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Taking Out the Trash in XP

Reader Jon Welch asks: In your Help Desk item on how the Mac OSX resists viruses, you imply that Windows machines develop the problems they do because the Registry gets clogged with so much junk (see BW Online, 10/24/05, "Why Worms Shun Apple's OSX"). How would I go about correcting this on my XP machine?

The Registry is a massive file that stores all the information about the configuration of a Windows computer -- everything from the names of users and the list of applications installed to your choice of screen wallpaper.

Unfortunately, there's no simple or easy way to prevent corruption of the information stored in it. Microsoft (MSFT) made a horrible mistake when it designed the Registry as a simple file that any program could modify to affect not only its own sections but those governing the behavior of other programs. This creates fundamental insecurity and instability at the heart of Windows, and there's no way to change that.

A number of programs claim to clean up Registry problems, but I haven't been terribly impressed by any of them. You can do two basic things to improve the situation. The first is to run antispyware software that will notify you and ask your permission any time a program tries to add itself to the startup list. My current favorite for this is SpySweeper from Webroot.

DIGGING DEEP. Second, make sure that the existing startup list consists only of programs you really want or need. There are two ways to launch a program automatically at startup. One is to put a shortcut to the application in the Startup folder in the Start menu. Unfortunately, you'll have to check at least two of them. Right click on the Start button, select Open, then Programs, then Start Menu. You can simply delete the icons of any programs you don't want running at startup (you'll still be able to launch these programs manually when you want). You then have to repeat the process, starting with Open All Users instead of Open.

The second method of launching startup programs is buried deep within the Registry. To find out everything that runs when you start your computer, click on the Start menu, select Run, type "msconfig" on the box, and click OK. The Microsoft System Configuration program will open. Click on the Startup tab and you will see a list of every program and service that's loaded at startup. Unfortunately, while some have names like "DirectCD" that give you a strong clue as to their purpose, many come with names like bldbubg, which you would never guess is a Dell utility.

This is the hard part. First, you have to figure out what each of these startup programs does and whether you need it. A Google search on the names in the Startup Item of System Configuration will generally provide some useful information about those cryptic names. If you're in doubt about whether any particular startup entry is needed for the proper functioning of your PC, click on the link to read this Microsoft Knowledge Base article. It describes a diagnostic procedure for testing these entries.

BE SURE YOU'RE SURE. The Location column of System Configuration tells you how each application is launched. Those that are controlled by the Registry have entries that start HKLM\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion. The best way to eliminate a startup program permanently is to delete its entry from the Registry. Click the Start button, then Run, and type regedit and click OK.

Using the left-hand panel, navigate to My Computer\HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows\Current Version and click the plus sign to expand Current Version. Double-click the little folder icon next to Run to open it. A list of all the startup programs will appear in the window on the right. Right-click on the item you want to remove, chose Delete, and click the Yes button when asked if you're sure. Don't delete an item until you're sure you want to be rid of it, since this action isn't easily reversed. And don't mess with anything else in the Registry.

It's unconscionable that it's so difficult to keep a Windows computer running well. But we live in the world that Microsoft has made, and we just have to put up with it.


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