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Issue #142: April 11, 2010

Q: Whenever I close Outlook Express I get the following: “To free up disk space Outlook Express can compact messages.  This may take a few minutes.”  You then have the obligatory “Yes” and “Cancel options.  Well once I said “Yes” and it was the biggest mistake I’ve made with a compueter in a while.  I have since exceeded that error.  Anyway, my messages were compacted and stored in a “dbx” file.  Since that time I have been unable to recover these files into a readable version.  I hope Fort Knox is this secure.  How in heaven’s name do you recover these files to a readable format without buying some “dbx” recovery software.  Also how do I increase my disk space to eliminate that annoying message. 

– Jerry B.
Fort Walton Beach, Fla

A: Well, it’s been a little while since I’ve answered an Outlook Express question.  That’s not to say I haven’t been receiving them, but I’ve been trying to emphasize cyber security in most of my recent columns.  Your question is rather interesting to me, Jerry, and for several reasons.  First of all, OE did not start storing your messages in a DBX file just because you compacted them – that’s just how OE stores them.  Second, “compact messages” is a somewhat misleading phrase.  OE isn’t actually making your messages any smaller.  When you allow Outlook Express to “compact messages” what it is actually doing is recovering the space from messages that you have previously deleted.  These messages aren’t actually deleted in the sense that you probably think.  When you delete, OE actually marks messages as deleted and hides them so they don’t show up in your e-mail folder anymore.  But they are still present, and still taking up space.

Outlook Express used to perform the compaction in the background, when it wasn’t being used for other things.  Unfortunately, this background compacting could result in corrupted DBX files as it was done regardless of any other work being done one the computer at that time.  To prevent this, Microsoft made a modification to OE in Windows XP Service Pack 2, which keeps track of the number of times you open Outlook, and for each 100 times, it offers to “compact” the messages for you.  There are several things that can go wrong with this process, including the system prompting you to compact every few minutes, or every time you reboot, etc.  However, assuming everything is working properly, and you only get prompted every 100 times, it’s best to just let Outlook Express go ahead and compact the mail, which will keep your system running more efficiently.  The process works very well unless something happens to interrupt it.  Once it starts, you shouldn’t try to stop it or power off the computer until it says it’s done.  If you do, you will almost certainly corrupt the .DBX file, which I suspect is what has happened in your case.

Whenever it performs a compaction operation, OE makes a backup copy of the data files.  So, if your DBX file is now corrupt, you should try using the backup copy before you look to purchase other software.  The backup copy is located in the same location, and has the same name as the .DBX file, except the extension has been changed to .BAK.  To use the backup, make sure OE is off, then move or rename the .DBX files and rename the .BAK files to .DBX.  Then restart OE.  If all else fails, a Microsoft MVP for Outlook Express offers a fairly inexpensive tool for recovering data from corrupted DBX files.  You can look into it at

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