It shouldn’t, of course. But it can.
Windows Explorer (also known as File Explorer and Windows File Explorer) is a very special program. In many ways, it is Windows; it’s the program responsible for displaying the task bar, the Start menu, the task-switcher, and a fair amount more.
It’s also the program you use to browse around your hard disk to look at files and folders.
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File explorer crashing
If Windows File Explorer crashes, you can restart it by opening Task Manager (CTRL+ALT+DEL) and running the program “explorer”. Explorer crashes are often the result of shell extensions, which you can enumerate and selectively disable using a tool called ShellExView.
When File Explorer crashes
You may have noticed that when Windows File Explorer dies, it often takes the Windows taskbar and Start menu with it. Those are displayed by Windows File Explorer.
Normally, when Windows File Explorer dies, other components of Windows should notice and start it up automatically again after a few seconds. That’s why you might see the taskbar disappear and then reappear.
Sometimes, that doesn’t happen. In that case, you can type CTRL+ALT+DEL and start Windows Task Manager. Then click the File menu followed by Run new task, or, in Windows 11, click the Run new task button.
The new task to create is simply “explorer”. Running it should get your taskbar and Start menu back.
If, instead, running “explorer” starts a new Windows File Explorer window such as seen at the top of this article, then there was a copy already running.
Very much like web browsers, Windows Explorer’s functionality can be extended by installing add-ons (more correctly referred to as “shell extensions” because Windows File Explorer is often called “the shell”, or primary user interface, to the operating system). Add-ons for Windows File Explorer are unrelated to browser add-ons, but the concept is very similar.
It’s not uncommon for shell extensions added to Window File Explorer by other software you install to cause issues.
Unfortunately, Windows doesn’t include an interface for viewing or managing these add-ons, so we need to grab a third-party tool.
ShellExView from NirSoft is a free utility for doing that.
The first thing to note when running ShellExView is the sheer number of shell extensions: 257 on my machine alone.
This is normal, as Windows is responsible for most of them. It’s part of modularising the functionality Windows provides.
Identifying problematic shell extensions
Unfortunately, there’s no way to point at a shell extension and say, “This is the one that’s causing all the problems.” Instead, we need to look at what’s loaded and make a few semi-educated guesses. Then we’ll try disabling extensions we think may relate to the problem.
Before you begin, I strongly suggest you take a full backup of your system. Disabling shell extensions is generally safe, but we’re working with a very complex system here, and there are no guarantees. A full backup is your safety net in case something goes wrong.
You may need to widen the default ShellExView window to expose the Product Name column, and then widen that column to make it more readable by double-clicking its right divider in the column header. (There are many columns of information. Have a look at the rest while you’re at it to see what kinds of information are available.)
Click the Product Name column header to sort the extension list by product name.
As you can see in this list, I have shell extensions from several applications, including 7-Zip, DropBox, and more.
Let’s make an initial assumption that the problem is likely not due to one of Microsoft’s own shell extensions. That cuts out all the items listing Microsoft Corporation as the company. To further cut down the number of things we need to consider, try these troubleshooting tips.
- Consider what you may have installed on your machine recently, particularly if the problem just started happening. Look for that product name, and if you see any associated shell extensions, right-click the item in the list and select Disable Selected Items.
- If the problem happens only when opening a folder containing a particular file type, look for the program that handles that file type. For example, if Windows File Explorer crashed every time I opened a folder containing a “.7z” file (that’s a file handled by 7-Zip), I would then disable the shell extensions associated with 7-Zip.
- If the problem happens when you open a file of a particular type, make sure it’s Windows File Explorer crashing and not the application handling that file. For example, if I experience a crash when opening a “.7z” file, it’s important to look carefully at the error message to determine whether explorer.exe or 7z.exe is crashing. If explorer.exe is crashing, look for shell extensions relating to that program and disable them. However, if it’s the program handling that file extension — 7z.exe in my example — then this article doesn’t apply, and you need to diagnose the issue with that application. (Typically, the first step is to reinstall it.)
- Often, things aren’t that clear. The crash may appear to happen randomly or under different circumstances than I’ve listed. Look for patterns that somehow relate the problem back to one of the shell extensions listed. Then try disabling those shell extensions to see if the problem resolves itself.
Disabling shell extensions is relatively safe, particularly for non-Microsoft Windows extensions. (You may need to reboot for the disabling to take effect.) Typically, all that happens is that you lose some functionality — often functionality you never knew existed or never used.
If disabling the shell extension causes the problem to go away, you can proceed in either of two ways:
- Diagnose, repair, or otherwise “fix” the program to which that shell extension belongs. Typically, the first step is a reinstall, but things can get more involved. At a minimum, you now have a direction to head and presumably could contact that software manufacturer’s support team for more specific help.
- Leave the shell extension disabled. As long as you don’t miss whatever functionality the extension provided, this is a valid approach. There’s only one drawback: if that product updates at some point, the update or reinstall process may re-enable the shell extension. If it works, fantastic. If not, you may need to go in and disable it again.
If disabling the shell extension does not resolve the issue that you’re dealing with, I recommend re-enabling it.
If disabling the shell extension causes more trouble or removes a feature you care about, then you face diagnosing or repairing the application associated with it.
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