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Why do Normal Software Uninstalls Fail to Remove All Relevant Values from the Registry?

My IT Masters > Uncategorized > Why do Normal Software Uninstalls Fail to Remove All Relevant Values from the Registry?

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When you uninstall a program, it is a “reasonable” expectation that all traces of it will be removed from your system, but that is often not the case. Why is that? Today’s SuperUser Q&A post has the answers to a curious reader’s question.

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.


Screenshot courtesy of wandersick (Flickr).

The Question

SuperUser reader Mark Boulder wants to know why some registry values always remain after a normal software uninstall:

Expanding on the SuperUser topic How do I remove residual traces of uninstalled software from the registry, why is it that every time I uninstall a program and then later look it up via RegEdit, it is still there?

Why are the majority of Windows applications so intent on leaving tiny little traces of themselves in the registry? Does the fault lie with Windows or with the developers?

Why are registry values usually “left behind” after normally uninstalling software?

The Answer

SuperUser contributors Lukas Rieger and Keltari have the answer for us. First up, Lukas Rieger:

Because it is impossible. The registry has multiple root nodes, but only two interesting ones: LocalMachine and CurrentUser. Normally, the setup writes values into LocalMachine, and the running program only writes into CurrentUser (actually, unless the setup messes with the permissions, the running program cannot write into LocalMachine).

While keeping leftovers in LocalMachine is laziness (as pointed out by the other answers), it is not possible to clean the CurrentUser part.

If a program is installed per machine (which most are) and multiple users use it, what should the uninstaller do? It could safely remove the user settings of the current account, but the current account might not be your account. This happens if you started the uninstaller from a non-admin account and then entered the credentials of an admin account, the setup is now running under that account, not the first one.

What about the other users? It could try to enumerate all users, but their registry keys might not be loaded (Windows is lazy and only loads the things it needs).

But you should not even try that. If you use roaming profiles (i.e. terminal services) and then delete all settings on uninstall, you could really mess up and delete stuff that is actually still in use. A terminal server is basically one Windows machine where multiple users log-in at the same time and use applications. Say you have two terminal servers running one application. You uninstall the application on TS1, now all the settings for all users are gone on TS2 because you have roaming profiles. Oops.

The same also applies to files in the per-user directories. In the setup of my company’s programs, I delete the per-machine stuff but do not touch the per-user stuff, not even of the user currently running the setup.

Followed by the answer from Keltari:

There are many reasons why this is the case, however, it is not the fault of Microsoft or the Windows operating system.

The following is a list of some cases and reasons why registry entries are left behind:

Bad Programming – The developer did not write the application uninstaller properly and the registry entries are left behind. In addition to that, the uninstaller might not have/use the proper permissions to remove the registry entries. It could also be that there is more than one application that uses those keys. For instance, two applications from the same developer that write to the same keys.

Left On Purpose – As one comment mentioned, these entries could have been left on purpose. Some applications have a trial period, and after that period, you might choose to remove the application. If you choose to reinstall the application later, those keys give the application information on when it was installed. In addition to that, some developers might choose to leave those keys in case you choose to reinstall the application. If the developer used registry keys to store your customizations, they might leave them there so that when you reinstall the application, all of your customizations persist. In the grand scheme of things, registry keys only take up a few bytes.

Should you remove the keys? That depends. The Windows registry is a dangerous place to mess around in. You can inadvertently break your system. Leaving the extraneous keys will not hurt the system. Some people will say cleaning/defragging the registry will speed up your system, but that has been proven false repeatedly.

If you really want to get rid of those programs, there are some uninstaller tools that can remove every trace of a program. These programs will watch the installer of another program and record all the actions done to the file system and registry, then completely remove those actions. One issue with these tools is that it is possible they can remove things you might want to keep.

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

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