Guest column: In time of need, befriend dreaded Windows registry

Of all the boogeymen in the PC world, the Windows registry is perhaps the most feared. Any time you go near the thing, whatever tool you use presents dire warnings about how, if you sneeze at the wrong time, life as you know it will cease and be replaced with something even more bizarre and inexplicable (tip o' the beanie to Douglas Adams).

The fact is that making a mistake in modifying the Windows registry is just as fatal as any of the other zillion things that you can do with Windows that will ensure you have a really, really bad day.

Perhaps the reason that everyone makes such a big fuss about the registry is that it is a relatively new feature. It is also an extremely ugly feature. It is bulky, overly complex and suffers from Windows' hideous heritage of compromised design and legacy snafus. Am I making myself clear?

Many books will tell you that the registry is a step forward because it gets rid of all of the .ini files that litter Windows systems. If that's the case, why does Gearhead have ... let's see . . . 149 .ini files in his main Windows 98 PC? Boy, there's a step forward.

Be that as it may, let's look at what the registry is. The registry is a couple of hidden, read-only system files stored in the Windows folder (usually c:\windows). Sorry, but that's it -- much less impressive than you might have expected.

The registry first appeared in its current form in Windows 95. In Windows 3.1, the registry was a database for information about Object Linking and Embedding objects.

The first component of the registry is the user.dat file, which tracks settings such as the wallpaper and colour scheme you've selected, which desktop icons are being used, information about network connections and associated passwords, and the configuration of Windows Explorer. If you reboot with Explorer running, it will take you back to the last directory you were browsing using information from the registry.

The other half of the registry is the system.dat file. This stores system-specific data such as hardware classes and information about the devices in your system; plug-and-pray, er, play, information; device drivers to load at start up; and Windows and application settings.

Now here's a crucial piece of information: Every time you shut down a Windows 98 system normally (not to be confused with the rather more common shut down driven by a system freeze responded to with the big red button or three-fingered salute, which is the fate of the average user, I am told, four times every day), a copy of system.dat is made.

This copy is named system. da0 (gods help us -- just what we needed, another bizarre file extension) and can be found in the c:\windows subdirectory. If you ever trash the registry, you can delete the existing system.dat and rename system.da0 to system.dat. This doesn't guarantee that everything will work right, but it may be worth trying.

Gearhead's next informational, a**-saving tidbit is that there's (ta-da) another copy of system.dat lying around! This one is named system.1st (somebody find the engineer who came up with these file extensions and have him slapped and sterilised). This copy can be found in -- get this -- the root of the boot drive. Before you get too excited, this is the version of system.dat of last resort -- it is the original version created by the setup program when you installed Windows.

So if your hardware settings have gotten all screwed up, there you have two levels of recovery that just might save you a lot of grief. Or not. That's Windows 98 for you.

Next week, more registry fun. Extensions to gh@gibbs.com.

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