Welcome to the first post in a series which will help you keep your PC or laptop computer running smoothly. Today I’m going to look at a Windows ‘feature’ which is often the root cause of many problems: the Windows Registry.
We’ll look at why the Registry exists, the problems it can cause, and ways of preventing it from bringing your computer to a grinding halt.
The Windows Registry: a quick intro
The Registry is a giant database of settings used by Windows and individual programs. It can store separate groups of settings for different people if many users have an account on the computer. The Registry replaced ‘INI’ files (so-called because they ended in .ini) which stored settings for Windows versions prior to 3.1.
The INI files were plain text files, and their number grew over time, and couldn’t handle multi-user situations. (To digress a little, systems like Mac OS X and Linux use text files for settings in many situations, keeping them in the users’ home folders, a close equivalent to the C:\UserName folder in Windows 7).
The Registry is structured in pairs of keys and values – the ‘key’ being the name of the setting, coupled with its ‘value’, perhaps a word or number.
Problems with the Registry
Anyone who’s used a Windows computer for any length of time will have all kinds of tales to tell about corrupt, bloated or infected Registries. But I’m not going to spend time here debating whether the Registry is a good thing or a bad thing. Rather I want to ask why the Registry can create problems.
Too many keys and values
When you install a new program, or open a new file, the Registry stores associated settings, such as which program to use to open a file with a given ending (such as Microsoft Word to open .doc files). But sometimes when you uninstall a program, the Registry keeps this information in it (just in case you want to re-install the program, and don’t want to lose its settings, I suppose).
This means that over time your Registry can end up a lot larger than it needs to be, full of useless settings information. When Windows comes to look through the Registry for useful information in extreme cases this can take a lot longer than it needs to because it has to wade through all the junk.
We’ll see about trimming the fat from the Registry below.
Sometimes a setting will have no ‘value’ in it, for example a reference to a type of file, but no program set to open it. This isn’t a problem in itself, but again counts as unnecessary information, and such keys can be removed.
The Registry is a ‘binary’ database, which means that you need a special program to open it (as opposed to a ‘plain text’ file, which can be opened in any text editor or word processor). This means that if odd data gets in there, Windows cannot read it, and it becomes difficult to fix the problem. You may get odd messages (such as ‘permission denied’ when you try to view such a key) and blank settings screens under Control Panel or in related places.
Rescuing a corrupt Registry is discussed below too.
Avoiding and Solving Registry problems
Registry problems can show themselves as random crashes, resetting, blank settings boxes or severe slowing down of your whole computer. But there are ways to prevent such a situation, or escape from these problems if you are struck by them.
Keep Anti-malware programs up to date
Registry problems can be caused by malicious software (‘malware’) trying to change settings without you knowing about it, such as your browser homepage. Keep your anti-virus (AV) software up to date, and carry out regular scans. Also, be careful what you download, and make sure your AV is scanning new files as you download them.
Shut down your computer and software properly
This is just a general piece of good advice anyway, but unless you really really need to do otherwise, make sure you shut down Windows properly from the start menu, and give it enough time to turn itself off before you pull the plug. The same goes for software. Sometimes Windows will warn you that something refuses to close, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the software has crashed. Try giving it a few more seconds before you pull the plug – and give it a chance to write any updates to the Registry if it needs to.
Don’t delete things at random
It can be tempting to keep your computer neat and tidy by deleting un-needed files. This is all well and good in your document folders, but when it comes to the Windows folder or the Program Files folders you need to be very careful. Only delete something if you’re absolutely sure you know what you are doing. Most programs should be removed in the ‘Uninstall a Program’ section of the Control Panel. Occasionally bits will be left behind, but at least reboot the computer before removing files by hand. The reboot may get rid of them for you.
The same goes for the Registry itself. I’ve had countless customers who tried to fix their computer by changing or deleting things in the Registry. This may work, but again unless you know what you’re going it can lead to more – or worse – problems.
Use a Registry Scanner
This is usually the safest way to remove junk from the Registry, but there are some warnings here too. Registry scanners are all over the Internet, and it can be hard to know which ones to use. Many of these are actually malware themselves, so be careful what you trust.
Added to that, using more than one of the reputable programs can lead to all sorts of problems, so find one that works for you, and stick with it. You may even find that some software you already own includes a Registry scanner with it (some AV software does this), or you can pick up handy software which does other maintenance tasks too, such as defragmenting the hard drive.
Here are some recommendations:
- CCleaner (free): Includes a Registry cleaner along with a junk file remover and an alternative way to uninstall software.
- System Mechanic (around £25): Contains a whole suite of computer maintenance tools, and can fix other issues with your PC, such as hard drive errors and junk file overload.
- TuneUp Utilities (around £15): Like System Mechanic, this software is a group of tools, including ones to change the appearance of Windows, speed up your Internet connection, clear out junk files and recover lost data.
All these programs have their own specialities, as well as overlapping features. It’s possible to install all three to get all the tools you need to take control of your computer, but if you do, I’d recommend that you choose just one to take care of the Registry. In addition, remember to back up the Registry before you make any changes, so that if something goes wrong which leaves your computer in a broken state, you can restore it to a working version