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It should come as no surprise that your computer has an underground element. The Window’s Database is that place – it holds instructions for your computer and, among them, includes details that manage thousands of small tasks on a PC.
Annoyingly, this database (also called the Windows Registry) can make an environment for errors – including traces of programs you’ve already uninstalled. But like many behind-the-scenes elements, it’s dangerous to play with the registry unless you know exactly what you’re doing.
What to Know Before Editing the Registry
There are many solutions to errors that involve making changes to the registry. And so long as you’re following step-by-step instructions and picking your way through the database carefully, you should be just fine. The concern about modifying the Registry is that there is always a chance something will go wrong. You’re working in the most fundamental layer of the computer, so if you delete the wrong thing, as one computer expert explained, “you've got an expensive doorstop.”
You have the power to put it back, but you must do so with exactness. Perhaps this is why Microsoft makes editing the registry sound downright sinister:
“Serious problems might occur if you modify the registry incorrectly by using Registry Editor or by using another method. These problems might require that you reinstall the operating system. Microsoft cannot guarantee that these problems can be solved. Modify the registry at your own risk.”
What is the Windows Registry?
So all of this gloom and doom is a bit hard to swallow without knowing exactly what it is that we’re talking about: the registry is the central database that is used to store communications information. The data stored in the Registry is necessary to configure, or make the system work, for the users, for applications and for the various hardware devices.
Inside the registry you’ll find . . .
· Program instructions: these include startup commands, schedules and priorities that dictate when to run, which programs have authority over others and where programs can find resources.
· Hardware interfaces: these are commands that tell different programs how to access a given hardware driver, such as that needed to configure printers, monitors and scanners hooked up to the computer
· User preferences: the personal preferences for every user are stored in the registry and just about everything that makes the computer do what it does every time you turn it on.
· Display and behavior settings: configurations that make certain windows show up, organize the taskbar, and dictate file layouts
When new users, programs or hardware are added to your machine, the registry is updated to reflect these changes. Should you decide later to uninstall one of the programs, traces of the program and its removal can be found on the registry. These aren’t files, but instructions that apply to the application you just removed. To make things just a bit more complicated for the typical computer user, the registry entries appear as a complex hierarchy that isn’t always decipherable if you’re trying to follow instructions and clean out the registry yourself.
For example, the spelled-out registry entry for Microsoft Office 2010 looks like this:
To find this entry in the registry on your computer, you start by clicking on Start. In the box that appears type ‘Run’, and select the Run application. Then in the next box that appears type in ‘regedit’.
This opens the registry editor, Windows’ native editing program for the database. Here’s what you’ll see:
A significant number of the configurations stored in the registry aren’t actually necessary for running your machine. This is due to the inefficiency of the database itself. A new entry is made for just about everything you do on the computer. And while the database does manage itself to some level, there is almost never any cleaning that takes place after the fact. That is to say, Windows doesn’t necessarily purge the entries that are meaningless when you’ve removed hardware, uninstalled software or even clicked off this webpage.
So what, right? The thing is, the bloat from these old entries can affect the performance of your machine and often the extra entries lead to errors in predictable ways: they conflict with newer versions of entries stored when you install newer versions of programs and/or hardware.
Cleaning the Registry
While it is possible to clean the registry yourself, it’s certainly not advisable to start deleting things that just seem like extra material. Instead, what you’ll usually find is a set of instructions pertaining to a specific task or problem you want to address. For example, in Windows XP, it was a common modification to remove the recycle bin from the desktop. To do this, you had to go to the registry, find the command that put a link to the recycle bin on the desktop and delete it. This kept the recycle bin in place, but removed its reference.
If you’re going to delete things from the registry do so very carefully by following the instructions that deal with a particular error message you may have received.
If duplicate entries in the registry or corrupted files have caused errors, you’ll find instructions to delete an entry online. The key is to trust the source of your instructions. If you’re in a forum, the best thing to do is look at the responses. If someone says that a given method worked, it’s likely safe to try. If responders complain, leave it be.
HINT: lines of configuration in the registry (called keys) are very specific. If you don't necessarily want to delete something, alter the key in some simple way, such as adding an "x" onto the beginning or end. This will temporarily disable that key. If that solves the problem or allows you to adjust settings as you wish, then you can come back and fully delete it. If you don't like the changes, you can come back and remove the "x."
Dealing with one or two pinpoint issues is usually straight forward, and it’s fine to proceed with these specific instructions with confidence. You don’t have to be a computer whiz to edit the registry, just careful and conscientious.
The large amounts of excess files that cause a bloated and slow computer system are a bit more challenging to handle, however. In those cases, there are no specific directions about which files to delete and the long and short of it is there may be simply too many to assess one by one. If you’ve got an error that’s popping up on the desktop, you likely don’t want to research hundreds (literally) of configurations to see what’s causing the problem.
In the cases where you suspect an error but don’t know how to pin it down, you’ll likely need something designed to clean and organize the Windows database – an automatic registry editor.
What is an Automatic Registry Editor?
An automatic registry editor assists you in cleaning and modifying the registry to remove the excessive entries that may be slowing down your machine or causing errors. Usually they do three things:
1. using a dynamic list that can be updated routinely, it seeks out common problem entries (including malicious ones) and systematically removes them.
2. using a common-sense heuristic, it does what a person could do but in seconds rather than . . . say . . . days. This includes pairing up all installed programs with the configurations they’re expected to have and then culling the extra. It also includes the simple but multiplicitous task pairing up thousands of entries and removing duplicates.
3. using some type of integrated backup system, it provides a safety net for all its actions – something that is harder for an individual to do. This backup system allows it to restore entries if their removal causes problems or even to revert the whole registry to a former state.
Of course, the better the automatic registry editor, the more beneficial it can be. With that in mind, be sure to consider the following features in a automatic registry editor:
An automatic back-up – The first step to making any changes to your registry is to back-up what is already there. Making a back-up of the registry ensures that you can fix any mistakes you might make as you clean house. While there are ways to manually make a back-up, it’s far simpler to use the automatic registry editor to create the back-up for you.
Control over what’s happening – When you’re working in the deep, dark depths of your computer, you need to be in control of the ship. While automated features work nicely to assist you in cleaning out the registry, nothing should be happening without your express permission. Let the automatic editor do the dirty work like slogging through thousands of configurations to find the ones that are broken or unnecessary, but then be sure you’re in complete control before the automatic system starts deleting things at will.
Intuitive – Even if you’re not especially familiar with the Window’s Registry, you should be able to navigate the registry editor you’ve selected. Be sure that the program is truly intuitive and well supported. If you have a question or doubt, you should be able to find the answer before you press any buttons. And you should be able to find the buttons at will – guess and check is too dangerous a game to play with something this important.
Ability to make a hijack log – This one is especially important: in the worst case scenario, working in your registry doesn’t make the problems go away, but seems to uncover additional problems that you’re not able to immediately solve. At this point, the automatic registry editor should be able to make a log of what’s happened and what’s occurring in the moment. The hijack log was invented some time ago as a simple, text-based readout of all the things that are actively running on your computer. It often looks like a mess to the average user, but to certified tech support, it provides the culprit list for problems.
Sometimes just going back through these logs yourself can show you where problems started and give you a means to search online for a solution without having to wait on customer service. If nothing else, you’ll be able to share specifics with service reps rather than simply telling them that you “have a problem.”
Being specific as you work with someone to solve any errors makes the process faster, cuts down on fraud or misunderstanding and makes the solution far easier to finalize.
Once you’ve selected an automatic registry editor, cleaning the database and keeping files updated and trouble-free will be far easier than you might imagine, especially as many of the automatic registry editors include routine maintenance as well as cleaning at will.
Where to Go to Get It
You can find a host of registry cleaners at any reputable download site, including
We tested a range of cleaners using the features listed above and our best recommendation is FixCleaner. Maybe that’s not so surprising, but considering the qualities we’re looking for, FixCleaner provides an advanced cleaning platform that’s easy for all levels of users and has an outstanding track record. Instead of a generic list of problems, it uses a cloud-based communications system so that it can constantly sync with a massive online database to find problems. Perhaps the best feature though, is that FixCleaner is fully automated. It lets you clean, organize, optimize and manage your PC with push-button ease.
Our second pick is SlimCleaner. Among the features on our checklist, this multi-use tool provides control, safety and ease of use. But like FixCleaner, it’s also got plenty of power, including cloud-based cleaning. What this translates to is a really powerful and fast program that’s also small, fast and that won’t slow down your system.
The best part is, SlimCleaner is completely free. It doesn’t have as many automated features as FixCleaner, but for users on a budget, it establishes that crucial touchpoint for removing errors and keeping a computer working the way it should. Click here to get it or to learn more on download.com’s review page.
In the next issue, we’ll talk about DLLs and other library files and what happens to various programs when they can't access the resources they rely on.