How To Fix Windows Registry Errors & When Not To Bother

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Did you hear that fixing your registry would speed up your computer? Or did you read somewhere that ‘fixing’ your registry will remedy any Windows malaise on your machine, that a quick registry clean-up will solve your computing problems for good? Many of these articles are not only wrong, but some can be downright harmful for your machine in the long run.

Here we’ll explore how to identify, isolate and fix registry problems – and when to just not bother at all.

What Is The Registry?

The registry is essentially a massive internal database containing important, machine specific information regarding almost everything in your machine:

  • System Hardware
  • Installed Software and Drivers
  • System Settings
  • Profile Information

Your Windows operating system constantly refers to the registry. Opening a program, installing new software and altering your hardware all requires Windows to refer to the information contained in the registry. It’s no wonder that when things start to go wrong ‘experts’ decide to meddle with the registry without truly understanding the implications.

Windows Registry

In reality, fragments of deleted software registries or orphaned registries are miniscule in size and shouldn’t cause your machine any problems at all. However, when the time comes to fix a real problem with your registry, it is important to know what you are doing and the best way is often the easiest…

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What Causes a Registry Error?

There are several common causes of registry errors, some worth worrying about, others not:

  1. Orphaned Entries: Not an issue. Orphaned entries occur when you uninstall programs and small fragments of registry entries are left behind. Many registry fix software will proclaim these are an immediate issue, but in reality they amount to nothing more than a few kilobytes of data in your machine.
  2. Duplicate Keys: Not an issue. Duplicate keys are made when you reinstall, upgrade or update software on your machine, including the operating system. Registry fix software will advise that your software will be ‘confused’ by the duplicate entries, slowing your machine, but in reality this is unlikely.
  3. Fragmented Registry: Not an issue. Similar to duplicate keys, the registry fragments when software is uninstalled, upgraded or updated.
  4. System Shutdown Errors: Unlikely to cause issue. Each time your computer shuts down, a copy of the registry is saved to the system memory. If your computer is suddenly turned off, or crashes, or dies for another reasons, it could cause an issue in the future – but this is unlikely.
  5. Malware and Viruses: Massive issue. Malware and viruses of all types regularly attack and modify the registry and will require immediate attention.

Registry cleaner software will commonly identify issues 1-4 as seriously important, device destroying issues, when realistically only issue 5 should cause you to take immediate action.

Only Do It When Really Necessary

We’re not going to lie. Sometimes it really is entirely necessary to fix registry issues. If you have ever encountered a particularly irksome piece of malware or virus, you will know the extreme lengths some of these infections go to disguising their activity on your machine.

First of all, before attempting to alter, fix or delete registry fields, you should always back up the registry to a secure location. This is achieved by:

Windows 8/8.1:

  1. Swipe in from the right of the screen, or point to the upper-right of the screen and locate
  2. Type regedit, and then press enter.
  3. Click File>Export
  4. In the dialogue box, enter a useful name such as regbackup, select a useful location – My Document is the default – and click save.

Windows Registry Export

Windows 7 and Windows Vista

  1. Click Start, type regedit in the search box, and press Enter.
  2. Click File>Export
  3. In the dialogue box, enter a useful name such as regbackup, select a useful location – My Document is the default – and click save.

Windows Registry Save

There are also numerous instances of open-source software that will perform this task for you, but in reality, performing a basic registry backup is a simple procedure that does not involve introducing anymore software to your machine.

Restoring Your Backup

There may come an occasion where your registry backup is required. The methods for performing a registry backup vary according to the technical environment of the machine. Let’s look at a few different ways of restoring your registry backup following a number of different scenarios.

1. The Basic Restore

The most basic restore can be used when your computer is healthy, or in a very basic state of disrepair.

Safe Mode

Boot Windows into Safe Mode. In Windows 7 this can be achieved by pressing F8 while you cold boot i.e. turning your device on, rather than restoring from ‘hibernation’ or ‘sleep.’ Under Windows 8, one way to boot into Safe Mode is by holding the Shift key while clicking the power menu’s Restart option. This will trigger boot options, where you’ll find Safe Mode under > Troubleshoot > Advanced Options > Startup Settings.

restart-windows-8-in-safe-mode.png

When restoring the registry it is always worthwhile utilising Safe Mode to protect vital files and drivers from any potential corruption.

Windows 8/8.1

  1. Swipe in from the right of the screen, or point to the upper-right of the screen and locate
  2. Type regedit, and then press enter.
  3. Click File>Import
  4. In the Import Registry dialogue box, browse to the location we saved our backup – remember My Documents is set as the default – and click Open

Windows Registry Import

Windows 7 and Windows Vista

  1. Click Start, type regedit in the search box, and press Enter.
  2. Click File>Import
  3. In the Import Registry dialogue box, browse to the location we saved our backup – remember My Documents is set as the default – and click Open

Windows Registry Backups

Barring any outrageous, unaccountable errors to your system, you should now be able to back up and restore the Windows registry.

Another, slightly quicker method for registry restoration is to simply browse to the backup location, right-click the registry file and select merge. The .REG file will be automatically imported to your registry.

Windows Registry Merge

2. Manually Restore the Registry

You can manually restore the registry via the command prompt, if needs be. In some occasions Windows will not boot into Safe Mode – serious reasons – and it may be that a manual registry restoration is required.

This process is more technical than the previous aspects of this article, so beginners/newbs, be somewhat warned. Some aspects of the fix must be enacted before the time comes – difficult to estimate just when an error might strike, but if you are reading this article, you’ll now be 2 steps ahead!

For this process to work you’ll need your original Windows OS disk, or an ISO-image of your operating system. You can use the Windows OS disk to force a troublesome computer to boot into repair mode if tapping F8 fails to do the job.

If all else fails you can remove the hard-drive from the problematic system and slave it to another. We need access to the files, so the hard-drive location doesn’t necessarily make a difference and in fact, if the system is that problematic removing the hard-drive for external consideration can be a useful option.

Pre-Fix Checklist

  • Make sure you have enabled viewing hidden & system files:
    • Start>Control Panel>Appearance and Personalisation>Folder Options
  • Make sure you have your Windows OS disk, or ISO image on USB.

show-hidden-files.png

If it doesn’t automatically boot into system repair mode, you can repeatedly press F8 after powering your machine up to access the Safe Mode options screen. From here you’ll need to choose Repair My Computer.

As mentioned above, booting into Safe Mode on Windows 8/8.1 works slightly different and you’ll be able to launch the Command Prompt from Advanced options under Troubleshoot without booting into Safe Mode.

windows-8-startup-settings.png

You may be required to log into your device, depending on your existing system settings and your ongoing computing issues. Make sure to log into an administrator account as the commands we will be running in a moment will fail otherwise.

Select the Command Prompt.

Windows System Recovery Options

We’ll be assuming your Windows directory is located in C:\> – it certainly won’t be X:\>, unless you have specifically installed your Windows directory there. To find your root directory use the command:

dir C:\Win*

dir D:\Win*

dir E:\Win*

After each command press enter. The command prompt will inform you of the directory contents, so you’ll know when you have your Windows system folders.

Now, type these commands:

Cd /d C:\windows\System32\config

xcopy *.* C:\RegBack\

cd RegBack

dir

Check the dates of the files in the RegBack directory. If they are from before your issue began then you’re golden to input these commands:

copy /y software ..

copy /y system ..

copy /y sam ..

And yes, the two periods are part of the command!

Following this, reboot your computer normally. You have manually restored your registry – +1 knowledge for you!

3. Use Other System Restore Features

Before using more advanced command features, Windows has a relatively good inbuilt system restore feature – if you have turned it on, or if something else hasn’t turned it off.

Windows System Restore

System Restore in Windows 8 is slightly different. Press Windows + S and search for restore.  Select the create a restore point result. This will open > System Properties > System Protection where you can check whether protection is on, configure settings, and create a restore point right now.

System Protection Windows 8

Malware and viruses can disable System Restore and delete restore points. Moreover, your own anti-virus may resist any attempts to copy or modify core Windows settings, negating the effects of System Restore. However, as shown above at each Critical Windows Update your system should automatically set a system restore point.

Nonetheless, check that you have this feature turned on and by all means create a fresh restore point for your own peace of mind.

4. Use A Linux Live CD/USB

In the event of a lost Windows OS disk there are still more boot options. Windows users locked out of their system can use a Linux Live CD or USB to complete a fantastic range of tasks without booting Windows, but in this case we’ll focus our attention on editing the Windows Registry from Ubuntu. It is a slightly more advanced solution but can be an absolute lifesaver, considering the range of tutorials and Ubuntu being completely free.

Check out this list of System Rescue Disks. Some of these can be used outside of Windows, some require booting in and others require a mixture. They are nearly all amazing pieces of system saving wizardry.

When Not To Bother

We said we’d tell you when not to bother searching, altering or fixing your registry. We didn’t lie: these categories are true of most problems.

Sure, some guides for malware and virus removal will advise you to search and destroy single registry entries and in some cases, they would be right. But in many cases purported quick registry fixes to speed your computer are almost always snake oil solutions.

Not every person who advises registry fixes is a charlatan, and those that really know what they are doing can actually eek a little more performance out of your device. Plus there are several nice little tweaks that can be made to alter the Windows appearance: removing the irritating shortcut symbol for one.

But as we said, as soon as you dive into the registry make a backup, and back up that backup, too.

What Happens If I Delete…

the entire registry?

Well, luckily for us Windows is full of fail-safes. Unless you really, really try and understand how to execute advanced commands, you cannot just CTRL+A, DELETE your entire registry. That would cause your system to implode, bringing the very fabric of the universe down with it.

Seriously though, Windows doesn’t want you to delete all of it. The registry lookup begins very early in the boot process and as such the operating system makes a number of hidden backups – though not many – stored in root folders, required for launch. You may well be met with critical error messages as Windows searches the registry for core information, but, if System Restore has been turned on there should be a point to return to. We say should. It doesn’t always happen.

The best bet is to not delete your entire Windows registry, srsly.

Roundup

Errors, corruption, issues, viruses, ransomware, scamware and malware do happen. Protect yourself by:

  • Making a system restore point
  • Taking a system image
  • Making a registry backup

And save them all to external drives for your own protection!

Have you had a backup horror story? What course of action did you take to fix the errors? Let us know below!

Image Credits: Registry base Via Shutterstock

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