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What to do when Windows Explorer doesn't refresh

Since the Vista era, Windows users have been suffering from one of the most annoying bugs in the history of Windows bugs. It's no bluescreen, it's no random driver freeze -- at least those always have a clear solution. It's a bug in Windows Explorer that prevents files and folders from properly updating until you perform a manual refresh. And it apparently has several solutions and workarounds but no concrete fix by Microsoft -- not for Windows Vista, Windows 7 (SP1) and not for the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. It's still there. These are the symptoms:

-- You empty the Recycle Bin, but the recycle bin is not shown as empty.

-- You delete files, but the files still appear in a folder or on the desktop. Whenever you try to double click or delete them (again), Windows Explorer keeps telling you it "Could not find this item".

-- You rename files, but the old name keeps appearing in Windows Explorer.

-- You create a new folder or a files, but it doesn't appear

-- You move or copy files, but the file doesn't appear on the target destination. This keeps happening especially on the desktop.

[ FREE DOWNLOAD: Windows 8 Deep Dive Report | Windows 8: The 10 biggest problems so far ]

Again, after a refresh (F5 or right click "Refresh") the files reappear -- or after restarting Windows Explorer or your machine. What started out as a minor annoyance became quite a disruptive bug: The problem is that you forget about the bug since it doesn't occur every time, but only in about 10-50% of all file operations. It's an erratic error that can't easily be reproduced. Here's an example: I would save an attachment to the desktop for later review and when I finally need it, I can't find it anymore. I fire up Outlook again, only to discover that it's already been saved. It messes with your folder structure and disrupts your workflow. I can honestly say that over the years this error has cost me not just hours but days of work, which is why (to me and many others), this can be more annoying than some BSOD or random app crash.

And believe me, I'm not the only one griping about this. It's probably one of the most read and commented issues on Microsoft's TechNet Forums: The error is split up into three parts now with the first two spawning a conversation of over 600 replies and several hundreds of thousands of views. Even loading up the massive thread will freeze some browsers (I'm not kidding).

But don't worry. You won't need to go looking for answers on TechNet. I've got ALL the solutions and workarounds you need right here.

1. Registry Changes

One of the most successful solutions to this problems (although it doesn't help all the time) is to turn on the Windows desktop refresh feature. To do this, go to "HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\CLSID\{BDEADE7F-C265-11D0-BCED-00A0C90AB50F}\Instance", look out for a DWORD value called "DontRefresh" which is set to "1" (on). Change the value to "0" (off). This re-enables the refresh. Note that the CLSID given above may depend on your machine. The easiest solution if you can't find the key is to just go to "HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\CLSID", hit "F3" and do a search for "DontRefresh".

2. Sort by Name

Many users have had success by simply sorting both their desktop and explorer folders "By Name". This suggests to me that the Windows Search API has something to do with the problem.

Obviously this is more of a workaround than a solution and just isn't an alternative for some people.

3. Re-enable User Account Control

One of the first steps I take whenever I install Windows 7 is to turn off User Account Control (UAC). Well, according to this Microsoft KB article that's the culprit of my random refresh problem. If you'd rather live with a few clicks on the "Continue" button than with the annoying refresh bug, I suggest you turn UAC back on again: Open up the Start menu, type in "User Account Control" and hit "Enter". Then, switch back to the default setting "Notify me only when apps try to make changes to my computer":

4. Turn off Third-Party Shell Extensions

It turns out that quite a lot of third-party applications hook themselves into Windows Explorer. If file management goes awry (which it certainly has in our example), it's always wise to check which of these explorer hooks are being loaded and turn them off temporarily: The most reliable tool that helps you check for solutions is Nirsoft's "ShellExView". Download it, install it and sort by "Company". This will show all third-party hooks at the top of the list:

Try disabling ALL of them to see if that solves the problem. If it did, re-enable these hooks one by one.

Reboot the PC and see if the problem rears its ugly head again.

5. Try a Different Firewall/AV solution

Security suites obviously watch for file system activities. Their filter drivers may be a cause for file operations completing but not registering them with the UI. If none of the previous solutions worked, you might as well try a different security suite for a couple of days. Alternatively, you can try to switch to a less tight security setting and observe Explorer operation behavior.

6. Turn off Sharing

I have noticed that this bug appears on shared folders more often than on regular folders. For example, I share my "Pictures" library on my home network and this is one of the places where I see the refresh bug more often.

If you're not sharing media, make sure that Windows Media Player network sharing is turned off. You'll find the OFF switch under "Control Panel\Network and Sharing Center\Change advanced sharing settings".

7. Rebuild the Explorer Icon Cache

The icon cache in Windows Vista, 7 and 8 stores thumbnails of files -- if this cache has somehow reached its limit or got corrupted, you might need to rebuild it from scratch. Here's how: Close all programs and Windows and run "Task-Manager" by using the CTRL + SHIFT + ESC key combo. Kill "Explorer.exe". Go to "File/Run New Task" and type in "cmd". Enter the following commands and hit Return after each one:

CD /d %userprofile%\AppData\Local

DEL IconCache.db /a

EXIT

8. Turn off NTFS Last Access File Stamp

The NTFS file system updates the "last access" timestamp whenever a file is opened. This time stamp did, on some user machines, cause new or changed files to not appear until an Explorer refresh. Try turning the Last Access stamp off: Open up the registry and go to "HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\FileSystem". Double-click on "NtfsDisableLastAccessUpdate" and set the value from "1" to "0". Now reboot.

Note: Some (rare) applications may depend on the NTFS stamp -- make sure that all your apps are still working.

9. Uncheck "Show Hidden Files and Folders"

Some users on the MS TechNet forums also claim to have solved the problem by unchecking the "Show Hidden Files and Folders" box in Windows Explorer properties.

10. Turn off Home Groups

Is the Home Group feature enabled on your system? If so, try turning Home Groups off -- including all the services that come with it. Fire up "services.msc" and disable both the "HomeGroup Listener" and the "HomeGroup" provider service. Again, a sharing related feature seems to be one of the many causes for this issue.

11. Restore the Explorer Settings

Some users seem to have had success after resetting the Explorer settings: Go to the "Folder Options" dialog and hit "Restore Defaults" -- et voilà.

12. Delete Libraries

If you're not in the habit of using "Libraries" (abstracted virtual folders that aggregate several physical folders into one view), delete them. Many users on the TechNet forums have reported that the refresh issue is gone after they've deleted the libraries. Don't worry, deleting the libraries doesn't remove the data in those folders.

Microsoft clearly knows about the Windows Explorer refresh issue and -- to this date -- has released no patch. I've been using the Windows 8 Consumer Preview for a while now and this bug keeps reappearing. In talking to a Microsoft employee, I now know that this bug is still internally "under investigation". Some of my solutions are absolutely unacceptable to folks who actively use (and love) home groups or share folders. They WANT Libraries and WANT UAC. It's a mess. And it's painful to see a mature operating system experience a bug in the most basic of PC operations.

This article, "What to do when Windows Explorer doesn't refresh," was originally published at ITworld. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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