There is a lot of controversy over how well Windows registry cleaners work. The makers claim their programs remove unneeded settings from the registry and some claim to remove "errors" that could potentially cause problems. While some people swear by them, others blame registry cleaners for their Windows system becoming unrecoverable. If you use a registry cleaner that causes a problem you should be prepared to restore from a backup or to reinstall Windows.
This ever-present risk of problems is why the "Best Registry Cleaner" is the one that causes the fewest problems, rather than the one that finds the greatest number of registry issues. Although none of the registry cleaners I recommend here have caused me a problem I have not elected to have an Editor's Choice in this category because I consider that all the registry cleaners fail to provide clear guidance to make registry cleaning a well-informed choice. None of the products properly explain what they are suggesting should be removed and none clearly indicate the risks of such cleaning.
The registry is a database or a large index of information that is needed for Windows to run. It mainly stores settings for anything Windows needs to know about: startup settings, program settings, installed components, network connections including the Internet, printer settings, mobile phone and tablet connections, and many other details you're probably not interested in. Just remember that there are lots of these entries. When you first install Windows it already included many settings that you might need: about 150,000 in Windows XP, close to 380,000 in Vista, and nearly 450,000 in Windows 7 (all 32-bit versions).
You can think of the registry as a large tree with many branches and leaves. The data values or settings are like the leaves and the branches are the keys or indexes to those settings. A main branch can have many smaller branches each of which can have many more branches and all of them can have many leaves. Using that same picture, a registry cleaner trims the tree by removing some of the branches and leaves that aren't needed or are damaged.
I tested these products by scanning and cleaning the registry using the least and most aggressive settings. None of the recommended products caused me any problems in any of the versions I have tested in the last three years. But I have not tested them against the wide range of applications that you may be using. I did look at the specific keys and values that each application removed. I found that there is no consensus among the application programmers about what should be in a light clean versus a heavy clean. So I have not provided an evaluation of their comparative cleaning capabilities because it is largely meaningless without a clear understanding of how the registry is used. That may be provided in a later article which explains the risks of cleaning different types of registry keys and values.
Windows users do not usually need to use a registry cleaner
- Each new version of Windows brings further improvements to the performance of the registry. The problems that registry cleaners may resolve become less significant for each new version of Windows.
- Registry cleaners hardly make a dent in the registry size as most would not find even 1,000 entries to remove. That's a lot less than 1% change so don't expect a noticeable difference in performance.
- They increase the risk of damaging the registry so that Windows will not work at all and you will have to restore your system from a backup or reinstall your system.
- A lot of advertisements for registry and system cleaners are malicious or useless programs. Make sure that you get a reputable program from a reputable download site.
If your Windows system is running slow then there other things you should try first
Each of the following actions can improve your systems performance ten to one hundred times more than registry cleaning.
- Use a Windows system cleaner that removes temporary files and the like from your system. They can produce much greater improvements in performance.
- Disable the loading of memory resident programs and services that run all the time. This frees up memory and processing power. System cleaners will usually have tools to help you to do this.
- Uninstall unneeded programs. System cleaners will also have tools to help you to do this.
- Add more memory (RAM) to your computer if it does not have enough.
- Consider adding a second hard disk drive as can be used to improve performance.
If you do use a registry cleaner then always have good backups
It is absolutely essential that you backup your registry before using a registry cleaner. For most users the easiest way to do backup the registry is to create a system checkpoint. An even better way is to use a drive-imaging program to create a snapshot of Windows, which you can use for system recovery if needed. As an added layer of protection consider using the excellent ERUNT utility which backs up and restores the registry files.
Features that should be in a registry cleaner
- Backup and restore of changes. Most reputable products perform a backup automatically before scanning or making changes. Some like CCleaner prompt you and give you an option. CCleaner only saves the issues rather than the entire registry but some will do a full registry backup or a System Restore point.
- More system cleaning options. Most registry cleaners are one part of a suite of cleaning tools in a system cleaner. CCleaner is an example of one program with a suite of functions whereas some are a suite of separate programs with a common menu. But if you want a stand-alone registry cleaner then we also recommend a couple of options.
- The ability to select which categories of issues will be scanned. Some cleaners like PowerTools Lite also allow you to explicitly set your level of risk.
- A review of suggested changes so you can confirm what will be done before anything is removed. Some registry cleaners like Wise Registry Cleaner and PowerTools Lite also provide you with a measure of the "severity" of each error. That will usually do as a measure of the risk if you get it wrong.
- Meaningful descriptions of the issues so you can exercise an informed right of veto. However, this is the most serious weakness of registry cleaners: they just don't make it easy to know how risky any changes are. Some programs provide links to more information but they don't usually put it all in plain English.
- The ability to jump into RegEdit. If you're into registry cleaning then you're unlikely to be put off by the additional risk of damaging the registry yourself. The opportunity to see the actual registry entry at issue is particularly useful to advanced users.
- An option to export Registry errors allows you to more easily document what you've done, keep a copy of what you've removed or compare two different cleaners.
One feature that is not on my list is defragmenting the registry. It sounds like defragmenting files on a disk drive but doesn't provide the same benefit. The registry properly exists only when it is assembled in memory because some parts are never saved to disk, they are always volatile. This means that there is no direct relationship between organization of the registry hive files on disk and the performance of the registry hives in memory.
Go straight to the Quick Selection Guide
You might want to check out these articles before selecting or using a registry cleaner:
- What Everybody Should Know About the Windows Registry
- Learn How to Use the Windows Registry Editor (Regedit) in One Easy Lesson
- How to Backup the Windows Registry
- Deeper into the Windows Registry
- Best Free PC Cleaner
- Do we really need Windows registry cleaners?
Registry cleaner as part of a system cleaning suite
CCleaner is widely recommended for cleaning your Windows system and provides several ways to improve the performance of your PC. CCleaner is also very light-handed so it suits most users who are not confident with removing registry records.
This is the only registry cleaner that I use although sometimes I wish it would be more aggressive in finding and removing unneeded records. So if you are a more advanced user and you want more cleaning options then choose one of the stand-alone products below.
Stand-alone registry cleaner
Wise Registry Cleaner was the old Editor's Choice but like the other cleaners would need to improve its guidance to earn that award now. It is well-documented with a manual on the website, it is very regularly updated, it works with the 64-bit registry records, and it has companion products for other aspects of cleaning. You can select the level of risk and complexity in the scans as well as choosing which categories of error are searched. It can also be automated and has scheduling built-in. Any changes are automatically backed up before the issues are removed. The backup options also allow you to create a System Restore point or full backup.
There is one problem with the scanning interface: the scan button turns into the cleaning button after each scan. They should have been two separate buttons so you don't mistakenly delete Registry records. If you do want to rescan then you need to select the rescan link to the left of the button.
PowerTools Lite has a paid big brother, jv16 PowerTools, from which comes the registry cleaner, backup options, and strangely enough a web blocking list for your hosts file. The cleaner has the most descriptive information on each error but you'll probably find it still isn't clear enough for you unless you are an advanced user. The best part of it is that you can choose your level of risk at four levels from low to high. Initially set it to low and only consider raising it if you have no problems. The higher the risk then the higher the complexity and the longer scans will take but the extra wait is not too long.
PowerTools Lite has a wide range of settings as shown in the image. It also has a command-line option so it can be scheduled to run automatically and it works with the 64-bit Registry. Later in 2014, jv16 PowerTools will become Open Source allowing you to upgrade to a fully-featured system cleaner at some point.
Open Source registry cleaner
Little Registry Cleaner is only exceptional in being Open Source. You can check exactly how it works. In terms of speed and features it is like the majority of registry cleaners: easy to scan but not so easy to know if you're deleting the right records. It has the usual obscure descriptions of issues and little guidance on the relative risks of any changes.
Registry cleaners for older versions of Windows
If you use Windows ME, 98 or 95 then there are many options including obsolete programs that have not been updated for years. Two programs that will work with Windows versions from 95 to 8 are Eusing Free Registry Cleaner and Cleanersoft Free Registry Fix. These applications look like they may be related because they are so similar in appearance, features, and operation. Two obvious difference are visible in the images: Eusing has a task sub-menu and displays the key before the data value.
Wise Registry Cleaner Free
Eusing Free Registry Cleaner
Cleanersoft Free Registry Fix
Little Registry Cleaner
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