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Frozen Explorer

A common problem, unfortunately…

This is a simple trick that will save you from having to restart your pc at inopportune times.  The setup – you are working along, minding your own business, writing your [insert invaluable document name] Word document, when out of the blue Windows Explorer freezes up.  You know the symptoms – you can’t click on anything on the desktop… you drag a window around and it leaves “trails”, which everyone will automatically cover the entire desktop in (because it’s fun!).  A few seconds later, you realize that you can’t get to your Word document as well, and you hadn’t saved it.  “That’s [x] hours of work!” you silently scream to yourself as you contemplate the glowing frozen tableau in front of you, dread slowing sinking down into the pit of your stomach.  Now what the hell do you do?

The answer is to try this trick.  It can’t hurt, and it just might recover your computer enough to save your document and restart.  It actually might allow you to keep working normally, but when I’m doing something important, I usually ere on the side of caution – the side where you save anything and restart just to make sure.

First thing first. You want to hit Ctrl-Alt-Del. For you moms out there, that’s three buttons (Control, Alternate, and Delete), pressed all at the same time. This is also known to longtime Windows users at the “three fingered salute”. Depending on whether your PC is connected to a domain, if it has “Use the Welcome Screen” option checked, the version of Windows, and apparently what direction your monitor is facing relative to Saturn’s nadir in its current apparition period, {breath}, this should bring up the Windows Task Manager. Hey, it’s Microsoft Windows – what do you expect?

The task manager looks like this:

Or, if you’ve dealt with Windows for a long time and finally snapped:

If you are connected to a corporate domain, Ctrl-Alt-Del may lock your computer, in which case an alternate way to get to the Task Manager is to right-click on the task bar (The bar on the bottom of your screen with all the buttons for your open windows).

Once you have the task manager up, click on the “Processes” tab. This tab lists all the running processes on your computer and will be completely unintelligible to anyone but the most Alpha of Geeks – and even they still need Google to figure out what everything is.  Next, click on the “Image Name” column header to sort the processes by name.  In that column, you are looking for processes named “explorer.exe” – there could be more than one.


For the non-geek, here’s what you are about to do.  You are going to kill the explorer.exe process, and then all the desktop icons and your start bar are going to go away.  To quote one of my favourite authors – “Don’t Panic!”.  Also, do not close the task manager.  That window is your lifeline to getting everything back.

Continuing on…

Right-click on the explorer.exe line.  If there is more than one, you are going to do this to all of them.  A menu will come up:

Here you are going to click on “End Process”.   If there is more than one explorer.exe process, then keep right-clicking and hitting “End Process” until there are no more.  One of them will be the one that disappears your desktop icons and start bar.

With that done, you can now start a new explorer.exe process that will probably be more stable (this is Windows – you want stable, get a Mac).  To do that, on the file menu of the Task Manager window, click on File, and then “New Task (Run…)”.

The drop-down or menu box isn’t just for selecting things, and probably won’t have any options.  This is what programmers call a “Combo Box” because you can type in it too, which we are going to do right now.  Type “explorer.exe” into the box.

With that done, hit the “OK” button – and watch all your icons come back!

If explorer was what was frozen, this should bring you back to “working enough to save” mode.  If not, then spirits of tech support be with you.

Categories: XP Tricks Tags: , ,
  1. September 28th, 2010 at 07:35 | #1

    A slightly quicker way to get to the Task Manager is using another of those magic shortcuts namely Ctrl-Shift-Esc. Might not always work, then the ctrl-alt-del is next on the list of things to try.

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