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Navigating the Registry

Thursday, December 30th, 2010 by | Filed Under: File & Disk Management, Uncategorized

Thomas from Santa Clara, California writes:

There is something I have to do by going into the registry and it makes me nervous. I have never done anything with the registry before and all I hear is to stay out of it. Plus, I don’t know how to “navigate to a key” and I don’t even know what a key is. Can you help me with any of this?

Certainly, Thomas! I’d be happy to.

The registry is a scary place to be if you have never been in it before. I use the word scary because the first time I was supposed to go into the registry, there was a warning, “Don’t go into the registry or your computer will explode!” At least that’s what I thought it said. I didn’t go near it again for almost three years.

Navigating the registry is a piece of cake; it’s the actions you take when you are in the registry that you have to be careful with. For this article, let’s learn how to navigate the registry. Once you’ve learned the navigation, if you decide to make any changes, it’s a good idea to back it up. Instructions for that can be found here.

You asked what a key is; I’ll address that first. A key in the Windows Registry is like a file folder. A key that sits within another key is called a subkey. Keys are always located in the left pane when you look at the registry.

To begin, we have to pull up the Registry Editor. We can do this one of three ways:

Hit the Win key + R and the Run line will pop up in a box. Type in regedit and left-click on OK.

or Left-click on your Start button, and in the Start Search box, type in regedit and hit Enter on your keyboard.

Left-click on the Start button, go to the right and click on Run to access the Run line, and type in regedit in the line in the box that pops up. Left-click on OK. If Run doesn’t appear in the Start menu, this tip demonstrates how to get it there.

You are now looking at the Registry Editor.

(Pop quiz: What is the difference between the Registry and the Registry Editor? Answer is at the end of the article.)

When you are going to navigate the registry (sometimes it’s called “browsing the registry”), you are going to open and close registry keys by clicking on either the “+” sign to expand the key or the “-” sign to collapse the key until you arrive at a specific registry location.

The Vista and Windows 7 registries no longer use the “+” and “-” symbols for navigation. Instead, there is a little triangle to the extreme left of a key or subkey that you click to open it. If a triangle is white and pointed to the right, the key is closed. If the triangle is black, pointed down, and there are subkeys listed under it, then it is open.

Okay. Let’s say that we need to go to the registry location that tells Windows which applications to load when Windows starts. This is the command for the registry location:


To help you navigate to the location we need, see the screenshot below.

Now we have arrived at the location (which is Run, at the end of the command above). Look at the right pane, and you see that there are five listed entries. These entries are called “values”. A registry value stores data in different formats.

The above screen shot is the registry location that we wanted to arrive at. The location shows the applications that the registry tells Windows to launch when it starts.

That’s it! Kind of anti-climactic, huh? I told you that navigating the registry is easy once you know how!

As to the answer to the pop quiz question from above:

I tried to find the difference between the registry and the registry editor, and it all came down to this:

The Windows Registry, usually referred to as “the registry,” is a centralized database of configuration settings in Microsoft Windows operating systems.

The Windows Registry is accessed and configured using the Microsoft Registry Editor program, a free registry editing utility included with every version of Microsoft Windows. (It’s included free! Woo-hoo!)

Registry Editor is, for all reasonable purposes, the registry itself. All available options in the registry are configurable via Registry Editor.

So what’s the difference between the registry and the registry editor? They are pretty much the same thing.

Thanks for writing, Thomas!

~ Lori Cline

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2 Responses to “Navigating the Registry”

  1. K.Vee.Shanker. says:

    Hi Lori,

    Thanks for your introduction(and to Thomas also for asking!. I urge you to explain me on how to identify the entries of virus and unauthorised programs running at the background. My computer is terribly slow, hangs soon. My running virus and malware scans(updated before scan) regularly could not identify any problems.Even process explorer couldn’t help me. Mine’s a winxp professional os on a 5-year old destop having 512mb RAM.

  2. Robert Wurzburg says:

    Dear K.Vee:
    Sometimes a registry editor program like Registry Mechanic can pinpoint a
    malicious entry and remove it for you. It could re-appear when you restart
    your computer until the program is identified and removed. The registry ed-
    itor program can tell you where the entries are, and you can investigate it
    further in your computer.
    Another check to run would be to see what files have been created on a date
    or range of dates you specify using Windows Search of your computer. Files
    can be compared to known entries on anti-virus websites using their search
    and you don’t have to have an account.
    You can also use the Internet to search bulletin boards, tech websites and
    forums for just about any program or files you want to investigate.

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