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Friday, June 8, 2012

Tech Tip of the Day: Using the Windows Registry Editor: Part 1 - Backing up before editing

What is the registry?

Many computer users have heard about the Windows Registry but are afraid to make changes for fear of making a critical mistake. It is true that the Registry Editor must be handled with care, for changes that are made are permanent as soon as the changes are keyed in. A "spoiled" Registry entry that is critical to Windows operation may make the computer unusable, and force the user to re-install Windows altogether. However, it is a simple matter to back up the Registry, in part or in whole, so that the risk of making errors is almost completely eliminated.

The importance of the Windows Registry cannot be underestimated. First, it is a repository - some 200 million bytes long, on average - of all the data Windows uses to orient itself both at bootup and when programs are launched. It is really a database of configurations, settings, locations and history of every piece of hardware and software installed in that particular machine. When the computer boots up, Windows reads through the entire list of commands and environment settings written in the Registry. Windows will not work without its Registry, and will not work with conflicts created by the Registry.

Clutter (from old, poorly uninstalled programs, for example) in the Registry can slow down a computer. Extraneous values in the Registry will cause annoying popup error messages. Conflicting commands in the Registry can cause Windows to lock up. And, viruses (which must also play by the rules of the Windows environment) write commands for their automatic startup in the Registry. In fact, one of the first tasks of a virus is to write changes to the Registry in order to preserve itself. For all these reasons, editing the Registry may be a valuable troubleshooting and corrective tool for the serious computer user. Fortunately, the Registry Editor offers a way to "get under the hood" of the system.

Exploring the Registry

You will not find an icon for the Registry Editor ("regedit.exe") in the list of startup programs of Windows...but it's there. Microsoft was wise to "hide" this utility, as there are many users who might use it carelessly with the result of corrupting their operating systems. This small program is located in the Windows root folder. Starting the program is simple:

1) In Windows XP, click on "Start," then click on "Run," type "regedit" in the box, and then hit "Enter"
2) In both Windows Vista and Windows 7, click "Start," type "regedit" in the search box and hit "Enter."

This is what you will see:

Registry Editor

It may not look like much at this point - just five folders in the navigation pane. But, click on the first "+" and you will see just how extensive the Registry is! Now, don't worry...if you don't intentionally delete or add any values or strings, nothing will change before you exit the program.

Most of the work that users will do in Registry editing is in the first three of the five folders. HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT largely tells Windows how to handle the differing file types (by extension), and with what program it associates various files. HKEY_CURRENT_USER contains configurations for programs for the presently logged in user (assuming there is more than one user account on the machine). HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE contains configurations for programs that pertain to every user account on the machine.

Before editing, back it up!

The most important element in safe Registry editing is to have a failsafe plan. Not only can the Registry be searched (using Ctrl-F) and edited (using a mouse to highlight and delete keys), it also can be easily backed up - in whole or in part. Registry backup is done through an "export" feature, accessed with a single mouse click via a drop-down menu:


Here are the actual steps to take in backing up and restoring Registry keys:
  1. Start the Registry Editor (As noted above for the different Windows operating systems)
  2. Locate the branch or key that contains the value that you want to edit(NOTE: start the search function by using the key combination, Ctrl-F)
  3. Right-click on the folder or key and choose "Export"
  4. In the "Save in" box, select a location where you want to
    save the backup file
    (NOTE: It will save as a ".reg" file).
  5. Type a file name for your backup, and then click "Save" (NOTE: Save the .reg file in a location easily remembered in case you want to undo the changes you're planning to make.)
In the event that mistakes are made while editing the registry, or if the desired results are lacking, all a user has to do is double-click the exported Registry file and that portion of the Registry will be restored to its prior condition. Thus, careful backup measures take the risk out of Registry editing.

For more assistance contact Technical Support here.

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