09:42 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Langa Letter: Testing 10 Windows 'Registry Cleaning' Software Packs

Fred Langa tries to make sense of wildly disparate claims, and rates the best free and commercial products.

The Windows Registry is "The configuration database in all 32-bit versions of Windows that contains settings for the hardware and software in the PC it is installed in," according to the TechEncyclopedia. That's actually a pretty good thumbnail description. Wikipedia has a somewhat more detailed definition, which starts this way:

In computing, the Windows registry is a database which stores settings and options for the operating system for Microsoft Windows 32-bit versions. It contains information and settings for all the hardware, software, users, and preferences of the PC. Whenever a user makes changes to "Control Panel" settings, or file associations, system policies, or installed software, the changes are reflected and stored in the registry....

In all versions of Windows, the Registry can accumulate obsolete and nonfunctioning entries. Older versions of Windows, in particular, were notorious for this, often ending up with Registries containing huge numbers of erroneous entries. This slowed computer operations; and could even lead to crashes.

This led to the creation of a number of third-party software utilities that purported to "clean" the Registry, finding and eliminating the extraneous, useless, or just plain bogus data stored there.

Even Microsoft eventually got into the act, producing a small, unofficial, unsupported tool called Regclean for the Win9x family of operating systems. Microsoft made several half-hearted attempts at improving Regclean over several years, but Windows ME was then in the works, and it's registry was different enough from the earlier Win9x family to require that Registry tools work differently; and Windows NT/2000/XP required wholly different software. Because of this, Microsoft quietly abandoned Regclean, never having officially released it as a supported product. (It's still around on various non-Microsoft Web sites, however.)

Today, third-party Registry cleaning tools abound, filling the gap that Microsoft left. And that's a good thing, because even though XP is much harder to crash than was Windows 9x, it still can benefit from some Registry cleaning. For example, when you upgrade a PC from Win98 to XP, the new operating system will carry along a boatload of Registry settings from the old setup, just in case they might be needed. While this helps ensure that the new setup will work, it also virtually guarantees that the new setup carries excess baggage from Day One.

A brief aside to prove the point: On a recent "House Call" (an on-site PC-diagnostic and repair session at a reader's place of business or home office), one reader had upgraded a major-brand PC from Win98 to XP. This reader had above-average PC skills, and had regularly backed up his system, defragged, and otherwise maintained it, including running Norton's "WinDoctor" and ToniArt's "EasyCleaner" to help maintain the registry. Despite all that, we found and were able to remove some 3,000 additional bogus entries in his Registry. That, and some other maintenance steps we took, cut his PC's boot times in half, and made the system perceptibly faster and more stable. The full House Call repair is a separate story we'll tell at another time, but the salient point today is that, even using two Registry tools, he still had some 3,000 needless entries bloating his Registry and bogging down his system.

Nonupgraded systems also can accumulate some unnecessary Registry bloat, too, especially as hardware is added or removed, and software is installed, uninstalled, and upgraded. The more dynamic your system use, the more likely that your Registry will eventually accumulate a nontrivial number of obsolete or otherwise bogus entries.

Numbers Games
But what, exactly, constitutes a Registry error? It's not an easy question to answer, as this reader letter illustrates:

Fred: What are your thoughts on Registry Programs? I have run five different programs on the same computer, without making any of the recommended changes, and get the following results:

Registry Repair from Stomp -- 732 errors
Registry 1st Aid from Rose City -- 73 errors
Registry Mechanic from PC Tools -- 18 errors
Registry Medic from Iomatic -- 50 errors
Easy Cleaner from Toni Arts -- 36 errors

No, that's not an error; Stomp did return 732 errors. Best Regards, John

There are several reasons for the disparity in those error counts. First there's the matter of simple semantics: At one end of the spectrum, there are Registry errors that -- if not corrected -- may make a system unbootable or unstable, or that may cause some of your software to crash or to malfunction. But at the other end of the spectrum, there are trivial, transient Registry items that are intended for short-term use, that harm nothing when they go out of date, and that are ultimately self-correcting via normal Windows housecleaning. Naturally, counting these latter as "errors" drives up the count and lets a given piece of software generate impressive-looking stats; but removing those "errors" doesn't mean much in terms of a real benefit.

Then again, some Registry cleaners truly are more aggressive than others, digging deeper and looking in more places for more kinds of errors.

Put those factors together and you can begin to see why one tool might report 18 errors while another reports more than 700 on the same system.

But understanding the problem of error-reporting doesn't tell you what tool to use. So, to try to get a handle on all this, I decided to try 10 different Registry-cleaner utilities on a test system here. The system, running XP Pro, was removed from live service, and thus wasn't a purebred lab machine. Rather, it's an ordinary, real-life office PC containing a normal suite of productivity apps, Web browsers, E-mail, and so on. In fact, it's so standard, most of you, reading this now, could sit down at the test PC and quickly begin using it productively.

The system was fully up to date with all patches and updates for XP and the installed software, including antivirus and firewall utilities. The system had been set up and maintained well (see System Setup Secrets For Windows XP, Ten Ways To Make Windows XP Run Better, Ten More Ways To Make Windows XP Run Better, and Make Windows XP Self-Maintaining.)

However, no Registry-cleaner software had been used on the system, and so whatever errors and other debris had been accumulating in the Registry since the original installation of XP was still in there.

I made a disk "image" (a bit-for-bit exact copy of the hard drive's contents) and then tried the 10 different Registry cleaners on the test system, one at a time. First, I'd install and run one cleaner three times, with a reboot between each run. I'd make a note of the number of Registry errors the software found and fixed on each run.

After the third run, I'd restore the original saved disk image, returning the system to the same initial condition it was in before any tests. Then I'd install and test the next cleaning tool over three separate runs, with a reboot between each run.

Testing this way ensured that each cleaner faced exactly the same initial conditions on its first run, with the Registry in exactly the same initial state.

Doing immediate second and third runs with each cleaning tool was to see if any of the programs under test were fudging their numbers by over-reporting errors. For example, if a tool was really doing what it said it was, it would find and fix all the errors it could on the first run. Immediate subsequent runs should show essentially zero errors, because they all were fixed on the first run, right?

But if a tool still reports a significant number of errors on the second and third runs, you might wonder what was going on: Why couldn't the tool find and fix all the errors the first time? Is the tool introducing new errors as it runs? Is it fudging the numbers to make you think it's doing more than it really is? Is it reporting as "errors" some things that really aren't errors after all?

At the least, it seems to me that a good Registry cleaning tool should report a stable, repeatable, and very low number of errors on back-to-back repeated runs. To me, a tool that can't get the number of reported errors down to a stable, low minimum number on repeated runs either isn't fixing things right, or isn't analyzing them right in the first place. Your mileage may vary, but I tend to stay away from tools that act this way.

The Tools And How They Did
I'll provide more detail on the individual tools as we go along, but the list includes JV16 PowerTools version (the last free version of this venerable tool, considered by many to be the best free Registry cleaner ever offered); JV16 PowerTools 2005 (the current, commercial version of the classic tool); Registry Mechanic from; ToniArt's EasyCleaner; StompSoft's Registry Repair; Rose City's Registry First Aid; Iomatic's RegistryMedic; EasyDesk's Registry Drill; RegistryFix's eponymous RegistryFix; and Registry Cleaner from CleanMyPC. In each case, I downloaded the latest available version of each tool just prior to testing.

There are, of course, many, many other Registry-cleaning tools available. My choice of 10 is not meant to be definitive, but rather merely representative of what's available in this class of tool. If you have additional information on other tools of this type, by all means tell us: Use the link at the end of this article to post your information in the associated discussion forum.

Now, let's see what they did:

  • JV16 PowerTools I included the last free version of this highly regarded tool -- from 2003 -- because so many of you will be familiar with it. As such, it can be a kind of touchstone you can use for context in comparing newer tools. When run on my test system, it identified 307 problematic items in the Registry, 122 of which it deemed "safe to remove." (The other items might or might not have been safe to remove, but JV16 PowerTools properly errs on the side of caution. This helps prevent over-aggressive Registry cleaning, which can lead to new problems.) Let's remember the 122 "safe to remove" items as a crude benchmark against which to measure other, new tools: surely any newer tool worth its salt should be able to find and fix a number of problems that's at least in the same general ballpark as this now-obsolete tool.

  • JV16 PowerTools 2005: The current version of JV16 PowerTools is available in several flavors, all of which may be downloaded as uncrippled, fully functional trial versions; you pay if you decide to keep the software beyond the 30-day trial period. I used (and ultimately purchased) the full PowerTools suite ($30), which includes a number of system-maintenance tools along with the Registry Cleaner that's under discussion here. But the Registry Cleaner also is available in standalone form: RegSupreme ($13) and RegSupreme Pro ($17). The PowerTools Registry cleaner has two settings -- regular and aggressive, again to help prevent over-cleaning -- and also categorizes the problems it detects so you can help see and separate the serious problems from those that are less so. On our test system the PowerTools 2005 Registry Cleaner's "aggressive" setting dug far deeper than its simpler, earlier cousin (above), finding and removing a total of 800 problem items, including 53 "highest" level problems, 691 "moderate" problems, and 56 "low-level" problems. Unlike the earlier version, the Registry Cleaner, by default, only shows you Registry items that should be safe to remove; and like the earlier version, lets you examine each reported problem item one by one, if you wish, to help you be sure that any changes you make will be positive ones. However, the tool also offers to make a backup of all items you remove so you can easily restore any Registry settings you delete in error. In use, the tool felt polished and well-thought-out. Its only surprises were positive ones: for all its power, it was very easy to use. It also showed the most desirable outcome in repeated runs: a stable, repeatable, and very low number of errors (zero and one, respectively, the latter being a reference to a font that wasn't needed -- truly minor.) This combination of high initial-scan results, with low, stable repeated-scan results, is excellent performance.

  • EasyCleaner: Several years ago, when the old freeware versions of JV16 PowerTools went commercial, EasyCleaner became the de facto leading freeware Registry cleaner. It's still free today, although the author accepts (and deserves) donations. EasyCleaner went through some growing pains a few years ago, but has matured nicely into a small suite of system-maintenance tools that seems to work reliably and well. In my tests, EasyCleaner found and removed 99 entries on its first pass -- on rough par with the old version of JV16 PowerTools. The second and third runs found zero additional items, meaning that the tool found and removed everything it could the first time, just as it should have, with no artificial number-pumping going on to try to impress you. EasyCleaner is a very nice little tool, and you sure can't beat the price!

  • Registry Mechanic: This two-part tool starts with a free download of a limited/crippled version of the software. I ran it; it found and removed 39 errors while informing me that the $30 paid/registered full version would remove an additional 58. The tool has a nice interface and runs quickly, but seems excessively conservative; detecting the second-lowest number of problems in our test. Repeated runs turned up 19 problems each time. I have no way of knowing if these were 19 new problems, or 19 of the initial 39 that weren't really fixed, or 19 that came back after reboot, or what. But the combination of a low initial error count results and relatively high repeated count puts this tool on my "don't bother" list.

  • Registry Repair: This $30 software (15 day free trial) really sparked my interest in its first run when it reported it found and fixed an impressive 691 problems. But my interest faded quickly when the second run reported 124 items, and the third run reported 200 items. To me, that's a sign of something very wrong going on: either the program is introducing new errors as it runs; or is failing to correct some errors it reports; or is falsely reporting as "errors" things that are not really errors at all. Whatever the reason, I prefer not to trust my Registry to software that exhibits behavior like this. Why take a chance, when there are other tools available that don't behave this way?

  • Registry First Aid: A $28 program with a limited/crippled trial version available, Registry First Aid found 59 problems on first run, less than what the old JV16 version could do. The software's interface is very nicely done, making it easy to see exactly what the program's doing; and to explore the various problems it has found and wants to correct. Alas, the second and third runs showed a real problem, reporting 123 and 109 problems, respectively; higher than the number found in the original run! I don't know what's going on here, and it's not worthwhile spending time to find out when there are other, better tools available.

  • RegistryMedic: This $30 software is available in a free trial version that's hobbled to fix just five Registry errors per scan; with that, you can get a rough idea of how the software works, but that's all. The interface is clean, informative, and crafted in an XP-style, and so looks very much at home on the XP desktop. However, that may be the best part of the software: The initial scan on my test system turned up an even 100 problems, with the second and third scans turning up 80 and 68, respectively. The initial "100" didn't alarm me, as it's close to the number of "safe to fix" items reported by the old JV16 version, but if your initial scan starts at 100, how on earth can an immediate rescan still show 80 problems? That's a big red flag for me, and so I set aside this software, as well.

  • The Registry Drill: This $40 tool bills itself as "the worlds most detailed Registry diagnostic tool available today. It will find hundreds of errors that other Registry Cleaners cannot." It takes safety to its logical conclusion: "It will not automatically delete any Key, it will post them for your review, telling you why the Key contains an error. You can repair the Key or delete it. The in-depth help file will walk you through all the repairs." This is good, in that the tool is unlikely to trash your system in any way. But when you're talking about hundreds of entries, a fully manual approach also has obvious drawbacks: It's going to take a long time to run, and you have to know what you're doing. Curiously, and in contradiction to the above, the software does offer a semi-automated "Auto Clean the Registry" option, which will perform a basic cleanup for you. In my tests, the Registry Drill found 134 items in its first pass, 110 in the second, and 109 in the third. These lackluster repeat performances, plus an antiquated-looking interface, and a setup that makes it clear that XP support was bolted on to a much older product, all help convince me that this is not a top-tier tool.

  • RegistryFix: Like many of the other tools in this test, this software is available as a crippled/limited trial version (that will repair just a few problems) and a full version that purports to fix everything the software finds. In my tests, the software flagged 105 problems on the first run, 66 on the second, and 55 on the third. The program's interface is nice enough, but the results weren't anything special. I see no particular reason to select and use this software.

  • CleanMyPC: The "registry-cleaner" module is free and will repair Registry problems two per run, until you pay $30, after which it will try to fix everything it finds. In my tests, the software found 130 problems on the first run, 114 on the second run, and 112 on the third; another lackluster performance that doesn't seem to warrant a deeper look.
  • My Choice, Then Yours From the above, I think that EasyCleaner is the best free tool currently available; and JV16 PowerTools 2005 is the current best commercial tool available.

    Because JV16PowerTools offers a full, free, uncrippled trial version, you might want to try this approach: First download and run EasyCleaner. See what it does on your system. Next, download and run JV16 PowerTools 2005. See what additional cleaning it offers you, above and beyond what EasyCleaner did. If there seems to be enough extra cleaning to make it worthwhile, register your copy. If not, then stick with EasyCleaner -- but use the "donate" button to send the author at least a few bucks for his time and trouble.

    As for the others, it's up to you. Perhaps your system is different enough from my informal test setup so that you get very different results from the above. Or perhaps you use other Registry cleaning software, not included among the 10 tools I tested. If so, please join the discussion and share your experiences!

    To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Fred Langa's forum on the Listening Post.

    To find out more about Fred Langa, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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