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Windows Mail improves slightly on Outlook Express by keeping messages in separate files. That can be used to resolve issues with some messages.

I now have 5 "Message cannot be displayed" "Windows Mail encountered an unexpected problem while displaying this message" and these messages cannot be deleted. The 3 in my "Drafts" and 1 in my "Inbox" do not stop functioning but the 1 in my "Outbox" stops me from sending mail. Can you help me?


Long time readers will know that my opinion of Outlook Express, and its Vista equivalent, Windows Mail, is not very high. That's based mostly on problem reports I see every day.

The two programs are nearly identical, but in this case there's a difference that, if you're lucky, might serve you very well.

One of the problems I see happening repeatedly with Outlook Express relates to it's "data store", the files and folders that make up the database in which it keeps your email. It's apparently fragile, and proprietary.

Windows Mail, while clearly a successor to Outlook Express in almost every other way, uses a slightly different storage mechanism. Rather than single files containing all messages in a folder, each folder is ... well, a folder on disk. And each message is a single file.

Seems simple, right? Well, it's not really, since Windows Mail still keeps a separate index of your messages in a separate, proprietary file. But, if the problem is with the message body, and not Window's Mail's index, we may be able to help with the problem you're facing. This may not work, but it's something to try.

"But, if the problem is with the message body, and not Window's Mail's index, we may be able to help ..."

In Windows Mail, we'll locate the store folder this way:

  • Click on the Tools menu

  • Click on the Options... menu item

  • Click on the Advanced tab

  • Click on the Maintenance... button

  • Click on the Store Folder... button

After all that clicking, you should see a dialog box much like this one:

Windows Mail Store Folder dialog

Close Windows Mail, and open Windows Explorer and navigate to that folder. You should see something similar to this:

Windows Mail store folder viewed in Windows Explorer

If you double click on Local Folders, you should now see folders for each of your top level mail folders like Inbox, Outbox and the like.

If you double click on Outbox, you'll likely see at least one, perhaps more, ".eml" files. These are messages waiting to be sent. If you don't mind losing them all, then just delete them.

If you need to actually save them or at least make an intelligent decision about which to delete, you can open them in Notepad to examine the message that each contains. Based on what you find, you can decide what to delete.

Now, unfortunately, we're not done. If you now open Windows Mail again, you might see that the messages still appear in the folder from which you think you deleted them. That's because of the separate index of all the messages that I mentioned earlier. However, if the problem is with the message body itself, you may now be able to delete the message in Windows Mail, whereas before you might not have been able to.

And if you can, that may clear up the other problem(s) you may be having. Perhaps you'll be able to send again.

Now, if the problem is with Windows Mail's index, things get dicier.

I'm not aware of a do-it-yourself solution, like we attempted above. There are recovery tools out there, most of which claim to work with Outlook Express, but some may now also work with Windows Mail. I can't recommend, or even suggest one, since I've never used one. I'm very skeptical of most, since each time I post an article on the topic, the companies feel the need to spam the comments with obvious advertisements for their products. However, if readers have honest recommendations for tools that are worth investigating, particularly tools that work well with Vista's Windows Mail, I'd love to see those.

My solution? As I've mentioned before: Thunderbird. It doesn't actually solve your current problem, but it avoids its recurrence. Thunderbird data stores are plain text files ("mbox" format, for those who care), and the indexes Thunderbird keeps can be rebuilt on demand by simply compacting, or by deleting the existing ones (".msf" files).

Article C3470 - August 8, 2008 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

August 12, 2008 10:20 AM

Hi Leo
When I used Outlook Express I had a similar problem and all I did to resolve the problem was to launch Outlook Express and then open and close every folder and the problem was gone!
I now use Windows Live Mail but so far I have not had any problems with it.
Regards Robin

August 12, 2008 12:11 PM

Leo, you are right on the money.
I have helped fix so many outlook problems
myself and personally i have never used the program.
To buggy for me.
Just another fan of yours.

March 30, 2009 6:20 AM

Good Morning
me i have problem with Winodws Mail.
I install WINDOWS SEVEN un my computer Bluid 7057 i find Windows Mail with icon with every think but dont want to run and dont apear any problem.
Please help me in this situation for i use Winodws Mail.
Thnak you For This Site.

June 8, 2010 10:59 AM

I can't believe you gave the perfect answer.
I tried everything to remove ONE email from
Vista windows mail and nothing worked until I asked you LEO.

Thank you so much. Have a Latte on me!

June 8, 2010 11:04 AM


I changed my mind and decided to buy you the
six pack of your choice.

Thanks again

Kåre Vergmann
June 26, 2012 9:20 AM

Hallo Leo.
Interessting points you give. Great.
Maybee you can help me further ...
I need to delete directly from this same folders as you quote (by use of vb): do you know what to do so you really get rid of the messages you want to delete. You talked about the index-file. Is it possible to manipulate those?
Thanks Kåre

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