The Windows Registry is a powerful but confusing component of the Windows operating system. In earlier editions of Windows, editing the Registry was fraught with peril; if the user edited it with the wrong tool or altered a critical key, the result could be an inoperable Windows installation. Windows 7, however, is far more forgiving than its predecessors when it comes to modifying the Registry, if you use the built-in Windows 7 Registry Editor (Regedit).
The Windows 7 Registry is a massive database of settings and configuration data for the operating system and for all of the applications and drivers installed on your PC. When you tweak the Registry, you edit (or create) database entries to customize how your OS works. Before making any changes to the Windows Registry, you should be sure to back up your important data, as missteps in the Registry could impair your PC or even render it inoperable. That said, if you stick to modifying the appropriate entries--or keys--there's little to worry about.
To perform any of the Registry modifications outlined in this article, you must first access Windows 7's built-in Registry Editor. To do so, click the Start button, type regedit in the search field, and press Enter. The Windows Registry Editor will open and present you with what looks like a never-ending tree of expandable menu items.
Five main keys (also called hives) are visible in the Windows 7 Registry (a sixth key, which holds performance data, remains hidden when you use the Registry Editor):
HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT (HKCR) stores settings for all applications, utilities, and programs installed on a system.
HKEY_CURRENT_USER (HKCU) stores settings for the user who is logged in.
HKEY_USERS (HKU) stores settings for all of the user accounts on a given system.
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE (HKLM) stores settings specific to the system that Windows is installed on.
HKEY_CURRENT_CONFIG (HKCC) stores settings gathered or determined at runtime, generally when the system boots up.
The name of each main key indicates fairly clearly the settings it governs. If you want to tweak a specific piece of hardware in your system, the setting is probably saved in HKLM; settings for your user account usually appear in HKU or HKCU.
Before you make any changes to the Registry, update your backup files. The Registry Editor makes backing up specific keys, or even the entire Registry, very easy. To back up the whole Windows Registry, highlight Computer in the left pane of the Regedit window, go to the File menu, and click Export. Name your backup file in the resulting window and click Save, and the entire Registry will be saved in one massive file. Keep this file handy on a separate hard drive; if something goes wrong, you can always re-import it to restore your old Registry settings.
You probably won't need a backup of the entire Registry, however. Over the course of this article, we'll be altering only a few keys, so you can limit yourself to creating backups for just those keys. Backing up specific keys follows the same process as backing up the entire Registry, except that instead of highlighting 'Computer' in the left pane of the Regedit window, you select the key that you plan to alter, and export it to a safe place. To restore the backed-up Registry key, double-click the file--it will automatically update your Registry with the old key.
Edit Your Context Menus
Over time, as you install more and more applications and utilities on your Windows system, some right-click context menus (the little menus that pop up when you right-click icons or your desktop) may become cluttered with options. In contrast, most right-click context menus on a clean system list only a few options. If your context menus have become cluttered, it's time to clean house.
Typically, the options listed in your context menus are stored in these five Registry keys:
If you'd like to remove a context menu option, look for its listing in one if these keys. To remove it, highlight the specific key, right-click it, and choose Delete from the menu. Be sure to highlight only the specific key for the context menu item you want to remove, and not the main ContextMenuHandlers, Shell, or ShellEx keys; otherwise, you'll delete the entire menu.