The Windows Registry

Warning – this article is an introduction to the Windows Registry.  A comprehensive guide to its use could fill a book, and we simply don’t have room here.  If you’re going to make changes to any values within the Windows Registry, make sure you back it up first, or risk having to reinstall your Operating System. 

To make global changes to the registry, you need to be logged in as an Administrator.  Otherwise, changes you make will only apply to your user account.

What is the Windows Registry?

The Windows Registry is a cluster of databases that hold information about that Windows and other software use to determine system configuration, user settings, and other data.  In short, it’s like the Operating System’s knowledge base – it contains answers to questions that any piece of software might ask.

The Registry Editor

The Registry Editor is built into every version of Windows.  It’s a simple database viewer program, accessed by typing “regedit” in the search or run window.  When it first opens, the registry list is displayed in the left hand side of the window.  They look like folders.

The Windows Registry is organized into three levels: hives, keys, and values.  It’s the values that are the real configuration information.  The hives and keys are a hierarchical filing system that keeps the values cataloged.  It’s actually much more intuitive than it might seem.

Backing Up the Registry

Before you make any changes to the Registry, you need to perform a backup.  There are two ways you can go:

  1. Create a system restore point, which will include an image of the Registry.  Should something not work as planned, simply revert to the restore point.
  2. You can back up the entire registry from within the Registry Editor by clicking on the “Computer” option at the top of the listings, and choosing File > Export.  If something stops working correctly, you can load the backed-up registry file by choosing File > Import and selecting the file you created.

As you become more experienced in Registry editing, you will probably want to start backing up only the keys or subkeys you are editing, because it’s faster and takes up less memory.

Making Changes

Registry changes are not to be undertaken lightly.  Usually they’re performed with a purpose in mind.  They can be very powerful, but they can render your computer unbootable if you perform them incorrectly.

Here’s an example of a Registry Tweak that can speed up your computer, by disabling the “Low Disk Space” checking capability in Windows, which can waste valuable resources by constantly monitoring the remaining storage capacity of your hard disk.  If your hard disk is never anywhere near full, and you monitor its capacity yourself, this is a waste of processing power.  Here’s how:

Open Regedit, and go to the HKEY_CURRENT_USER Hive, and then the Software\Microsoft\Windows\Current Version\Policies key.

If there is a subkey called Explorer, select it.  If not, create it by selecting Edit>New>DWORD (32-Bit Value).  Name it NoLowDiskSpaceChecks.  Then select it, and choose Edit>Modify.  Change its value to 1.

Voila, you’ve tweaked your computer (just a little bit) by editing the registry.  There are plenty of other tweaks you might want to consider, but beware – Windows is sensitive about its Registry, and it doesn’t want you poking it just for fun.

Cleaning Up Your Registry

When you remove or reconfigure software on your computer, often a “trail” of registry keys is left behind.  These unused entries take up space in the Registry database, and slows access when the computer is searching for needed information.

You have two choices – manual deletion of these unnecessary keys, or the use of an automated cleaning program.

CCleaner is the best known of these programs, and it’s available free. CCleaner does more than just clean up orphaned keys, and is highly recommended. I myself use it all the time.

TweakNow RegCleaneris also free, and uses a very simple interface to perform the task of removing redundant or obsolete registry entries.

Beware of Registry “Fix” Programs

Unfortunately, there are a lot of scammers out there promising to fix your computer through registry editors. At best, they either do the same that a free program like CCleaner can do, and at worst,  they claim to be registry wizards, but are actually thinly disguised malware.  Never choose to install software that “pops up” when you visit a web page, and tells you that Windows is causing problems.

Also, never fall for the phone call from “Microsoft Windows Support Centre” or the like that tells you that your computer will stop working if you don’t provide your credit card to buy registry cleaning software.

If you need to clean your registry, make sure you are getting recognized software (both the examples above are freeware) from a reputable provider.  We recommend the download section of CNET for tested, virus free software downloads.

Happy Hacking!

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