What Is The Windows Registry Editor & How Do I Use It? [MakeUseOf Explains]

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what is the windows registryThe Windows registry can be scary at first glance. It’s a place where power users can change a wide variety of settings that aren’t exposed elsewhere. If you’re searching for how to change something in Windows, you’ll occasionally find articles telling you to edit the registry and change certain settings. These changes are often referred to as registry hacks or registry tweaks.

If you need to edit the registry, don’t worry – making a few quick changes is easy as long as you know what setting you’re modifying. However, you do need to be careful when editing the registry.

What Is The Windows Registry?

The Windows registry is a database that stores a wide variety of configuration settings. Nearly all configuration settings included with Windows are stored here. Third-party programs can also use the registry to store their settings, although they can also store settings in configuration files – the choice is up to each program.

Many of the options exposed in the registry are not accessible elsewhere in Windows. A wide variety of advanced settings can only be changed by directly editing the registry. Some other settings may be accessible through Group Policy – but the Group Policy editor is only included on Professional editions of Windows. The registry allows you to change most settings that can be accessed through Group Policy.

The Registry Editor is a graphical application that allows you to view and edit the Windows registry.

what is the windows registry

Using The Registry Editor

Warning: Be careful when editing the registry. Don’t go into the registry editor and delete anything or change a setting unless you know exactly what you’re doing. If you do know what you’re doing and are careful to modify only the correct values, you shouldn’t have any problems. However, if you start deleting folders (known as “registry keys”) or modifying other values, you could seriously damage your Windows installation. When using the registry editor, always bear this warning in mind.

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To open the registry editor, press the Windows key, type regedit, and press Enter. (On Windows XP, click Run in the Start menu and run the regedit command.)

what is the windows registry used for

If you know a certain value you want to change, you can navigate through the registry to find it by clicking the + sign next to each registry key. For example, if you wanted to change the LastActiveClick setting located in HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\Advanced, you’d click the plus sign next to HKEY_CURRENT_USER, click the plus sign next to Software, and continue clicking the plus signs next to each key until you reach the Advanced key. Click the Advanced key in the left pane and you’ll see the values inside it in the right pane. Double-click a value’s name and change it.

what is the windows registry used for

You may sometimes have to create new values if a registry setting doesn’t exist by default. To do so, navigate to the correct folder, right-click inside the right pane, point to the New menu, and select the specific type of value you require. Type the name of the value and press Enter.

If a key, or folder, you need doesn’t exist, create the correct folder structure by creating new subkeys in each folder. For example, If you need to change a value in Foo\Bar, create the Foo key if it doesn’t exist, then create the Bar key inside it.

what is the windows registry used for

Examples Of Cool Registry Hacks

There are a lot of useful things you can do with the registry. Here are a few examples:

  • Prevent Windows Update from automatically restarting your computer: Navigate to the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\WindowsUpdate\AU key, creating the subkeys if they don’t exist. Right-click in the right pane and create a new 32-bit DWORD value named NoAutoRebootWithLoggedOnUsers. Set its value to 1.
  • Single-click to activate the last active window for a program on Windows 7’s taskbar: Navigate to the HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\Advanced key, create a new DWORD value, name it LastActiveClick, and change its value to 1.
  • Disable the Aero Shake feature that automatically minimizes other windows when you shake a window: Navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\Explorer, create a new DWORD value, name it NoWindowMinimizingShortcuts, and set its value to 1.
  • Disable system tray notification balloon pop-ups: Navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\Advanced, create a new DWORD value, name it EnableBalloonTips, and set its value to 0.

You can even modify the text on the Windows logon screen from the registry editor.

You’ll find many more examples like these ones online. These are the kind of options that are only available in the registry. People have made third-party programs to configure many of these settings, but these programs just change the values in the registry for you.

Exporting & Importing .Reg Files

The Registry Editor also supports .reg files. You can create your own .reg files to back up certain registry keys, which can be a good idea if you’re about to edit them. To back up a key, right-click it and select Export. The contents of the key will be saved to a .reg file on your computer.

how to use windows registry

You can import the contents of a .reg file into your registry by double-clicking it. You’ll often find .reg files online – they can simplify the process of performing registry hacks. Instead of creating or editing each value by hand, you can double-click the .reg file and the values described in it will be instantly placed into your registry. Note that, for many registry hacks, you may have to restart Windows or the associated program before the change takes effect.

how to use windows registry

However, you shouldn’t just run any .reg file you download online without inspecting it first. To inspect a .reg file, right-click it and select Edit. You’ll see the contents of the file in a text editor, such as Notepad. Make sure the .reg file is modifying the values it should be modifying, and not anything else – a malicious individual could create a .reg file that trashes your system settings, causing serious problems.

what is the windows registry

The next time you see a registry hack, you should be able to follow it easily – or download a .reg file and double-check it to make sure it’s trustworthy and won’t mess up your computer. While we’re on the topic, don’t fall for registry cleaners – they don’t really make Windows go faster.

Do you have any favorite Windows registry hacks? Leave a comment and share them!

Image Credit: Data cube with a giant wrench via Shutterstock

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Comments (16)
  • harley bellwood

    Simple question…if you uninstall a program or software via a good uninstaller & find crap entries still in the registry, is it safe to delete them?

    • Chris Hoffman

      Technically, it’s probably safe as long as they’re entries related to the program itself.

      However, you shouldn’t bother. You could potentially break something (even I could potentially break something if I tried) and there’s no actual benefit to deleting such entries. It just wastes time and could potentially cause problems — and for no real benefit.

    • harley bellwood

      Good to know, thanks.

  • Dmitriy Haralson

    the registry maybe a powerful tool, but in inexperienced hands a PC killer

  • John Schmitt

    Yes, for XP:

    My Computer\HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\VolumeCaches\Compress…something..

    I delete that key everytime!

  • Eric Brewer

    Had to use the registry many times on home version computers when someone got a virus that changed some of the group policy settings to make them harder to remove.

  • Victor Ong

    Very good for beginners. Everything you really need to know!

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.