The case of the slow font drop-down in Microsoft Word

A couple of staff recently reported that they were experiencing an odd problem in Microsoft Word 2010. Whenever they tried to open the font drop-down to pick a new font, there was a frustrating delay of about 5-10 seconds between clicking on the drop-down and the drop-down opening, during which time Word would not respond to any user input.

During this time, the drop-down itself would either be invisible apart from the Aero shadow effect, or appear as a filled black rectangle:

It seemed like Word was having a really hard time enumerating all the fonts on the system and creating the previews that are shown in the dropdown.

(This is a technical article, so try to keep up.)

Initially only a single user reported the problem. Having recently dealt with a case involving a corrupt copy of Helvetica, I checked the machine for rogue or corrupt font files in the %WinDir%\Fonts directory. When that turned up nothing, I tried a reinstall of Office. No joy there, so I chalked it up to either sunspot activity or voodoo. Since the user was not overly troubled by the problem (and has one of the few workstations in the school with applications that are tricky to reinstall), I resolved to rebuild the machine when I had time.

Before that happened, I got another report. This time, I discovered that the problem followed the user around to different machines, something I hadn’t checked with the first user since they always used the same machine.

It was time to break out the big guns. Specifically, Process Monitor.

After logging the incident a couple of times, something immediately leapt out at me.

WINDOWS.EXE CreateFile \\old-serv\username$\My Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Office\fbcCA3E.tmp BAD NETWORK PATH

Of course, the server path wasn’t actually called old-serv, but it was the name of a server I’d retired over the summer that used to hold user data such as their redirected AppData directory. What’s more, Word was suspiciously trying to open this file over and over while I was waiting for the font drop-down to open:

I quickly spotted it was picking up this spurious file name from HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\Common\FontBmpCache in the user’s registry.

There’s not much in the way of documentation about this online, so I’m not sure if this is new in Office 2010 or was also in earlier versions, but from the name, I would say it’s a cache of the font preview bitmaps that appear in the font drop-down. Because my users had been migrated to a new server over the summer break, the file could no longer be found, and this was causing Word to choke as it repeatedly tried to resolve the non-existent pathname.

Solution

Deleting the value from the registry immediately resolved the problem.

There are a couple of things that still bother me, however.

  1. Why did only 2 users report this problem, when all users had been migrated away from this server? Partly this can be put down to the fact that most of our users were only using Windows XP before the migration, and started using Windows 7 immediately after, when they received new .V2 format user profiles. For those users who had been using Windows 7 before the migration, all of them will have had the same problem. Most did not report it.
  2. Why is Word so dumb that it stores the absolute path to a file in AppData, rather than using the %APPDATA% environment variable? All it would take is changing the REG_SZ value to a REG_SZ_EXPAND, and the job’s done. Only the Office developers could explain why they didn’t do it. They could also answer this:
  3. Why is Word so dumb that it can’t work out the old path is unavailable and create a new file in the correct AppData folder? Without tracking this down, only recreating the user’s profile would have fixed the problem. I regard that as quite a drastic step. It shouldn’t ever be necessary.

In my view, this also strengthens the case for using DFS paths whenever possible for folder redirection. If I need to move the files to a new server in future, I can simply update the DFS target with the new server name. Of course, using DFS for everything in Windows 7 would be a lot more practical if they worked properly with Libraries, which they don’t. Hint to the Windows team: get on that, you idiots.

About The Angry Technician

The Angry Technician is an experienced IT professional in the UK education sector. Normally found in various states of annoyance on his blog. All views are those of his imaginary pet dog, Howard.

14 responses to “The case of the slow font drop-down in Microsoft Word”

  1. Gerard Sweeney says :

    Interesting..

    The Staff in here have been grumbling that Word/Excel are taking about 5-10 seconds to open a file when double-clicked.. I suspect I’ll be trying your investigation methodology.

    Cheers,
    Gerard

  2. Gerard Sweeney says :

    Looks like it wasn’t a font issue, but Adobe’s Web Standard CS4 “Contribute” plugins. Oddly enough, Adobe make no mention of any such issue on their forums. In fact, if I believed what’s on there, it’s the single greatest bit of coding out and will cut the grass for me.

    I’ve disabled them with a few regsvr32 commands, and things seem to be moving along a good bit faster.

    Interestingly (well, maybe?), whenever I double-clicked on a .doc file, Process Monitor was registering WinWord polling through all of the local user profiles for something. Which on library PCs is a bit of a bind, given the free-for-all that is the interval and lunchbreak.

    I’ve asked a few users who were particularly vocal about the slow-double-click if the changes have made any impact. So far, they’ve been less than vocal in their replies. Which potentially is a good sign :)

  3. Gerard Sweeney says :

    It appears not.

    Another one to grace our WTF category was when our (mercifully few) Mac users couldn’t get BBC IPlayer to – erm – play.

    Which led my colleague to this:

    https://bugs.adobe.com/jira/browse/FP-5161

    In amongst the conversation it’s apparent the original poster wants to develop a punch-to-the-face-over-TCPIP program to try to get Adobe to READ his findings – namely that Flash Player 10 on the Mac apparently doesn’t support Proxy authentication. Genius.

  4. Daniel Beardsmore says :

    This has been plaguing me for months! Finding no joy with the interwebs (I found your page only after I discovered the offending Registry value), I did the same as you — set Process Monitor on the job. This turned up the offending Registry value, that was pointing to our old server, hence a short timeout every time I tried to open the font menu.

    I am not sure what’s worse, that Office 2010 is still just as stupid (I’m in Office 2003 under XP), or that Word is storing the name of a temporary file (!!) in the Registry. Surely the bitmap cache would be stored as, oh, OfficeFontBitmapCache.dat, with the path being derived at runtime? Someone probably got a raise for this misfeature ;-)

    Process Monitor is going to be my new best friend (it identified another fault the other day where an outdated printer driver was causing Office 2010 programs to crash under Win 7 32-bit, e.g. when opening the font dropdown)

  5. Rudy Scott says :

    Thanks a bunch–this solved same problem for me!

  6. Steve h says :

    Why do you say:

    “(This is a technical article, so try to keep up.)”

    Surely you don’t think business people will be reading this?

    lol :)

  7. Steve h says :

    As for this:

    “Hint to the Windows team: get on that, you idiots”

    You think programmers who make MS word are idiots? Come on now…tut tut!

  8. Fergo says :

    Brilliant – much appreciated and instantly resolved my painful issue!

  9. Jack says :

    Thank you very much for the this blog. It instantly resolved my issue.
    I do still have another ongoing issue that I feel must be linked. When trying to Save or Open a file I get the same delay and “Not Responding” pause for a number of seconds prior to the Explorer box opening.
    As My Documents are located on the same moved server would I be correct in thinking that it may be polling the old server first?
    Any advice in finding the offending line in the Registry to try and rectify the problem?

  10. Brian says :

    Thanks for the well conceived article. Your brilliant explanation allowed me to quickly identify and fix an annoyance that a user had been living with for a long time.

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  1. [MS Office - 2003] Slow font drop down Office 2003 - 15th March, 2013

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