How do I access a file without updating its last-access time?

Raymond Chen

The first problem with discussing file last-access time is agreeing what you mean by a file’s last-access time.

The file system folks have one definition of the file last-access time, namely the time the file was most recently opened and either read from or written to. This is the value retrieved by functions like Get­File­Attributes­Ex, Get­File­Time, and Find­First­File.

The problem with this definition is that it doesn’t match the intuitive definition of last-access time, which is “the last time I accessed the file,” emphasis on the I. In fact, the intuitive definition of access is more specific: It’s “the last time I opened, modified, printed, or otherwise performed some sort of purposeful action on the file.”

This discrepancy between the file system definition and the intuitive definition means that a lot of operations trigger a file system access but shouldn’t count as an access from the user interface point of view. Here are some examples:

Whenever some shell extension violates this rule, the shell team gets a bug report from some customer saying, “The last-access time shown in Explorer is wrong. A document which hasn’t been accessed in months shows a last-access time of today. After closer investigation, we found that the last-access time updates whenever we insert seemingly-innocuous operation here.”

If you’re writing a program which needs to access the file contents but you not want to update the last-access time, you can use the Set­File­Time function with the special value 0xFFFFFFFF in both members of the FILETIME structure passed as the last-access time. This magic value means “do not change the last-access time even though I’m accessing the file.”

BOOL DoNotUpdateLastAccessTime(HANDLE hFile)
 static const FILETIME ftLeaveUnchanged = { 0xFFFFFFFF, 0xFFFFFFFF };
 return SetFileTime(hFile, NULL, &ftLeaveUnchanged, NULL);

As the documentation notes, you have to call this function immediately after opening the file.

Going back to that linked comment: The reason why viewing the Summary tab causes the last-access time to be updated is that the Summary tab retrieves its information by calling Stg­Open­Storage, and there’s no way to tell that function, “Hey, when you open the file in order to see if it has any document properties, do that Do­Not­Update­Last­Access­Time thing so you don’t update the last access time.”

Bonus chatter: Starting in Windows Vista, maintaining the last-access time is disabled by default. In practice, this means that the number of bugs related to altering the last-access time accidentally will multiply unchecked, because the mechanism for detecting the error is disabled by default.


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