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Choosing Registry Tools

Registry cleaners are inherently dangerous. Essentially, they have to decide which keys should be removed or modified. Because it’s hard to understand what various registry keys do, and Registry cleaners are likely to present you with hundreds—or thousands—of recommended changes at once, there’s a tendency just to go ahead and instruct the program to change all the keys it has identified. Of course, if the tool’s algorithm has generated a false positive, you can be in trouble before you know it.

Registry cleaners take a variety of approaches to selecting targets, ranging from very conservative to quite radical. Needless to say, the more radical the tool’s approach, the more risk that you’re going to have to restore the registry from that backup copy. (Um, you did make that backup copy, didn’t you?) You have to decide how much risk you want to take—and how much you trust the registry cleaner’s judgment.

This is an area where a tool’s reputation is critical. Before you choose, scan the newsgroups and mailing lists to learn your candidate’s reputation. There are two things to watch out for when checking a product’s reputation:

  • Disregard comments to the effect that "Product A only found x problems in my registry, while Product B found y problems." This is likely due to the relative conservatism of Product B’s designers. Unlike antivirus software, detecting more "problems" is not necessarily a good thing in registry cleaners.
  • Be skeptical of user reviews posted on shareware sites. Because word of mouth is so important in registry tools, unscrupulous vendors will try to stack these ratings by posting a bunch of wildly enthusiastic "reviews." If you find a product that gets a ton of five-star reviews, a bunch of one-star reviews, and nothing in between, be suspicious.

Some products, such as Fix-It Utilities (available from Avanquest), try to alleviate the danger of changing what you don’t understand by classifying the keys they identify according to the danger perceived by the program. In Fix-It Utilities, green means that the key is almost certainly safe to remove, yellow means some risk, and red means a lot more risk.

Others, such as Registry Tool, try to minimize the risk by actually telling you what a particular key does. The more information you have, the easier it is to make a decision.

In the interests of simplicity, some registry cleaners present you with an all-or-nothing choice. You have to delete everything at once. This makes things easier on novices, but it’s a poor strategy. You want the option to flush everything, but you also want the choice of going through item by item and deciding what to delete and what to preserve.

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