As the door to the Windows Underworld, Registry Editor should be inscribed with Dante’s “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.” The Registry is a big, spooky place full of peril and hidden pitfalls. If you aren’t very careful, you can bring Windows crashing down, and you’ll never get it to work again—ever. Click once in the wrong place, and your machine freezes so tight you have to send it back to Boise. At least, that’s what some people think. Personally, I think of the Registry as a big time sink. But scary? Nah. Sure, you have to be careful, but if you don’t go around changing everything in sight, you can dive into the Registry and come back unscathed.
The main problem with the Registry? As Microsoft gets better at focusing its options, and giving you more control over the options that should be controllable, the number of really useful Registry tweaks has fallen off. For most people, the Registry is a place of last resort for changing setting for apps, not Windows itself.
The worst part of the Registry isn’t the Registry itself—it’s the lousy terminology. The Windows Registry has grown in a hodgepodge manner, and terms that (arguably) made sense back in the days of Windows 3.1 don’t mean diddly now. But we’re stuck with them.
Historically, Microsoft has put no emphasis on maintaining consistency inside the Registry. It’s kind of like a teenager’s closet: You never know what you’ll find in there, and any resemblance to organization is entirely coincidental.
The Registry is organized by keys, much as your disk is organized in folders. Just as a folder may have other folders and files inside, Registry keys may have other keys and values inside. Just as Windows Explorer helps you move from a higher-level folder down to a lower-level folder, and down and down before you finally find the file you want, the Registry Editor helps you move from a higher-level key down to a lower-level key, and down and down until you get to the value you seek.
Just as you can add or delete folders in Windows Explorer, you can add or delete keys in the Registry Editor. When you delete a folder in Explorer, you delete all the files and folders inside the folder. When you delete a key in the Registry Editor, you delete all the keys and values inside the key.
That’s where the similarities end. You can move a folder in Explorer, but you can’t move a key in the Registry Editor. And when you delete a key in the Registry Editor, there’s no Recycle Bin sitting there helping you recover from your mistakes. After you delete a key, it’s gone—for good.
Almost all the changes you make to the Registry involve modifying values—changing, adding, or deleting values—although once in a very blue moon you may need to add a key. Each value in the Registry has a name and data.
Before you change a key, it’s a good idea to export the key. Keep it handy in case something goes kablooey. (You can double-click on the exported file to restore the original settings.) The general procedure looks like this:
- Make sure you know exactly what you want to change and why. It’s not a good idea to skip through the Registry making changes simply to see what you can break.
- Down in the Cortana search box, type
regedit and press Enter.
- On the left, navigate to the key you want to change. Right-click on the key and choose Export. At the bottom, click the button marked Selected branch. At the top, navigate to a good location. Click Save. You’ll get a text file in a particular format—a .REG file—that you can use to restore the key if something goes south quickly.
- If the Value you want is in the Registry, double-click on it and make changes, then click OK. If you need to add a key, navigate to the right location and click Edit > New > Key. If you need to add a value, click Edit > New > Value. If you aren’t sure whether you want a String, Binary, DWORD, or other kind of value, you’re in over your head. “X” out of regedit and see Step 1.
Regedit is cool, dashing, potentially dangerous, and rapidly becoming obsolete.