The Windows Registry is a database where Windows and many programs store their configuration settings. You can edit the registry yourself to enable hidden features and tweak specific options. These tweaks are often called “registry hacks.”

What is the Windows Registry, and How Does It Work?

The Windows registry is a collection of several databases. There are system-wide registry settings that apply to all users, and each Windows user account also has its own user-specific settings.

On Windows 10 and Windows 7, the system-wide registry settings are stored in files under C:\Windows\System32\Config\ , while each Windows user account has its own NTUSER.dat file containing its user-specific keys in its C:\Windows\Users\Name directory. You can’t edit these files directly.

But it doesn’t matter where these files are stored, because you’ll never need to touch them. When you sign in to Windows, it loads the settings from these files into memory. When you launch a program, it can check the registry stored in memory to find its configuration settings. When you change a program’s settings, it can change the settings in the registry. When you sign out of your PC and shut down, it saves the state of the registry to the disk.

The registry contains folder-like “keys” and “values” inside those keys that can contain numbers, text, or other data. The registry is made up of multiple groups of keys and values like HKEY_CURRENT_USER and HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE. These groups are called “hives” because of one of the original developers of Windows NT hated bees. Yes, seriously.

Microsoft introduced the registry back in Windows 3.1, but it was initially used only for certain types of software. In the Windows 3.1 era, Windows applications frequently stored settings in .INI configuration files that were scattered across the OS. The registry can now be used by all programs, and it helps bring together the settings that would otherwise be scattered in many different locations across the disk.

Not all programs store all their settings in the Windows registry. Each program developer can decide to use the registry for every setting, just a few settings, or no settings. Some programs store all (or just some) of their settings in configuration files—for example, under your Application Data folder. But Windows itself makes extensive use of the registry.

Why You Might Want to Edit the Registry

Most Windows users will never need to touch the registry. Windows itself and many programs use the registry, and you usually don’t have to worry about it.

However, you can edit the registry yourself with the Registry Editor, included with Windows. It lets you click through the registry and change individual registry settings.

The registry itself is a big mess of a database, and you won’t find much by clicking through it yourself, of course. But you can often find “registry hacks” online that tell you what settings you need to change to accomplish a particular task.

This is especially useful when you’re looking for options that aren’t normally exposed in Windows. Some things you can only achieve by hacking the registry. Other settings are available in Group Policy on Professional editions of Windows, but you can usually change them in a Home edition of Windows by tweaking the registry.

Is It Safe?

Editing the registry isn’t dangerous if you know what you’re doing. Just follow the instructions and only change the settings you’re instructed to change.

But, if you go into the registry and start haphazardly deleting or changing things, you could mess up your system’s configuration—and potentially even render Windows unbootable.

We generally recommend backing up the registry (and your computer, which you should always have backups of!) before editing the registry, just in case. But if you follow legitimate instructions properly, you will not have a problem.

How to Edit the Registry

Editing the registry is pretty simple. All of our registry-editing articles show off the entire process, and it’s easy to follow. But here’s a basic look at the process.

To get started, you’ll open the Registry Editor application. To do so, press Windows+R to open the Run dialog. Type “regedit” and then press Enter. You can also open the Start menu, type “regedit.exe” into the search box, and press then Enter.

You’ll be asked to agree to a User Account Control prompt before continuing. This gives the Registry Editor the ability to modify system settings.

Navigate to whatever key you need to modify in the left pane. You’ll know where you need to be because the instructions for the registry hack you’re trying to apply will tell you.

On Windows 10, you can also just copy-paste an address into the Registry Editor’s address bar and press Enter.

To change a value, double-click it in the right pane and enter the new value. Sometimes, you’ll need to create a new value—right-click in the right pane, select the type of value you need to create, and then enter the appropriate name for it. In other cases, you may need to create new keys (folders). The registry hack will tell you what you need to do.

You’re done. You can click “OK” to save your change and close the Registry Editor. You’ll sometime need to reboot your PC or sign out and sign back in for your change to take effect, but that’s it.

That’s all performing a registry hack involves—you’ve now opened the Registry Editor, located the value you want to change, and changed it.

You can also edit the registry by downloading and running .reg files, which contain a change that’s applied when you run them. You should only download and run .reg files from sources you trust, but they’re text files, so you can right-click them and open them in Notepad.

Better yet, you can make your own registry hack files. A .reg file can contain multiple different settings, so you could create a .reg file that automatically applies all your favorite registry hacks and configuration tweaks to a Windows PC when you run it.

Some Cool Registry Hacks For You to Try

We’ve written about a ton of registry hacks. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Make Your Taskbar Buttons Always Switch to the Last Active Window: This is my personal favorite. On Windows 7 and Windows 10, clicking your taskbar buttons normally shows you a thumbnail list of all your open windows for that application, if it has multiple windows open. The LastActiveClick hack makes a single click open your last active window for that application, saving you a click when switching windows. You can still hover over a taskbar icon to see previews of its open windows.
  • Disable Windows 10’s Lock Screen: If you don’t like swiping away the tablet-style lock screen and want to see a traditional sign-in screen every time you boot, sign out of, or lock your PC, this registry hack is for you. It was created for Windows 8 but still works on the latest versions of Windows 10.
  • Add “Take Ownership” to the Context Menu: On Windows, files are “owned” by users. If you’re an advanced user who changes file ownership frequently, you can add a “Take Ownership” command to the context menu to speed this up.
  • Disable Aero Shake Minimizing of Windows: You can stop Windows 7 or Windows 10 from minimizing all your open windows whenever you shake a window’s title bar with this setting.
  • Get the Old Volume Control Back on Windows 10: If you miss the Windows 7-style volume control, this registry hack will bring it back on Windows 10.

We’ve covered many other useful registry hacks in the past. If you want to tweak something on Windows, just perform a quick web search, and there’s a good chance you’ll find a registry hack that tells you how to do it.

Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor in Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for nearly a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than 500 million times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
Read Full Bio »