Rubber Bands, Duct Tape, and The Windows Registry

Category: Windows

In some computer troubleshooting articles you’ll find a suggestion to fix a problem that involves editing the Windows registry. There’s always a dire warning attached, along the lines of, “Do not attempt to edit the registry unless you know what you’re doing! One wrong registry edit can render your machine unusable!” That's true, but with a bit of caution, you can safely edit the registry. (Just beware of hives.) Here's what you need to know, and some helpful examples...

Afraid To Edit Your Registry? Don’t Be…

It's always good to start with a definition. I like to call the Windows registry "a hideously complex ball of string, rubber bands, duct tape and bailing wire that's supposed to keep track of Windows system settings, your hardware configuration, user preferences, file associations, system policies, and installed software." It was intended to be an improvement on the simple text-based INI files that stored Windows configuration settings, but apparently too many pocket protectors were involved in the design.

One advantage of the registry is that it enables each user of a machine to maintain his/her own settings; each user can have a unique theme, speaker volume setting, set of apps, and so on. But the registry can also apply settings to all users, or a group of users specified by the system administrator (e. g., “adults” and “kids”). The registry is one of the most important files on your hard drive. On the downside, this “all eggs in one basket” approach can lead to problems if the registry is damaged or edited incorrectly.

It may be necessary to edit the registry to correct an error or corruption; to add a setting that is not part of the original design; or to prevent some system activity that is undesired. The registry is a very powerful tool, and if it’s used incorrectly, YES, it can wreak havoc on your system. But with a basic understanding of how it works, and some simple precautions, you need not fear.

Windows Registry Editor: REGEDIT

The first rule of editing the registry is, “Backup Your Registry!” You can make a backup of your registry by creating a System Restore point. To do so, click Start, type create a restore point, press Enter, and follow the prompts. Another method is to use the Export function in the Regedit utility. (See below)

Even if your Windows installation becomes unbootable, you can recover your old, working registry using the tools on the System Recovery USB drive that you created. If you have not created one yet, here are my instructions for how to do it on 10. (For Windows 7 or 8.1 users, see HOWTO: Make a System Repair Disk, NOW!

REGEDIT is an app included with Windows to help you edit the registry. Type regedit in Windows start/search box, then press Enter. You may see a popup that says "Do you want to allow this app to make changes to your device?" Click YES (no changes will be made at this point). The open Regedit window will look something like the screen shot below:

Windows Registry Editor

A few paragraphs earlier, I mentioned that you can make a backup of the registry by using the registry editor. Let's do that now. Click File, then Export. In the lower left corner of the new window that opens, select "All" under Export Range. Enter a filename, and click the Save button. It will take a minute or so to create the backup. Don't be surprised if the lights flicker, or if you hear a deep, guttural moan, followed by a hissing sound emanating from your computer. (If you see smoke, call the fire department.)

Kidding aside, when returning to the registry editor window, at the top left corner we see a link containing the word “Computer” -- think of that word as the trunk of a tree. Beneath it, in the left-hand window pane, we see the names of five branches: HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT, HKEY_CURRENT_USER, etc. Click on any of these brahch names (called “keys”) to see what further branches lie below it. Keys can be nested up to 512 levels deep. We won’t be going that far!

The prefix “HKEY” indicates a registry “hive,” the top level of this hierarchical database. “CLASSES_ROOT,” “CURRENT_USER,” etc., are names for hives, each of which contains more levels of data that are all logically connected to the hive’s subject. “HKEY_CURRENT_USER” is a hive that contains settings which apply to whoever is currently logged in to the computer. If you click on that hive name to expand the tree below it, you will see familiar names like “Control Panel,” “Printers,” etc., along with mysterious labels of system resources that most users don’t need to know about.

You may recall that I mentioned hives in the opening paragraph of this article. A weird thing happened to me last year as I was using the registry editor – a wasp flew into my office and stung me on my finger! I'm not saying it came from a registry hive, but it was 2020. I’m just glad it wasn’t a murder hornet.

What you do need to know is that it is critically important to make edits in the correct hive and the correct sub-branch of that hive. A change to HKEY_USERS instead of HKEY_CURRENT_USER may have unintended consequences for all users of a machine, not just you. Navigating the tree structure of the registry must be done with the utmost care.

Fortunately, there are lots of helpful geeks who provide exactly the right paths to take you where you need to go in the registry. In my articles, you may find instructions such as “navigate to \HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows…” Just highlight the path name, copy it, and paste it into the address bar at the top of the regedit window.

Once you are in the right place, most registry tweaks involve enabling or disabling something. The “something” may have a key at the end of a registry path like the one above, or you may need to create one for it. The instructions provided by your friendly geek should tell you what to do, step by step. For example, to change the border width of your windows, navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Desktop\WindowMetrics. Set the values of BorderWidth and PaddedBorderWidth to 0 to eliminate the borders. Or increase the numbers to make the borders fatter. Valid values for BorderWidth are 0 to -750, but any number larger than 100 will be produce unusable results. Valid values for PaddedBorderWidth are 0 to -1600. PaddedBorderWidth should be larger than BorderWidth. For some reason, both of these numbers must be negative. The more negative, the fatter the borders. A reboot is required for the changes to take effect. Watch out for wasps while your computer restarts.

It's also possible to make changes to the registry with a REG file that someone else has coded for a specific task. A REG file contains the instructions for making a specific registry edit, and will do the magic for you without having to open the registry and edit it manually. For example, you can add a new option "Open with Notepad" to the context menu that appears when you right-click on a filename. This is handy when you want to quickly edit a file that doesn't end with the .TXT extension.

Download this ZIP file file, click to open it, and then double-click on the Open-With-Notepad.reg file. Click your way through a few "Do you really want to do this?" prompts, and it will add a key to your registry. Now you can open any file (regardless of the extension) with the Notepad editor, using the context (right-click) menu.

So now you (sort of) know what you are doing in the registry. Just make sure you always start by backing up your existing registry, even if you don’t plan to change anything but are “just looking around.” And watch out for wasps. Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below…

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Most recent comments on "Rubber Bands, Duct Tape, and The Windows Registry"

Posted by:

15 Jun 2021

Bob, your Windows installation evidently needs screens!

Posted by:

David Ruedeman
15 Jun 2021

Easily the worst feature in Windows.

Posted by:

Bob K
15 Jun 2021

For the first time, this site was blocked by Safari as "Not Safe." I had to do a workaround to get here.

Posted by:

15 Jun 2021

Agree with David R. Not only the worst feature, but the core vulnerability of Windows exploited by many ransomware attacks. While no OS is completely secure, Windows is a sieve.

Posted by:

Jimmy B
15 Jun 2021

I totally disagree with first four comments above (which are all negative). Your article is a great start point for registry "newbies" that want to know more. I know practically nothing about the registry but over the few years I've played with it, I've never made a fatal mistake that I could not recover from using my backup and or recovery disk, etc. - which is what it's all about.

I have derived some awesome benefit though, whether from my own learned reading, study, or from precomposed scrips of others'.

Seems to me comments like the above want one to be scared-to-death rather than learning registry ins and outs though study and education or just through trial and error or browsing and practice - all it takes is the proper security steps (like backing up, etc.) to learn relatively safely.

I could not use .ini either in the beginning; I like the registry better than .ini, though - being 'basically an illiterate' computer framework person, I'd rather learn a little more rather than being scared-to-death of it like my wife.

And speaking of scared-to-death, my great-aunt refused to learn to drive because she was afraid of having an accident. Windows regristry - not much different a premise.

Always enjoy your comments . . .


Posted by:

Ken H
15 Jun 2021

I agree with Jimmy B.

I edited my registry several times back in the "old days" with absolutely no problems. mostly using someone else's (tech experts) script, but sometimes typing in my own.

Since Win 10 I have found no reason to do so but certainly have no fears should the need arise.

Back up and restore points were never needed, but I did them anyway.

Great column Bob, as usual.

Posted by:

Brian B
15 Jun 2021

Creating a Restore Point is very easily accomplished, but woe betide anyone who needs to use it. This piece of software is easily the worst facility (if that's the right word) that MS has come up with. Time after time when I needed to restore after an error, it just would not work. Sure, each time I ran it, it would go through the motions and when complete, would tell me it couldn't restore. I found it to be as useful as an ashtray on a motor bike. I use Macrium Reflect for $70 for lifetime licence. It can restore individual files or folders from a disk image, first time, every time. The biggest advantage though, is that my computer is now ransom proof.

Posted by:

17 Jun 2021

Installing *.reg files seem to be a security problem if the source of the edit is not 100% trust worthy.
"Branches"??? Registry keys are items, and the values are item properties. If these concepts are too hard to understand on their own; most certainly, you may consider not to ever enter the den called the Registry.
I happen to chance upon Revo Uninstaller many years ago and once I have seen the amount of cling-ons that programs/apps install in the Registry and then leave them behind when the software is uninstalled. Henceforth, I will not even bother to install anything in my Win10 unless I "trace" the installation with Revo, so that I have a fighting chance to keep the registry with minimal cling-ons; post traced-uninstall.
I am also a believer in periodic registry clean-up and compaction, as my primary desktop runs the whole house along with our web and server connections.

Posted by:

19 Jun 2021

LOL - McAfee does not like Bobs site :
Website status: Suspicious
This site looks a little risky to us, so we flagged it just in case. Make sure you trust this site if you choose to proceed. Better safe than sorry!

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