Simple questions: What is the Windows Registry and what does it do?

Have you ever heard of the Windows Registry or the Registry Editor tool? Did a geeky friend of yours tell you that there are things you can do in Windows only if you do them from the Registry? Did you wonder what the Windows Registry is and what it does? In this article, we’ll shed some light on these notions and explain the basics of the Windows Registry and the Registry Editor tool. If we managed to make you curious, read on:

The (very) short explanation for what the Windows Registry is

All Windows operating systems, including Windows 10, store their configuration information in a database. This database is called the Windows Registry. The Windows Registry contains profiles with configuration options for each user account on your Windows computer or device, to separate settings between users.

What does the Windows Registry do?

The keys and values from Windows Registry are used by Windows to know what settings to use for all tools and features, hardware devices and some third-party software applications.

The Windows Registry database stores settings that control the following:

  • How the drivers of hardware devices work in Windows
  • How the operating system settings found in the Settings app or the Control Panel are configured
  • Which are the default programs set to open certain file types or protocols
  • How some of the third-party applications that you installed work, etc.

A word of caution

Next, we’d like to show you how to get access to the Windows Registry, but first, we must warn you that toying with the settings inside is not something that everyone should do. If you’re messing with the wrong keys and values, you can make your Windows operating system unstable, or even break it so badly that you’ll have to reinstall it. As such, take great care in how you deal with the settings from the Windows Registry, and only change things for which you have documentation beforehand.

How to get access to the Windows Registry

In all Windows operating systems, the Windows Registry is opened and edited using a tool called the Registry Editor. This tool is built into Windows and works the same in all modern versions of this operating system: Windows 10, Windows 8.1 and Windows 7.

The fastest way to open the Registry Editor is to use search. In Windows 10, write "regedit" inside Cortana’s search field from your taskbar, and then click or tap on the "regedit" search result.

In Windows 8.1, switch to the Start screen and start writing "regedit" on it. By the time you finish writing, you should already see the "regedit" command shown: click or tap on it.

In Windows 7, open the Start Menu and write "regedit" in its search field. Then click on the "regedit" search result.

An alternative to open the Registry Editor that works the same in Windows 10, Windows 8.1 and Windows 7, is to use the Run window to launch it. Open Run by simultaneously pressing the Windows + R keys on your keyboard, write "regedit" inside the Open text field, and then click or tap OK.

Regardless of the way you choose to open it, here’s how the Registry Editor looks:

The screenshot is taken in Windows 10, and the only thing unique about the Registry Editor from Windows 10 (Creators Update) is the fact that it has an address bar at the top, while the Registry Editor in Windows 8.1 and Windows 7 doesn’t.

How to use the Registry Editor

Once you’ve opened the Registry Editor, you’ll see that it’s split into panels. The one on the left side of the window shows a hierarchical tree view of the keys from the Windows Registry. On the right panel, you can see and work with the values of the keys selected on the left panel.

Although the Registry Editor lets you create new keys and values, and even delete them, most people use it to edit the keys and values already found inside the Windows Registry.

Unfortunately, almost all the keys and values from the Windows Registry bear cryptic names and are usually found buried in lots of other parent keys. That’s why we advise you to do a proper search online for exactly what you want to change in the Windows Registry before you do it.

Take for instance the following example: if you want your Windows 10 PC to delete the virtual memory file automatically, also known as the pagefile, each time you shut down your computer or device, you must change a value called ClearPageFileAtShutDown from the Windows Registry. The value’s name is not that cryptic, but the path to it is: to get to it, you’ll have to open the Registry Editor and got to “HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE \ SYSTEM \ CurrentControlSet \ Control \ Session Manager \ Memory Management.”

To edit a value, you can double-click on it or right-click and click/tap on Modify.

Then, all you have to do is enter the new value you want to be used. In this case, 0 means that the pagefile is not deleted on Windows 10 shutdown, and 1 means that the virtual memory file is deleted each time you shut down.

The Registry Editor also lets you create new keys and values, and it also allows you to delete existing ones. However, these are things that are even more advanced than editing what’s already found in the Windows Registry, and we won’t go into detail about them today. :)

Conclusion

Now you know what the Windows Registry is and you should have a pretty good idea of what it does and how to use the Registry Editor to make changes to it. Have you ever used it to alter the way things work on your Windows computer or device? Or do you find it too advanced? Share your comments in the section below.