Windows

Clean your registry with care


Mike Mullins has written a great post over in the TechRepublic IT Security blog that captures a lot of my feelings about registry cleaning programs, and I think it's worth drawing attention to here for readers of the Help Desk blog.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post listing some of my favorite utilities for Windows maintenance. Many readers mentioned in their comments other programs that they've found useful, and a lot of these were registry cleaners. I kept mum at the time, but I have to admit that I don't use these types of programs very often, and I wouldn't recommend them to anyone but the most advanced users.

The Windows registry is flawed, that's true. When it comes to the Windows installations I manage, I'd rather re-image a machine and start fresh with a clean registry than try bandaging any problems. Also, registry maintenance programs can cause more harm than good when used by someone who doesn't have a full understanding of what's going on under the hood. I find for most users it's usually better to let Windows take care of itself when it comes to system tasks: uninstalling programs, maintaining the registry, or managing virtual memory. Microsoft's engineers know better than anyone the arcane underpinnings of Windows' system routines, and their built-in handlers usually get the job done well enough.

Employing registry cleaners to shave a few milliseconds off of system boot times or to chase improved efficiency smacks of "tuner" behavior to me. If you want to be a tuner, then more power to you, but be aware that those types of car guys sometimes burn their engines out.

I'm sure I'm going to hear from several help desk pros who have used registry cleaners to solve pernicious Windows problems and are ready to sing their praises. Good on you guys. But I'd bet that—to a (wo)man—you're extremely experienced Windows users and admins who didn't undertake your registry editing lightly. That's because registry cleaners are specialized tools that, unless drafted for a very specific purpose, are better left alone by the average user.

If users get to the point where they might need a registry cleaner, that's when they're supposed to call us.

25 comments
AstroCreep
AstroCreep

My past experiences aren't that it's WINODWS where the problem lies (for a change) but with the Uninstall routine that the Application's programmers didn't fully write "Just in case" the user ever decides to reinstall the app. Then there are the A-Hole companies that leave registry entries all over the place, simply because they're a-hole companies. Examples: -AOL (as I mentioned in Mike's thread) -Symantec Both of these apps suck to try and uninstall. At least Symantec recognised that and gives you 'NoNAV' as a free download to yank-out all the stagnant registry entries. Why they can't just put that in as a 'final' step for the uninstall is beyond me... As far as a 'normal user' using a registry cleaning app, most of the commercial ones (SystemWorks, PC Mechanic, etc) usually have some sort of 'Undo Engine' or a method of making backups. One of my personal favorites, CCleaner, has a way to make backups. Doesn't really have a trackable 'Undo Engine' per se, but you're prompted to make backups (which I ALWAYS do), and as all of us 'Pros' know, making backups for Registry is pretty much a necessity. So I'm going off-tangent here...but yeah, I don't think it's necessarily is Window's 'problem'.

Chasa
Chasa

I use CCleaner and RegSeeker on a regular basis because software uninstallers almost never remove all CLSID's, Keys, and other changes they make to a registry. What you will find is that you must run them at least three times in succession to remove all related junk. I have NEVER experienced a need to restore anything that they have removed. I find regseeker to be more thorough then CCleaner.

basil.cinnamon
basil.cinnamon

True that cleaners can be overly ambitious and pull the e-rugs out from under you, but I've also had cleaners get at problems that were just intractable by other means. Bottom line: back up the registry first (most good cleaners offer you the option); clean it up; if it works, great, if not go back to the saved one and start again. Finally, it's us geeks, not the "average user" who is reading these posts, so don't worry about them. On the subject, I've come across the Wise system and registry cleaners (www.wisecleaner.com); freeware that works better than most, even if the English translation of the menus suffers a bit. Crap Cleaner (http://www.ccleaner.com/)is also pretty good.

Joe_R
Joe_R

If a registry gets too messy, I'd rather start with a clean install.

jattas
jattas

I agree up to a point with both Mike and Bill in principle on the over use of many utilities by us technical folk. But a few observations: 1. I like many of my fellow IT peers, carry an arsenal of troubleshooting/fixing programs, scanners, etc. 2. I too am guilty, under production conditions, of restoring an image rather than finding out what happened. 3. When the culprit PC, is owned by an upper level executive, who does not play by the rules, it's time to pull out the tool bag and see what you can do. I may be wrong, but the first thing I do is run a registry editor/cleaner, to see what happens to the resulting "sick puppy". Then I move on. I also back up the registry before continuing. There are no absolutes here. If the data that wasn't saved on the server and the potential loss of data is expensive (as it often is, an attempt at recovery is probably a smart move. I have had many people on my staff, who consider it a waste of time to try to recover rather than restore an image. I think I may have invented the image create/restore scenario, back in the early 1980's. I still feel that the old registry cleaner/editor is a VERY worthwhile diversion on the premise it might save a ton of time by IT or user in trying to recreate something he destroyed through carelessness or not following correct procedures. It all comes down to money: what is the cost of saving critical or sensitive data versus, just wiping out the system and possibly having to recreate it. I always try to save the guys butt first.

royhayward
royhayward

I spent a good deal of time at the beginning of my IT career on the phone with users that had computer issues that were out of their depth. Many users were calling in after an update from Adaptec with three registry errors that were happening on startup, and causing bad behavior/non-functional CD-Rom/DVD-rom issues. Telling these users to restore their systems with the restore disk would have just been cruel. As would walking them through a re-install of windows. For many, getting them to open reg-edit was also scary for them and for us. (remember, this was over the phone.) Registry cleaners were a great solution to these issues. Also, in the event that I visit a sick computer today, I don't always know the history of this machine, (many times the owners don't know either as they normally have kids that have installed junk.) sure I can scan the setup.api file but this can be tedious. Running a set of tools like spybot and ccleaner can show me what has gone on, and lead me to a quicker solution. (And a reputation as a miracle worker) Instead of declaiming reg cleaning software as a bad practice, lets discuss how they should be used. I think too many of us have these in our tool kits and have used them too often to save peoples virtual bacon to accept the kind of indictment that they have received here.

Neil Higgins
Neil Higgins

when using Regedit,I often thought "hmnn..now what does that line mean?" If unsure,dont mess.I used to use ccleaner,when I had Windows at home.At work I use RegCure,but sparingly.It often amazes me when app-software says 2 billion errors,etc. Ok,that was over-the-top,but we've all seen "those" display-messages. If your code-litterate,go ahead and use Regedit,but to the average Joe or Jayne,a reg cleaner may be the only option.

Mike Mullins
Mike Mullins

The pro-registry crowd is certainly chiming in on my article. But what they need to consider is, as you also pointed out, that only a skilled administrator or developers who understands the registry should become their own surgeon. Tweakers should leave it alone.

deepsand
deepsand

At the risk of ruffling some feathers (not yours) by pointing out those who venture here run the gamut of skills, and, just as with most users, there are those here who do not realize that, as with any tool, there is proper use and there is mis-use. Rather than writing a balanced piece, one which addressed both the risks and rewards, the ability to determine each, and the skills needed for proper use, you simply discounted the value of Registry cleaners. In so doing, not only did you devalue a useful, and sometimes necessary, tool, but you were dismissive of those here who are in fact qualified for their use.

royhayward
royhayward

OMG I thought this was Tech Republic, not Into To Computers Republic. You are posting to admins and pros. We who make our money and lives around configuring, using, building and repairing the darn machines. Its like telling a group of doctors about the risks of aspirin, or the need to exercise regularly. Give me a break.

AstroCreep
AstroCreep

...but your article made it seem like "No one should ever do this. Ever". Out of curiosity, have you ever tried to uninstall AOL or any Symantec app from a system before? Ever had them come out cleanly. I never have, and have had to resort to either sitting there deleting keys with the words 'SYMANTEC' or 'AOL' in them or using some app/script to remove entries the uninstall process didn't. Using something like CCleaner is a great method for yanking out those orphaned entries, along with any others that might be on a system for no reason. Leave it to the pros? Sure. Better safe than sorry, right? But there is indeed a place for them.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Oh! You mean like my neighbor who found regedit.exe and opened it, then deleted the Default User branch because "I'm the only user on this PC!"     Took him a week to find the OEM recovery CDs...   Edit: HTML typo

royhayward
royhayward

That is a 12:00 flasher. (Every Device in his house is always flashing 12:00) I thought a tweaker was one of those guys who bought cases that have neon lights in the case, and painted their tower to match their WOW characters colors. And are then running unpatched versions of Me or XP.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I thought the 12:00 flasher was aware that he can't do it, so he doesn't touch it. You may be thinking of the builder with the cases and lights

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I wouldn't use one as a preventative maintenance tool. They're useful if a machine has a registry related problem, but back the registry up first (duh).

williamjones
williamjones

I'd love to hear about the instances where registry cleaning software has saved your bacon. Tell me why you think I'm wrong! Alternatively, if you've had registry tweaking blow up in your face, come clean! Let others in on your cautionary tale! Finally, stop on by Mike's post and thank him for a really insightful article.

williamjones
williamjones

I found an entry in Mark Russinovich's blog that deals with this issue. For anyone who may not know Mark's work, he ran the very popular Winternals blog and was an independent developer of some great Windows utilities. Mark's work was impressive enough, and he became enough of an authority, that he was hired by Microsoft a few years ago. Before being hired by the mothership, Mark knew Windows and its registry as well as anyone, and better than most. I'm sure his expertise has only grown since he was taken into the fold. I encourage you to read the original item on Mark's blog: Registry Junk: A Windows Fact of Life To summarize his post: Mark details some of the problems that the Windows Registry has, especially with lingering keys from software uninstalls. Mark points out that sometimes a lingering key can get in the way with proper function of some software. This can be diagnosed with Mark's RegMon tool, to see exactly what registry entries are in play when a problem occurs. Then, one can use whatever tool they prefer to clean out that problem entry. One item that relates to our discussion comes in the comments to Mark's post. A reader asks: Hi Mark, do you really think that Registry junk left by uninstalled programs could severely slow down the computer? I would like to 'hear' your opinion. Great Blog, man. 10/6/2005 3:25:00 PM by Anonymous No, even if the registry was massively bloated there would be little impact on the performance of anything other than exhaustive searches. On Win2K Terminal Server systems, however, there is a limit on the total amount of Registry data that can be loaded and so large profile hives can limit the number of users that can be logged on simultaneously. I haven't and never will implement a Registry cleaner since it's of little practical use on anything other than Win2K terminal servers and developing one that's both safe and effective requires a huge amount of application-specific knowledge. 10/7/2005 9:41:00 AM by Mark Russinovich So, if we take Mark's guidance, we're back at the point where registry editor's and cleaners can be appropriate for solving specific problems, but the offer little benefit for speed increases. It's worth noting here that tools like CCleaner offer to clean up things like temp and cache directories and pre-fetch files as well as the registry. Those options should have more effect than their registry cleaning tools.

royhayward
royhayward

First let me applaud you for finding a truly great article to reference. It is truly pertinent to this discussion. However in the conclusion of the article, before all of the Q & A where your quote is from Mark says, "So it seems that Registry junk is a Windows fact of life and that Registry cleaners will continue to have a place in the anal-sysadmin?s tool chest, at least until we?re all running .NET applications that store their per-user settings in XML files ? and then of course we?ll need XML cleaners." http://blogs.technet.com/markrussinovich/archive/2005/10/02/registry-junk-a-windows-fact-of-life.aspx This looks to me to be in contrast to the excerpt that you quoted from below the article, "I haven't and never will implement a Registry cleaner since it's of little practical use on anything other than Win2K terminal servers" I guess the only way to fit these to points of view together and not have Mark be diagnosed as bipolar is that 1. Mark thinks that sys admins will need registry cleaners until apps stop using the registry, and 2. Mark knows the registry so well himself, that he is a biological registry cleaner and doesn't need one except for W2K term servers that are too tedious for his bio-regcleaning abilities. But let me thank you again for truly adding a meaningful source to this discussion.

royhayward
royhayward

Looking back over the posts on these issues by the registry cleaner users both on this and the other thread; I have seen machines bogged down with registry problems cured and speedy after applying the use of a reg cleaning tool. However this does not mean that I routinely run them on my machines. I do truck them around in my IT bag of tricks as when I encounter the stranger's sick machine. I run down a battery of tools including virus, spyware, and registry scanners/cleaners. So in these cases I am more aggressive with a reg cleaner than Mark suggests, but I am generally that way because I encounter machines that people have been allowing 'children' to use. On machines that I administer I may run a reg cleaner less than once a year after I have installed a 'product' that I don't want and its uninstall is sloppy. As for being offended by clutter....well, lets just say that anyone who has seen my office would know that clutter and I are...old friends. :)

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]So it seems that Registry junk is a Windows fact of life and that Registry cleaners will continue to have a place in the [b]anal[/b]-sysadmin?s tool chest,...[/i] My emphasis...

williamjones
williamjones

whether a registry cleaner is applied as a curative in specific situations, or as regularly-used preventative medicine. As I read it, Mark's saying you might need to use a reg cleaner to solve a specific problem with a left-over key (see Mark's IE example in the original post) or to clean up your Terminal Server's registry hive. But running a cleaner as a part of regular maintenance and expecting it to produce speed boosts is unreasonable. Some people are going to keep using cleaners, just because the idea of clutter offends them. That's their prerogative, and it *might* forestall later problems. What I take from Mark's statement is that it only really makes sense to tune the registry when it's the source of an error. Then, by all means, edit it however you're comfortable. But using cleaners any other time doesn't produce that much benefit.

rclark
rclark

Took me two months to get back to where I started. The basic problem I had was I was sure that I had a keylogger (software) on my machine because when I typed it would routinely screw with the characters typed. In most cases, backspace and retype worked. In some cases, it would really be a bad time. Examples: When I had highlighted a long series of code to copy and all of a sudden the keyboard would type a "b" which in windows replaces the highlighted code with the letter "b". So having spent a couple of hours coding, now all I had for it was a "b". After a couple of times, I blew my top and went hunting for a keylogger remover. I came across George Ou's review of CCleaner or some such. Ran it and it pointed to two files that looked suspicious. I googled and they didn't come up with anything that looked legit. So I removed the entries according to instructions. What that did was cause the mouse not to work anymore. So that every time I booted, I would have to navigate to the mouse app in the control panel and reactivate it. If you haven't done that with only a keyboard, then you haven't really experienced windows. That went on for a long while before I got fed up and went looking for the answer. I finally found it on the net but getting it fixed took a lot of tedious replacements in the registry. Yes I had backed up the registry before I made the changes. And no it would not restore from that point. Windows is so helpful at times it is almost like there is a little gremlin laughing behind the scenes. (Ignore the little man behind the curtain!) My real problem? Turns out the System Admin was unhappy with the remote tools offered by both Windows and a 3rd party so started using Dameware as his remote support tool. It loads a client on all connected machines and that client was not set up correctly for my system. I don't really think it was the fault of the software, just a missuse of it that caused the problem. Dameware operates invisibly to the client but once I knew it was there, I found it and kicked the client and the problem has not returned.

nwoodson
nwoodson

Funny....I just had someone ask me about that today and told them the same thing..."Don't do it". I've cleaned many a registry to fix bad uninstalls or other corruption (spyware keys and the like) and all I can say is that companies need to stop trying to get the novice crowd to use wares that make idle promises of enhanced performance through "registry optimization". I haven't looked at Vista's reg, but XP's is enough of a zoo. I realized a long time back that trying to "fix" the system at that level is usually a bad idea....unless you're just the type who likes to experiment. It can be fun....as long as it isn't a production machine.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I probably fall into the rational tuner grouping. I like my machines tuned and tweaked for performance but not to the point of overclocking the cpu or burning out the OS. These days, I run CCleaner regularily on the file system though I rarely use the registry cleaner function. It's probably the only reg cleaner I'd trust these days. In the past, I've tried a few other cleaners. One in particular became a favourit for a while until my machine's need for a reinstall became every three months or so rather than six or more months. That broke me of the reg cleaner habbit right quick. The moment I stopped the regular cleanings, my machine went back to it's six months or greater install cycle. Now, CCleaner is definately a great tool for clearing crap out of the file system and does a good job when a reg scan and/or cleaning is called for but reg cleaning shouldn't be a part of one's weekly maintenance.

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