Windows' thumbs.db files: What they are, and what to do when they get in your way

Windows loves to create thumbs.db files, but they can cause problems, especially on a network. Here's what you can do about them.

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Evan asked me about thumbs.db files. “Every time I find one on the network, they become an issue to delete as they read as system files.”

Windows will occasionally create a thumbs.db file for a given folder as a way to quickly display thumbnail images. You won’t see thumbs.db files unless you set Windows/File Explorer to show hidden files, but they’re there. On a modern PC, they’re pretty much harmless…and useless. But they can cause problems.

A thumbs.db file may occasionally keep Windows from letting you delete a folder, simply because Windows is keeping the thumbs.db file open. On a network, where multiple computers are accessing the same folders, this can become a major problem.

[Have a tech question? Ask PCWorld Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector. Send your query to answer@pcworld.com.]

One temporary solution is to open the folder and switch to Details view. That closes the thumbs.db file.

Here’s something more permanent. Search for folder options, and open Control Panel’s Folder Options tool (called File Folder Options in some versions of Windows). Click the View tab, and check Always show icons, never thumbnails.

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But the real problem is on the network. Here’s the fix, but be warned: It won’t work on a Home edition of Windows. You’ll need a Professional, Business, or Ultra version.

1.   Search for and open gpedit.msc.

2.   If you’re using Windows 7, navigate the left panel to User Configuration > Administrative Templates > Windows Components > Windows Explorer. If you’re using Windows 8 or 10, go to User Configuration > Administrative Templates > Windows Components > File Explorer.

3.   Click the Settings heading to alphabetize the list, then scroll down and find, then double-click Turn off the caching of thumbnails in hidden thumbs.db files.

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4.   In the resulting dialog box, click Enabled.

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Yes, that last instruction sounds a bit confusing. But in this situation, Enabled really does mean “turn it off.”

With your next boot, the problem should be solved.

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