Temporary Internet Files (Your Cache)

by Rob Zorn
from the May 2004 Newsletter

A recent letter to our Reader's Forum section prompted this brief article on temporary internet files. Bob's questions revolved around whether it was good or bad that Internet Explorer saved so much stuff from web sites that had been visited, and whether it was a good idea or not to regularly purge this stuff.

What are Temporary Internet Files?

It would be good to start here by reminding that when you're surfing the Internet, you don't actually go to any sites. They are downloaded or brought to you. Everything you see when travelling around the World Wide Web has been copied to your computer. Internet Explorer (and other browsers) stores all these files in what is called a "cache." It's really just a directory specifically there for Internet files. The main reason these files are kept on your hard drive even after you've viewed them is so that Internet Explorer can save you time when you next visit the exact same page. It can serve up some of the content to you from your own hard drive instead of having to download it all over again from the Internet. When you use your Back button, for example, you will almost always be given the page from your own cache rather than fresh from the Internet.

You do have some control over how much of this stuff is saved, and you are able to delete most of it quite easily at any time.

Setting the Size of Your Cache.

It's easy to reduce or increase the size of your cache. To do this:

  1. Open Internet Explorer.
  2. Click Tools on the Menu Bar, and then Internet Options. An Internet Options box will appear. Make sure the General Tab is selected.
  3. The middle section of the box is labelled Temporary Internet Files. Click the Settings button to invoke the Settings box.
  4. On the Setting box, click and hold to move the slider left or right to increase or decrease the amount of space on your hard drive you want to be used to store temporary Internet files.
  5. Click Okay to save the setting and close the Settings box. Click Okay again to close the Internet Options box.

If you don't want too much of your hard drive used, set the setting as low as possible. If you set it to one megabyte, for example, this will cause Internet Explorer to start overwriting old stuff as soon as a megabyte's worth of files have been stored.

You'll notice from the box pictured that you can also click the View Files button to see all the files that Internet Explorer has saved on your hard drive. Clicking this button will present you with a list. To view a file, right-click on it in the list and then left-click on Open.

Purging Your Cache

If setting your cache size to be as low as possible isn't sufficient, it is easy enough to delete everything in your Temporary Internet Files.

  1. Open Internet Explorer.
  2. Click Tools on the Menu Bar, and then Internet Options. An Internet Options box will appear. Make sure the General Tab is selected.
  3. The middle section of the box is labelled Temporary Internet Files. Click the Delete Files button. 

It is safe to do this. No important files will be lost; only whatever files Internet Explorer has decided to save while you've been surfing. You can also click the Delete Cookies button to delete cookies which are little files left on your hard drive by web sites to help identify you next time you visit them. It's also safe to delete your cookies. If you want to know more about what cookies are, you can visit an article from the March 2000 newsletter called Cookie Anyone? at http://editor.actrix.gen.nz/byarticle/cookies.htm.

There are various reasons why you might want to purge your cache. The most obvious is to remove any files you may not want others to see for whatever reasons you might have. Keep in mind though, that your online movements can also be tracked through your browser's History settings unless you clear those regularly too (also via your Internet Options box).

You may want to purge your cache to save space on your hard drive, though in most cases this would be hardly worth the bother. If you are short of space, you should set your cache size as low as possible (as described above) and if you've done that, then purging probably won't save you much anyway. It might pay to check the size of your cache though. By default the cache size is usually set much higher than it needs to be.

Some people like to clear their cache often in the belief that it will speed up the performance of their machine. There is some truth to this, but only in so far as your browser is concerned. A large cache could cause Internet Explorer to be a little slower closing down but it shouldn't have any effect upon other aspects of your computer not related to the Internet. Clearing your cache will not speed up the performance of Microsoft Word, for example.

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Bob also asked about four mysterious folders that he could find on his hard drive (using Windows Explorer) that had bizarre names and were all listed inside the CONTENT.IE5 folder which is itself inside the Temporary Internet Files folder. What are these folders and why do they increase after heavy Internet usage?

Basically, these four folders are just where Internet explorer stores your cache as described above. Windows creates these folders and gives them labels made up of random strings of eight digits and letters (to lesson the chances of overwriting an important folder if a user starts moving them around unwittingly). These folders would be named differently on every machine. If you use the Delete Files button to clear your cache (as described above) you should find that these folders are empty. If they're not, then you can safely delete the entire folders themselves (just the randomly named ones). Nothing vital is kept in these folders, and Internet Explorer will automatically recreate these storage folders anytime it feels it needs to.

If you want to find these folders, you can usually find them in your Windows directory. If you have Windows 98 or 2000,  right-click on your Start button and then left-click on Explore. Look for your Windows or WINNT folder on the left hand side, and then for the Temporary Internet Files folder etc. These folders are a little harder to find under XP. Try C:\Documents and Settings/user name/Local Settings/Temporary Internet Files... 

Disc Cleaners

There are programs you can download and use that will automatically clear your history, delete your temporary internet files and cookies, remove your list of recently viewed documents etc. Window Washer (made by Webroot) is one of the more popular of these and it gets a five star review from Tucows.com. There are plenty of others. For a comprehensive list and downloads links, see http://www.tucows.com/diskc95_default.html.