By Ed Tittel

As a diehard fan of Lavasoft’s ad-ware eliminator Ad-aware, I was very interested recently to learn about the company’s RegHance Windows registry-editing application. This handy utility offers capabilities that go well beyond those of Microsoft’s Regedit.exe tool. Why might a Windows professional want a more capable Registry editor than Regedit? To answer this question, we must first look at several common reasons for editing the Windows registry.

Reasons to use RegHance over Regedit
Registry editing is just part of Windows support
Those who support or troubleshoot Windows systems will find that a certain amount of Registry editing comes with the job. Although Windows consoles and utilities offer what might be called “mediated editing” of the Registry (which goes on behind the scenes under the control of such tools), sometimes direct Registry snooping and editing speeds problem solving. This is particularly true when software without uninstall utilities must be removed from systems, or when uninstall programs leave unwanted detritus behind.

More quickly create Windows images
Those who create Windows images for automated installation via Microsoft’s Remote Installation Service (RIS) or by using various ghosting techniques often find that editing the Registry on a master image is the fastest way to fine-tune a configuration en route to finalizing the desktop, group policy, logon, or other settings. Once a working master is tweaked, tuned, and tested, it can then be distributed in bulk around a network (or an entire enterprise).

Backing up and restoring the Registry are important skills
Those who seek to back up or checkpoint Windows systems will benefit from a working knowledge of Registry backup and restore techniques (or ways to roll back to earlier Registry versions), because the Registry basically represents the “configuration database” that describes Windows’ (and related applications) presence, behavior, preferences, settings, history, etc.

Learn more about Windows’ inner-workings
Those who are curious about Window’s internals and inner workings can learn a lot by looking around inside their Registries. “Before” and “after” snapshots of the Registry when compared to one another—for example, using the Windiff.exe utility included in the Windows 2000 Resource Kit or in the Windows XP Support Tools—can reveal exactly what happens when software is installed or when Control Panel tools or Windows consoles operate on the Registry.

Definitely a step up from Regedit
Suffice it to say, then, that working Windows professionals and other interested parties will find it necessary to interact with the Registry regularly, and that a good editing tool for such interaction can be helpful and worthwhile. Though RegHance does not support some highly advanced Registry handling functions (more on that topic later), it is definitely a step up from Regedit.exe.

Also, RegHance is tightly integrated with Ad-aware. This is likely to make it appealing for those who depend on Ad-aware (and Ad-watch, the companion event tracker that watches the Registry closely, among other points of Windows focus) to tell them what spyware, cookies, pop-ups, and other external influences may be doing (Ad-watch) or have done (Ad-aware) to their systems. Simply put, installing RegHance along with these tools makes it easy to observe and investigate Registry changes that spyware can attempt to make or succeed in making.

Obtaining RegHance and system requirements
RegHance works with Windows 9x/Me/NT4.0/2000/XP. You can download a copy of RegHance for $21.95 (it cost me $26.90 by the time I paid for taxes and handling fees through online dealer Element 5) or you can pay $43.90 ($53.80 all told) for the download and a CD that will be mailed to you. You can also download an unrestricted shareware version directly from Lavasoft.

The download file, reghancep.exe, is about 701 KB and download times are normally fast even on modem-based connections. (Warning: LavaSoft does occasionally experience heavy download access, particularly when new versions of software, updates, or new reference files are released. I never experienced such delays myself, but the support forums include numerous mentions of slow or no access experiences).

RegHance is also available bundled with various versions of Ad-aware for $10 more than the cost of Ad-aware by itself. If you’re going to buy this package, and don’t already have a license for Ad-aware, the bundle is a much better deal than the product by itself. Lavasoft did not respond to my e-mails asking if any discounts were available for current owners of Ad-aware, nor could I find any such discounts anywhere on their Web site.

Installing RegHance
When you double-click the download file, you start the install process that works using Wise Installation Wizard software, shown in Figure A. By default, the program install location defaults to %SystemDrive%\Program Files\LavaSoft Reghance. On my system, that’s the D: drive, but I routinely put all applications on the E: drive to prevent my system drive from getting too crowded. For a program this small—only 688KB—you can probably leave the default location alone.

Figure A
Installation is a snap and uses a standard Wise Installation Wizard.

Beyond specifying an install location, no other interaction is required. It took less than 30 seconds on my PC. Post-installation, a new entry shows up in the All Programs menu named LavaSoft RegHance; it contains three sub-entries:

  • Read Me: A short text file that explains how to integrate RegHance with Ad-aware, and how to start the program at a particular Registry key or inside a specific bookmark file (filename read me.txt)
  • RegHance: Launches the RegHance application (filename RegHance.exe)
  • RegHance Manual: Opens the RegHance help file (filename reghancehelp.chm)

There’s also an uninstall file named UNWISE.EXE, but I recommend accessing this functionality from within the Add/Remove Software widget in Control Panel.

Working with RegHance
If you already know your way around the built-in Windows Registry Editor (regedit.exe; I call it RegEdit for the rest of this article), you’ll be instantly at home inside RegHance. As shown in Figure B, the layout, look, and feel of the two programs are remarkably similar.

Figure B
RegHance looks almost exactly like regedit.exe.

When you start looking for Registry values using RegHance, you’ll begin to notice a difference between these two tools. Whereas RegEdit forces you to look at search results one at a time, and hit the F3 key (or use the Find Next command) to move from hit to hit, RegHance displays a complete list of search results in a separate window instead, as shown in Figure C. This provides a focus for capturing bookmarks, targeting search and replace operations, and more, and is generally a whole lot more convenient and straightforward to use than jumping from value to value.

Figure C
RegHance lists multiple search results in its Search window.

In fact, the Search command in the RegHance Edit menu works a lot like the Search toolbar button in Windows Explorer, except that the focus controls are designed for the kinds of things one finds in a Registry—namely keys, values, and data, rather than files, folders, and so forth. Likewise, pattern-matching controls and search scope controls aim at Registry information and structures rather than file system information and structures. But otherwise, the analogy is pretty exact and operation is pretty much the same. The RegHance Search controls appear in Figure D.

Figure D
RegHance Search controls let you specify a search string, search options, and a focus for your search (current node or entire registry).

The RegHance’s real power comes from its bookmarks, its save and restore operations, and its export and import capabilities. You’ll find lots of detail about these tools in the RegHance Help file—reghancehelp.chm, also accessible through the Help button in the program itself—but here is a 10,000-foot view of what this baby can do (afterward, I walk through a couple of examples that will better illustrate the tool’s capabilities):

Bookmarks: Whereas RegEdit offers a single favorites list that works like those in IE, RegHance lets you create arbitrary collections of bookmarks that can include search results, copied keys, data straight from the Registry, and so forth in named files that you can open, close, and modify at will. This means you could grab a root key, or some collection of keys and all of their children, and maintain separate copies to your heart’s content. This is much more powerful and useful than RegEdit, particularly when tracking specific changes, updates, or investigating before and after snapshots. Checked search items may be exported as bookmarks or as textfiles, depending on whether you want to make the information readable (perhaps for use in other documents or reports) or reusable (as a bookmark file).

Save and Restore Desktop: Available through the Window menu, the Restore Desktop command lets you save a snapshot of your Windows desktop settings (window positions for applications, windows opened, and selected tabs within open applications, etc.) at a point of your choosing. To restore those settings, you need only invoke the Restore Desktop command during later operation. This is a great way to recover from desktop tweaking and tuning experiments (especially failed ones).

Export and Import Registry files: Available through the Registry menu, the Export Registryfile command lets you create a registry file (file extension: .reg) for any key beneath a Registry root key (HKEY_…). The Import function lets you restore the values from a registry file into your Registry.

Another nice feature in RegHance is that it logs all Registry changes and updates, keeping a copy of prior keys and values available, as well as lists of search results. Such log files are available for edit and access, and can be commented for easy reference later on. It is necessary to export (and later to import) log files to text files to permit later reuse; otherwise, log files disappear at the end of each RegHance user session.

Removing items from the frequently used programs list
Every time you access a program, Windows 2000 or XP keeps track to determine which programs should appear in the frequently accessed programs that appear on the left-hand side of the Start menu. You may not want certain programs to show up there (such as those that appear in the quick launch portion of the Windows toolbar, for example). It’s easy to control which programs may appear in this list by editing entries in HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\Applications. (I abbreviate the root key henceforth as HKCR, in keeping with standard Registry practice).

HKCR\Applications includes lots of entries for programs, accessories, and so forth, where the name of each subkey is the name of the program (for example calc.exe). All you need to do to prevent a program from appearing on the frequently used program list is to create a value named NoStartPage of type REG_SZ inside its key folder. Figure E shows that this value is defined for calc.exe by default (which explains why Windows Accessories never show up on the frequently accessed programs list).

Figure E
Calc.exe is kept off the list by default.

To add a similar control for some program that doesn’t appear in the HKCR\Applications key, create a key whose name matches the program executable and then create the NoStartPage value of type REG_SZ therein. Here’s how to do this, step-by-step, for a bogus program named testapp1234.exe:

  1. Double-click the HKCR root key to expand its subkeys, then scroll down, and click the HKCR\Applications key with your mouse to select it.
  2. Select New in the Edit menu, then drag to the right-hand pop-up menu and select Key.
  3. Type testapp1234.exe in the open folder named New Key#1 that appears in the left-hand pane.
  4. Right-click the testapp1234.exe key in the left-hand pane, and select String in the pop-up menu that appears (this is how you create a value of type REG_SZ).
  5. Type the string NoStartPage where the New String#1 appears in the Name column in the right-hand pane. Hit return to create this value.

That’s all there is to it! It’s really quite simple, when you know what you’re doing.

The bottom line
By spending some time with this program and using it for day-to-day Registry tasks, you’ll quickly learn to appreciate its advanced features and functions. As I became more familiar with the program, the search function, the bookmarks, and the log files quickly emerged as its best features. As a Registry editing workhorse, this program does the job.

Because the program is so small, you can easily load it onto a floppy and carry it with you from machine to machine. Unfortunately, this is necessary because, unlike RegEdit, RegHance does not support editing of so-called remote Registries (Registry files on machines elsewhere on a network; a handy feature for network or system admins). In addition, RegHance does not support wholesale Registry backup and restore operations. Nor does it permit registry hive files (entire root keys) to be exported or imported wholesale.

Although the program’s limitations are noticeable, they’re by no means intolerable. What is missing, however, is the kind of Registry manipulation—such as detection and removal of orphaned entries or unreferenced objects—that you find in other more powerful tools such as Registry Crawler. For the full price of RegHance, other tools may make more sense. But for those who buy the Ad-aware bundle from Lavasoft, or who can benefit from RegHance’s ability to expose Registry contents for Ad-aware and Ad-watch, the program is pretty darn useful and informative.