What is a registry?

By Charles Miller

This week a reader wrote to ask “What is a registry?” As that name applies to the Windows Operating System, this noun is almost always preceded with “the.” The registry is a database that contains information about your hardware, software, settings, user accounts, serial numbers, passwords… in other words, most everything on your computer. To better understand the registry it is helpful to look at what personal computers were like before the registry existed.

In the early days of Personal Computers there was very little sharing of information or resources. The internet did not yet exist for private use so there was no sharing of anything there, and even the programs did not talk to each other or share resources with other software installed on the same computer. If you had a word processor and wanted to connect it to a printer, this required special drivers for that word processor and that printer. If you wanted to also print from another program such a spreadsheet, that program would require its own set of drivers and would need to be configured to connect to the printer independent of the printer configuration you just setup for the word processor. Mice were not very popular in those days, but if you had one it was often necessary to configure it for each individual program you used. In the end, setting up a PC required many hours creating and editing countless CFG and INI files before everything would work.

Microsoft wisely saw this as the unwieldy problem it was, and with the introduction of Windows made the decision to organize all computer- and application-specific data from all those INI files into a centralized database called “the registry.” Encouraging software vendors to make use of the registry insured that configuration information adhered to a set of standards and that it could be shared. Using the registry is not required of software authors, but using it makes a lot of things much easier. Today everyone using Windows simply takes for granted that their mouse works with every program on the computer, that every program can share the use of the same printer, and so on.

Current versions of Windows spread the registry across several files called “hives” which are located in the Windows folder tree. The registry is unfortunately sensitive to corruption and so it is a good idea to back it up. Early versions of Windows did this automatically but for technical reasons this is no longer the case.

For most Windows users the registry is one of those unseen components that sits there in the computer doing its job without any user intervention. It is rare that a user needs to make manual changes to the registry because programs and applications typically make all the necessary changes automatically. Warning: a manual change to the registry made in error could render your computer completely inoperable.

A lot of programs are advertised as being able to speed up your computer by optimizing the registry, and most of these are the 21st century resurrection of snake oil. Just like the man who said he only wore turtlenecks because it made getting dressed so much faster than buttoning shirts, the benefits of these registry repair programs might be real but are almost never impressive enough to justify the cost of the program.

What I do strongly recommend is that you back up the registry from time to time and especially before installing new programs or making any changes to your system. This you should do along with backing up your documents, pictures, etc.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044-415-101-8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.


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