How to Wipe Your Windows Registry Clean and Speed Up Your PC

A cluttered Registry can slow Windows to a crawl, but cleaning it up effectively isn't easy. Steve Bass reviews some of the leading Registry cleaners, and offers tips to help you get your Registry down to size and improve your PC's performance.

Let's start with a little quiz. I say "Big, bloated, and full of errors." What do you say? Right, "Windows Registry." One more: "Messing with it is risky." If you guessed the Registry again, you pass. While fooling around with your Windows Registry does involve some risk, cleaning it out can have an impact on your PC's overall performance.

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The Windows Registry is an essential system file that houses a massive collection of details about your computer--where programs are stored, which helper programs (known as DLLs) are shared among your various applications, listings of all your Start-menu shortcuts, and pointers to the programs that fire up when you click on an icon. And that's just the beginning.

Practically everything you do in Windows is recorded somewhere in the Registry. For instance, the URL for this article probably has an entry now. The paths to the last dozen or so images or documents you opened are there, too, as are the details of the programs you most recently installed or uninstalled.

Here's the problem: If you pry open the Registry, you'll probably find it about as cluttered as a teenager's bedroom. That's because Windows doesn't efficiently clean up after itself as it goes about its daily business. It constantly creates new entries, but seldom--if ever--removes them after they're no longer needed.

Compounding that problem are applications that are too inept to uninstall all of the Registry entries they create; far too often, program upgrades and installers leave unneeded pointers in the Registry. So the Registry becomes bloated with unnecessary entries, slowing down your system.

Registry Cleaners: Boon or Boondoggle?

The big question is whether a Registry cleaner will speed up your PC, making it boot more quickly and run faster. The answer? I can say, emphatically and unequivocally, uh, maybe. That's right, a big, fat perhaps--because everything depends on the condition of your Registry.

To find out which Registry cleaner catches the most errors, is the safest and easiest to use, and (just as important) creates the fewest hassles, I tested five of the most popular Registry cleaners and defraggers. Many came recommended by PC World readers. I examined two free products (Advanced Windows Care and RegSeeker) and three commercial ones (jv16 PowerTools, Registry First Aid, and RegSupreme). After all that testing, my Registry is squeaky clean--the absolute envy of my PC World colleagues. Jump to page 3 for my verdict on each application.

I tried each tool on my messy production PC using Windows XP SP3, on a pristine Fujitsu Lifebook T-Series laptop running Vista, and on an old ThinkPad laptop. I ran the Registry scan and repair module of each application, rebooted the system, and watched for problems--and I also tried to determine whether the system seemed friskier. After each test, I restored each system to its original state of disarray with Acronis TrueImage. (Read a review of Acronis True Image Home 11 and download the demo.)

Top Ten Registry Dos (and Don'ts)

Messing with the Registry--and doing so incorrectly--can destroy Windows, send your PC to computer heaven, and cause you great distress. I'm not kidding. Here are my ten tips to keep your system here on Earth--and to keep yourself anxiety-free.

1. The utmost protection from Registry hassles, or any computing disaster, is to have a current backup. I really mean it. As in, you ought to do one now while you're thinking about it. For a thorough tutorial, read "How to Prevent a Data Disaster" or "Fifteen Backup Programs to Safeguard Your Data." And if you don't have one, grab a backup tool from our Downloads library.

2. In most other programs that walk you through with wizards, it's no big deal if you don't pay attention and you merely keep clicking the Next button. That isn't the case with Registry cleaners. I strongly encourage you to stay alert and read whatever the cleaning tool has to say.

3. Before you open the Registry cleaner, use ERUNT (The Emergency Recovery Utility NT) to back up the Registry. Sure, I know, it's redundant, since the Registry cleaner will back up any changes it makes. But I like an extra level of security. You will, too, if something goes awry.

4. When you begin scanning, make sure not to have any applications running; if possible, it's also smart to unload any tools running in your system tray. That's because open apps are constantly making Registry changes, and you want the Registry cleaner to do its work with no interference.

5. After the scan, the program will let you remove--or in some cases, repair--the Registry errors. If you're given the option, set the Registry cleaner to remove errors only at the safest and least-intrusive level. (You can scan with more-aggressive settings later on.) Even at that, you might see 1000 or even 2000 "safe" entries that need cleaning. For instance, Registry First Aid found 2161 problems on my production system, of which about 1900 it deemed safe to alter. 

Whatever you do, never choose an autoclean option, such as the one in RegSeeker. Ever. They are not to be trusted.

6. Choosing which of the errors to remove or repair can give you a migraine. When I inspect a list of potential entries to remove, I scan for things that look familiar. For example, in my lists I saw almost 100 Registry entries left over from a package of Dell drivers I had uninstalled months ago, and one Registry cleaner spotted invalid paths to dozens of entries for MP3 files that I had moved to a new location. Both of those catches were accurate, and gave me the sense that the program's removal suggestions were on target.

After a couple of days, if your PC doesn't do anything weird, try another scan, this time allowing the Registry cleaner to work more aggressively.

You must, however, examine entries marked with 'Caution', 'Extreme Caution', or some other indicator of risk very carefully. I'm still not kidding. Unless you're an advanced user and can clearly identify the scope of the entry, leave it alone. The reason is that, even if the cleaner offers an option to restore a deleted Registry entry, restoring might not be possible if the DLL entry you just deleted is essential for your system to boot.

7. Once you give the tool the go-ahead and it starts removing Registry entries, walk away from your PC. Play with the dog, have some coffee, or watch TV. This is for safety purposes: If you're fiddling with the PC--moving the mouse, deleting desktop shortcuts, whatever--you're making changes to the Registry while a Registry cleaner is working. Not a good idea.

8. If you discover a problem (for instance, maybe Excel no longer launches), don't panic. And don't do anything aside from using the Registry cleaner's restore feature, which ensures that only the changes the program just made are reversed. That will probably fix the problem. If not, the next step is to restore the Registry with ERUNT, the tool I mentioned in step 3. As a last resort, restore your PC with a backup program--which you certainly have, right?

9. You needn't perform a Registry scan more than once a month or so, especially if you don't often make changes to your PC. Scanning more frequently won't hurt anything, but you're unlikely to see a significant performance boost.

10. Are you a techno-fanatic who needs the Registry to be squeaky clean, with absolutely no stray entries and trimmed of all fat? There's no harm in using multiple freebie Registry cleaners--provided you use them one at a time. You might also want to select a Registry cleaner (such as jv16 PowerTools or Registry First Aid) that includes a defragger, or choose a free defragger such as Auslogics Registry Defrag.

Registry Cleaners: How They Fared

If you're like me and you constantly add and remove programs, move files around, and fiddle with I-don't-know-if-this-will-work freeware, I'm confident a Registry scrubbing will help you, if only a little bit. It did for me, though the change wasn't earth-shattering. I used a stopwatch with my desktop system, and after a cleaning I saw 10 seconds shaved off its boot time. I also noticed that Microsoft Word and an image editor loaded a little faster.

On the other hand, I didn't see a smidgen of improvement on my laptop. That's because on that machine I use the same five programs, rarely install new applications, and mostly check e-mail and browse the Internet. So scanning the Registry showed fewer than 50 problems, and cleaning didn't make any difference.

None of the cleaners managed to fix a gnarly problem I was having with spoolsv.exe. (Spoolsv.exe occasionally holds up other programs from loading on my PC.)

Your mileage, undoubtedly, will vary, and you won't know how effective a Registry cleaner is until you give it a whirl. But if nothing else, these programs will at least give you the feeling that you're taking care of your computer.

In each of the following reviews, you'll read my curmudgeonly impressions of how the Registry cleaners performed. I focused on their ease of use, the number of errors they found, and whether they introduced any hazards, such as no automatic backups.

Some of the tools I tested wanted a permanent spot in my system tray; it's not necessary, though, and when a program tried doing it, I found the option to disable the setting. And except for Registry First Aid, none of the products would repair faulty entries, but instead just deleted entries that were no longer valid.

Registry First Aid

Registry First Aid is eager to help you fix and compact your Registry--and it does a terrific job, too. Of all the programs I tried, this one inspired the most confidence, both from a safety perspective and in the way it handled Registry problems. The interface is clean and easy to navigate, and the program includes a Registry defragger, a Registry searching tool, and a built-in automatic backup module. Registry First Aid supports all versions of Windows.

The only drawback is that the program costs $28; the trial version lets you see everything the program does, and is fully diagnostic, but fixes only 14 entries at a time. I'm hoping that won't dissuade you from trying Registry First Aid.

Registry First Aid found 2161 faulty entries in a 20-minute scan, a high number that may be explained by the program's relatively liberal definition of what constitutes a faulty entry. I was comfortable with the way it listed problems, either by category (such as invalid file or DLL, invalid path, or unused software entries) or by safety level. All of the entry issues that were safe to fix were automatically checkmarked, and I liked having to check the ones labeled 'Caution' or 'Extreme Caution' manually. 

Most problems that Registry First Aid found were marked 'Delete the entry', but some had other choices. I could cut the invalid substring or, in some cases, repair the entry. Unfortunately, the program's Help function wasn't too helpful, so I opted to use the default.

While the program was scanning, I was able to examine each listing, check or uncheck it, or open the specific entry in the Registry. 

A great feature, and one worth the price of admission: With one click, most of the problem entries popped open my browser and conducted a Google search on that Registry key. Very cool, and ideal for determining whether a risky entry should be removed.

One quibble: I wasn't happy that the tool attempted to find a home in my system tray, unnecessarily adding clutter just to check for new versions. I disabled it in the settings.

RegSupreme

RegSupreme, only $13, is definitely a basic, no-frills tool. It includes a Registry cleaner as well as a Registry compactor, and is essentially a scaled-down version of its bigger sibling, jv16 PowerTools (see below).

In RegSupreme you get only two levels of error detection--safe and aggressive--as opposed to four in jv16 PowerTools. And the program has almost no extras; the only one of value offers a way to search for specific keywords in the Registry (say, "RealPlayer"). On the other hand, the inexpensive RegSupreme has a built-in backup tool and gets the job done. So if you like jv16 PowerTools but you don't need the extra functions--and you want to save some money--RegSupreme could be perfect for you. Like jv16 PowerTools, RegSupreme supports every version of Windows and comes with a full-featured, 30-day trial.

RegSeeker

RegSeeker is free, and alongside a Registry cleaner it has a handful of other Registry-focused utilities. The tools include a keyword finder; a utility to examine installed application Registry entries, assorted histories (for instance, Internet Explorer and Start-menu items), and Startup entries; and a tool to tweak about 24 XP settings.

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