Whenever I reconnect the external hard drive, it will have to reload the thumbnails all over again. Isn't there a cache that remembers from last time?
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Hardly. Drive letters are allocated dynamically.
Does that mean it has to relaod thumbnails every single time?
'Dynamically' means that a letter is allocated as the next available. So it is not necessarily the same as the last time you plugged the unit in (and it is possible that another item has taken that letter)
So the answer to your Q. is........
Thumbnails are stored in the Thumbs.db file. But Explorer rebuilds/verifies them every time a drive is reconnected (the files could have been changed by another OS without updating the db).