In Microsoft Windows, application and system configuration settings are stored in a database known as the registry. The registry is, to many, a confusing and ominous place, and rightfully so. A corrupted registry can certainly result in application failure and even the inability of a system to boot properly. Consequently, editing, deleting, or creating registry keys incorrectly is a dangerous thing to do. However, knowing how to properly fix registry errors is a useful skill for any computer user to have.
Viewing and editing the Windows registry is performed by the REGEDIT.EXE program. Because of the dangers of playing around in this database, Microsoft has made it relatively difficult for someone casually browsing their computer to find. In Windows XP or earlier, REGEDIT.EXE can be opened by going to the Start > Run…, typing regedit, and hitting Enter. In Windows Vista or Windows 7, users can type regedit in the Start Search box.
Once the Windows Registry Editor is loaded, the intricate structure of the registry is shown on the left with a series of layered lists. The five primary keys each contain configurations for different aspects of the system. Each key can be expanded down to further sub-keys. The right side of the Windows registry editor shows all values of the selected key. A key’s value determines how the key affects the operating system. Values can be strings, numbers, binary data, or links to other registry keys. The values of a key determine how it affects the operating system and applications. For instance, let us say that a computer game has a registry key that tells it how loud to play sound. The registry value in this key may be set to 80. Moving this number up and down would alter the volume of this application. However, changing this value to a string and setting it to “banana” may cause the program to be muted or not run at all. From this small example, it’s easy to understand why improper manipulation of the registry can be harmful.
However, editing the registry can be helpful. A common reason to edit the Windows registry is to get rid of a program that will not completely uninstall. Although Windows offers a built-in application installation and removal system, software bundled with adware and spyware, as well as many commercial anti-malware systems, are difficult to completely remove. To fix this, delete the application’s directory. Then, browse HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software and HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software and delete keys related to unwanted programs resisting removal. The program’s presence will then be purged from the computer.
In most other cases, manual editing of the registry should be avoided except with the guidance of an expert. Software developers have created various registry cleaners, like System Optimizer Pro that can boost system performance by purging unused keys and fixing broken ones. These programs are useful and can certainly be a great tool to have for occasional system maintenance every couple of months. However, users should always create a system restore point before editing their Windows registry just in case something does go wrong.