Windows Prefetch files, introduced in Windows XP, are designed to speed up the application startup process. Prefetch files contain the name of the executable, a Unicode list of DLLs used by that executable, a count of how many times the executable was has been run, and a timestamp indicating the last time the program was run. Although Prefetch is present in Windows 2003, by default it is only enabled for boot prefetching. The feature is also found in Windows Vista, where it has been augmented with SuperFetch, ReadyBoot, and ReadyBoost.
Up to 128 Prefetch files are stored in the %SystemRoot%\Prefetch directory . Each file in that directory should contain the name of the application (up to eight (?) characters), a dash, and then an eight character hash of the location from which that application was run, and a .pf extension. The filenames should be all uppercase except for the extension. The format of hashes is not known. A sample filename for md5deep would look like: MD5DEEP.EXE-4F89AB0C.pf. If an application is run from two different locations on the drive (i.e. the user runs C:\md5deep.exe and then C:\Apps\Hashing\md5deep.exe, there will be two different prefetch files in the Prefetch folder.
Both the NTFS timestamps for a Prefetch file and the timestamp embedded in each Prefetch file contain valuable information. The creation date of the file indicates the first time the application was executed. Both the modification date of the file and the embedded timestamp indicate the last time the application was executed.
- Windows File Analyzer - Parses Prefetch files, thumbnail databases, shortcuts, index.dat files, and the recycle bin
- Microsoft's description of Prefetch when Windows XP was introduced
- More detail from Microsoft