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Uninstall Windows software properly

There is more to removing software than just clicking the uninstall option on the menu

There is a huge amount of software available on the internet and there are some fantastic programs for PCs running Windows. There are commercial programs, shareware, freeware, and open source applications. If you visit websites like www.download.com and Snapfiles you will discover thousands of programs you can download and install, and they are very tempting because they cost nothing.

Of course, you cannot install everything you see because the hard disk drive in the computer is only a finite size and not everything that is available on the internet will fit on it. This means that sooner or later, depending on how big the hard disk drive is in your computer, you will run out of disk space. To download and install more software you will have to uninstall programs you no longer want or need to free up some disk space.

Long before you get to the point where there isn't any more physical space on the hard disk drive to install more software, you will want to remove some previously installed applications anyway. Unless you have a very small capacity disk drive the amount of space that is available isn't usually a problem.

You will want to remove software for various reasons and if you have downloaded and installed shareware you will find that it stops working after 30 days or it is converted to a very cut down version with limited features. Of course, you can simply pay the registration fee and continue to use the fully working software, but unless you are a lottery winner, you will soon run out of money. For this reason there are always programs on the hard disk drive that have timed out and that must be removed. Demos of commercial software are useful because they give you an opportunity to see what the software is like before you hand over your hard earned money. However, demos are limited versions that are not fully functional, so after trying them for a short time you will either decide to purchase the full program or remove it from your computer.

Another reason for wanting to uninstall software on your computer is that you might discover something better. Even if a program is free, if you find something else that is free and that offers more features and functions, why not replace it? You just need to uninstall the old program and then download and install the new one.

Use the uninstaller

Windows programs can scatter files all over the hard disk drive and they could be just about anywhere. This makes it awkward when you want to remove software because all those files have to be found and removed. Of course, nearly all programs come with uninstallers these days and these are used to remove the software.

The first place to look for an uninstaller is on the Start menu next to the program that you want to remove. Sometimes there is a menu option and sometimes there isn't. If there is, then you can go ahead and click it to start the uninstaller. (Sometimes it's a multifunction install/repair/uninstall utility and you need to select the uninstall option when it runs.)

If there is no sign of the uninstaller on the Start menu the next place to look for one is in Add or Remove Programs (XP) or Programs and Features (Vista) the Control Panel. Run it and look down the list of programs for the one you want to remove. If it is there, and it usually is, select it and click the button to uninstall the software.

Uninstall software
Use Add or Remove Programs or Programs and Features to uninstall software you don't want

It is best to install and uninstall software while logged on as an administrator rather than a limited (XP) or standard (Vista) user. It's best to be logged on using the account that was used to install the software too. And in Windows Vista you might want to temporarily turn off User Account Control to prevent the annoying pop-up warnings - you can always turn it back on afterwards. Go to user Accounts in the Control Panel and change the account type if necessary.

Why uninstallers don't work

Now you would think that an uninstaller would remove all traces of a program from the computer, but frequently they do not and both files and folders can be left behind. You might think that this is simply bad programming, after all, why can't a program remove the files it uses? However, there are several reasons why it might not do the job as thoroughly as you would expect.

One reason is that uninstallers make a note of the files that are installed so that they can uninstall them. However, it is common for programs to provide customisation options, such as preferences and options, skins and add-ons. These may be stored in various files on the disk drive and because they were not part of the original installation, they will not be uninstalled and they can remain after all the other program files have been removed.

A company may produce several software packages and certain files may be shared among them. An uninstaller might leave shared files on the disk just in case you have one of the company's other programs.

So when uninstallers fail to remove all traces of a program it has a lot to do with their lack of intelligence and they don't realise that you have stored preferences, or have shared files are no longer needed because you don't have any of the company's other software.

Sometimes there is a fault with an uninstaller and it will not remove the software. It might even display an error message. It is rare, but occasionally a program will come without an uninstaller. When this happens you will need to uninstall it manually. It depends on the type of program, but often it is not a difficult process.

If you have tried Add or Remove Programs (XP) or Programs and Features (Vista) in the Control Panel and the uninstaller doesn't work you can try running it manually. Click Start, My Computer and navigate to the program folder. Here is an example in XP (Vista's similar):

uninstall4 (16K)
The uninstaller is in the program folder - unins000.exe

Notice the unins000.exe and unins000.dat files? That's the uninstaller and the data file, which is a list of the files that need to be removed. (Sometimes these uninstaller dat files are plain text and you can load them into Notepad and see what has been installed or needs removing.) Hold down the Windows key and press R to open the Run box and type cmd to open a command prompt window and enter:

cd "c:\program files\abassis finance manager"

(Tip: Type CD and then drag and drop a folder from an Explorer window and the path will automatically be entered for you.) Now type:

unins000.exe unins000.dat

The first command changes to the folder containing the software and the second one executes the uninstaller and passes it the .dat file as a parameter. When the uninstaller has completed the job you just type exit to close the command prompt window.

Clean up after uninstalling

Uninstallers frequently don't remove every trace of a program, so after you have uninstalled something you must then clean up the remaining files and settings. Nearly all programs put one or more entries on the Start menu to enable you to run them and there may be just a single item or a folder that contains menu items and possibly subfolders and more menu items. You may find that one or more items are not removed and are still on the Start menu. This is common if you have changed the Start menu and have moved menu items around to organise them. Right click anything you don't want on the Start menu and select Delete to remove it. This moves it to the Recycle Bin.

The main program files are usually stored in C:\Program Files - assuming Windows is installed on drive C, which it usually is. However, a few programs are installed into the root of drive C:\, so it's worth looking there if you can't find it. The folder is usually named after the software company, programmer, or the program and provided you know what these are (access the program's Help, About menu before uninstalling it), you should easily be able to find the folder containing the files. (Tip: Before you uninstall a program let the mouse hover over its menu on the Start menu and you will often see the path to the file displayed as a pop-up tip. It is common to have the program folder as a subfolder of the company folder. After uninstalling a program you should delete any folders and files that remain.

uninstall1 (23K)
This folder has not been removed by the uninstaller even though it's empty

There is a special folder that some software uses called C:\Program Files\Common Files. Shared files are sometimes stored here, so don't go deleting anything you might need. However, if you have uninstalled all the software from company X and there is still a company X folder in C:\Program Files\Common Files, it is usually OK to delete it.

In Windows Vista there is a C:\ProgramData folder that contains data files created by programs in C:\Program Files, so open an Explorer window and check what the folder contains. Delete any folder created by the program you have just installed.

The C:\Documents and Settings folder (XP) or C:\Users (Vista) is where programs store information such as data, configuration settings, temporary files and so on. Click Start, My Computer, the hard disk drive, then open this folder. There are some general folders, such as Administrator, All Users, Default User, and Guest, and then there is a folder for each account that has been created. You'll see your own folder with your own user name.

In XP, open each folder in C:\Documents and Settings and look in the Application Data folder, for example, C:\Documents and Settings\YourName\Application Data. In Vista, open the C:\Users\YourName\AppData folder (ignore the Application data shortcut which is only there for compatibility with XP programs running in Vista).

You may find a folder or sub-folder that was created by the software you uninstalled. It will be named after the company or program, or there may be a company folder with the program as a sub-folder. Delete it if you find one.

Check the Application Data (XP) or AppData (Vista) folder

There is another Application Data folder in XP , but it is hidden and cannot normally be seen. You must make it visible so that you can check it. In any Explorer window, select Tools, Folder Options and click the View tab. Select Show hidden files and folders, then clear the ticks against Hide extensions for known file types and Hide protected operating system files. Now you can navigate to C:\Documents and Settings\Yourname\Local settings\Application data. Look for a folder Created by the software company or program and delete it. In Vista you'll find that you can't open the Local Settings folder, even if you are logged on as an administrator.

You must repeat this procedure for every user account in C:\Documents and Settings (XP) or C:\Users (Vista), and also the other folders, such as All Users, Guest, and so on.

Finally, you need to check the registry. This is a place where Windows and programs store configuration settings and it is a sort of database made up of several files. Many programs leave information in the registry and they do not remove it, so it needs to be cleared out. To open the registry editor hold down the Windows key and press R. Select My Computer at the top of the left-hand pane and then select Edit, Find. There are four options - Keys, Values, Data, and Match whole string only. Make sure that only Keys is selected and enter the program name or company name into the Find What box. Click Find Next and see is anything is found.

regedit registry editor
There is most likely a key in the registry for every program installed

If a key is found in the left-hand pane of the window, right click it and select Export. Enter a filename and save it. This is an undo file and if you need to undo the changes you are about to make, you just double click the file you exported and everything is put back exactly the way it was before. OK, now you have your backup, right click the key and select Delete. Press F3 to continue searching and export/delete any other keys that are found.

One thing you have to be careful of is not to delete anything useful because this will cause problems. For example, if company X has programs Y and Z, you will probably find a key called X, with Y and Z as sub-keys. If you remove Y or Z you should delete just that key and not the whole company key.

For example, there's an Apple Computer key in the registry and there are iTunes and QuickTime sub-keys. If you uninstall iTunes software you can delete the iTunes key in the registry, but not the Apple Computer key because you would probably mess up QuickTime. If you have uninstalled all of a company's software, then it's OK to delete the company key and all sub-keys of course.

Useful software

Registry cleaners: