Tweak your computer with registry hacks, Part 1: Introduction

In the past I have written a number of “How to” articles on dotTech explaining how to do various tasks, such blocking Flash ads in Internet Explorer. I’ve decided to continue with my series of “How to” articles. (Ignore the fact that this isn’t titled “How to”.) However, now I am going to take it up a notch; instead of simple install this, change that type of topic, I’m going to tell you about some nifty Windows’ registry hacks, or Windows tweaks – whichever you prefer to call them.

Now whether you like the registry or not it (although I am sure many people are indifferent on their feelings towards the registry), is a very powerful tool and if used correctly it can be used to customize your computer so it was more the way you want it to be, or it can just simply make your computer run better.  However, as with super heroes, “with great power comes great responsibility”.  One wrong move in the registry can, at best, make something happen you didn’t mean to and, at worst, make your computer crash, burn, and die.  To help avoid either situation, this first article on registry hacks will explain what the registry is, how it works, what it can do, and provide precautionary tips on what to do to avoid trouble in the future; subsequent articles will then expand on the nifty hacks/tweaks I have to share.

As a general rule of thumb, before starting to work with the registry, you want to:

  1. Back up your files. Yes backing up the registry is important, but your files are more important. Think about it: do you really care that much about the registry because you like the registry or do you care about the registry because if the registry is messed up you will lose your files? Backing up your files ensures if the worst does happen, you still have your files. If only specific, or a few number of, files are important to you use a file backup software like GFI Backup. If your whole computer is is important, use an image backup software – Ashraf has mentioned many before. Image backup will be more comprehensive and more appreciated by you if something does go wrong; however image backup will also be slower and take up more space.
  2. Back up your registry. When the registry messes up, sometimes everything can be fixed by simply restoring the backup you have. However, not all the times – sometimes you may not even be able to access the registry if someone goes wrong – so don’t depend on your backup to be a know-all-fix-all solution. Yet, you still should have it. You can backup your registry many different ways. Some mehods are to use CCleaner or GFI Backup, or just open up Regedit, go to “File” -> “Export”.
  3. Create a System Restore Point so that you can try to fix any problems that do occur. System Restore is the easiest way to try to undo a problem. Sure it may not necessarily always undo the problem you are looking to fix, but it is the quickest and most convenient method – the first step you should almost always try before resorting to other measures.
  4. Read this whole post 10 times. Make sure you know what you are doing.

In general, registry hacks can be divided in to two groups: hacks that help personalize the system and hacks that change how the system works. Personalization hacks change things like the Context Menu (that menu that pops up when you right click) or icons that files use.  System hacks change things like what shell Windows’ will use.  For the most part, I will focus on personalization hacks since they are less dangerous.

The registry is organized like your file system with “drives” called Hives, “folders” called Keys, and “files” called Values.  There are five Hives in the registry, though we will only be dealing with three of them: Classes Root, Local Machine, and Current User:

  • Classes Root (HKCR) has the settings for extensions. It stores all the information about how to handle files’ types, like what it’s called, what context menu to show, what icon to show, what to do when double clicking it, etc.
  • Local Machine (HKLM) stores settings for all users, like the computer’s name and information about the hardware.
  • Current User (HKCU) stores settings for the current users, like what wallpaper to show.

Under each Hive are Keys that, like folders on your computer, can contain other Keys.  In both HKLM and HKCU there is a Key called Software, and under it you would find a key for most companies that you have installed software from.  In each company Key, you will find Keys for software from them, which should contain settings and information about the program.

In each Key, besides containing other Keys, there can also be Values, which store the actual information.  A Value is made up of three parts: Name, Type, and Data. The Name is simply a name for the Value and can be anything, like how you can name a file. The Type tells the system what kind of data is being stored. The two we will be dealing with are REG_SZ which means a string of text and REG_DWORD which means some number from 0 to 4,294,967,295. Data will contain, well, the data associated with that Value. All the hacks/tweaks I will discuss will be accomplished by changing, mixing, matching, cloning, etc. the Keys, and Values.

Now, I think that’s enough for you to take in. As I said, reread this post 10 times so you know exactly what you are dealing with. Next time I’ll show you some real hacks!

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