A Brief, But Comprehensive, Windows Registry Tutorial

Regedit Icon - The icon for the registry editor.


While it might be universal knowledge for some, many people do not know how to properly work with the Windows registry, let alone even open it. Some don’t even know what it is. That’s why I’m writing a brief manual on operating with the Windows registry. I know that almost every website has a registry tutorial, but there’s a reason The Tech Guy has one: I’m too lazy to repeat myself in every tutorial I write that involves a couple of modifications in the registry.

What is the Windows Registry?

Think of the Windows registry as the skeleton of your operating system. It stores all of the settings and configurations you make in Windows and other programs. Installed programs often store their values here. It’s a giant hierarchical database that stores all configuration information of all programs and all operating system components.

Why Edit the Registry?

Sometimes, you might want to add your own features to Windows or tweak the system a little bit. In that case, you need to edit the registry, much like you edit the configuration file on a video game to unlock certain capabilities.

A Word of Caution

Here are The Tech Guy’s two rules for modifying the registry:

1: When making any sort of change to the registry, treat it as if you would do brain surgery on a person very close to you. It’s very risky stuff and, if you don’t know what you’re getting into, it can render your computer useless.

2: In compliance to rule #1, you should also make a backup of your registry in case you have an “oopsie!” moment. I’ll teach you how to do this later on in the article.

As long as you keep both of these rules in your head, you have nothing to worry about. If your hands start trembling after reading this, then my work is done. You should be scared of making a mistake here. It is, after all, the pillar upon which your Windows installation stands.

Opening the Registry Editor

To edit your registry, you must open the registry editor, naturally. Windows calls the registry editor “regedit.exe.” Let’s get started.

Press “Start + R” on your computer to open the “Run” window. This window allows you to get to most core Windows applications without having to go through any hectic navigation. Can’t locate your “Start” key? Look next to the “Alt” keys. You should end up here:

The "Run" dialog, used for running core Windows applications.

Just as in the image, type “regedit” in the “Open” field. Click “OK” or press “Enter” on your keyboard once you typed it. You end up in the most useful utility for tweaking Windows – the registry editor:

The main window of the registry editor.

The registry editor consists of two panels: one on the left for navigating through “registry keys” and another on the right for navigating through the contents of the keys. Go ahead and browse around the registry a bit to get the hang of fetching key paths. You’ll notice that the right side of the window will change when you select different keys.

Key Hierarchy

The hierarchy in your registry functions a lot like the folder structure in Windows. Keys, much like folders, have sub-keys, and each key and sub-key has content within it that defines certain settings, much like how each folder may have files. Get it? Got it? Good!

Also, I would like to add that every key is a sub-key of another key. The terms “sub-key” and “key” can be used interchangeably at any point, depending on what I want to emphasize. The only keys that are not sub-keys of anything else are: HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT, HKEY_CURRENT_USER, HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE, HKEY_USERS, and HKEY_CURRENT_CONFIG. These keys specify what part of the operating system you’re meddling with. They should be self-explanatory.

Backing Up The Registry

Before you do anything to your Windows registry, you should always back it up. Within the registry editor, click “File” on the top menu and click “Export.” After you choose a location to save the file and name it, click “Save” and just wait until everything’s done. You might have to wait long depending on how large the registry is and how your hard drive handles writing large files. You can restore a backup of your registry by double-clicking the REG file you just made, or clicking “Import” in the “File” menu of regedit.

The registry editor (regedit) with its "Export" option selected, used to back up the registry.

Adding a Sub-Key

If a tutorial I write involves modifying the registry, you’d most likely have to add a sub-key in the process. You can easily do this by right-clicking a selected key on the left side of the window, hovering the mouse over “New” and clicking “Key.” A new key will appear with the name highlighted, allowing you to change the name to whatever you wish.

Adding a Value to a Key

To properly tweak your Windows installation, you’ll also need to know how to add a value to a key. An empty key isn’t as useful as one with configuration values defined. To add a value, right-click an empty space on the right-side of the window after you have selected the key you would like to add a value for. Hover the mouse over “New” and click “x Value.” Let “x” represent the type of value you’ve been told to add.

  • “String” values represent phrases and alphanumeric text.
  • “Binary Value” represents a hexadecimal grid for raw data. You won’t have to use this much, but you will need to be careful when editing these values.
  • “DWORD” and “QWORD” represent 32-bit numbers and 64-bit numbers, respectively. The only difference between both: The QWORD can include more digits.
  • “Multi-String Value” represents a matrix of strings, with one at each new line. When modifying the value, you get a large text box in which to add as many strings as you need.
  • “Expandable String Value” is a very nifty variable type that allows you to specify any string that can hold a variable. “%SystemRoot%,” for example, is an expandable string, because it’s often replaced in Windows with something like “C:\Windows\System32″ or wherever your system root is. While we might not use this much in tutorials, you should retain this knowledge.

It’s important that you get acquainted with the value types, and experiment a little bit. Create a couple of values in a key and modify their values to learn how each one behaves. Don’t forget to delete them after you’re done. The easiest way to modify a value is by double-clicking it on the right side of the registry window.

Have Fun!

This concludes the registry editor tutorial and, hopefully, has taught you something you didn’t know. Refer to this tutorial every time you get confused when another tutorial tells you to modify the registry. Don’t forget to read the disclaimer before you screw up your computer!

The Tech Guy

Miguel has been working with computers back when the latest processor could print "Hello World" on the screen a couple of times and everyone was going nuts about that. From the days of DOS to the days of 'dows, he's been exploring every minute detail about computers, banging his head against the keyboard until he got it. Now he's blogging about it on his dedicated server until it breaks down, he repairs it, and just keeps on blogging.

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3 Responses to A Brief, But Comprehensive, Windows Registry Tutorial

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