Quick Access and Show Recently used Folders in Quick Access. Finally, click the Clear button next to the legend Clear File Explorer history.
Press the Apply button followed by the OK button to make the changes take effect.
The fix when Windows Explorer gets slow all of a sudden
I’ve also run into issues where Windows Explorer just suddenly got super slow. I finally figured out it happens after I extract a large Zip file from the Explorer interface. Even after the extraction is complete, Windows Explorer seems to treat the extracted folder like a Zip folder.
When this happens, closing all Explorer windows and then reopening them usually restores the usual speed. Especially when my first trick doesn’t help at all.
When that doesn’t work, pull up Task Manager and restart Windows Explorer. Hit Shift-Ctrl-Esc to bring up Task Manager, then click More Details in the lower left if you see that option. Look for Windows Explorer in the list of running apps, then right-click on Windows Explorer and select Restart.
Rebooting would also work, but restarting Windows Explorer from Task Manager is sufficient to clear the overhead from memory and takes less time than rebooting. I’ve always found a full reboot to be overkill in this case.
Zip folders can be problematic anyway, so I try to remember to use 7-Zip to handle archives, and I find that makes the problem with Windows Explorer being slow happen much less frequently.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.