How do I go about removing various left-over traces of software that
has long been uninstalled from my machine. I’m talking about things
like extra paths when my PC starts up, as well as left behind
directories and files. As you know, just because you uninstall the
software it doesn’t mean every trace of that software is gone.
Indeed, it’s not at all uncommon for software to leave traces of
itself behind after uninstalling. Sometimes it’s on purpose; sometimes
it’s just sloppy programming.
It all contributes to something called “software rot”.
There are lots of tools that can help clean things up, but with some
risk. I’ll talk about some of them.
I’ll also tell you what I do, and recommend.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, uninstalling software can actually legitimately leave things behind.
A good example is an application that saves all of its settings and your configuration options in the registry. They might be left behind so that if you later re-install the application, or a later version of it, the settings have been preserved. Depending on the application and the quantity of settings or customizations, this can be a huge time saver.
Or not, if you never actually reinstall the application.
Now, a really good uninstaller might ask just how much you want to uninstall. Sadly, there aren’t many really good uninstallers out there. Typically, they decide what they’re going to do, and do it.
On top of that uninstall programs often get the least attention of all when software is developed. The result is that besides not always having all the features and options we might want, they often handle failure or unexpected situations poorly, leaving “stuff” behind.
So what do you do?
First, unless you’re actually experiencing a problem my initial recommendation is to do nothing. Sometimes the cure really is worse than the disease. More often than not the side effects of an incomplete uninstall are things you’d never even notice.
On the other hand, if you are experiencing a problem, here are some thoughts (but before you act on any of them, please read my recommendation below).
You may want to start with a full back up. In the unlikely case that something goes wrong you’ll want to be able to restore your system to its previous working state.
There are third-party uninstaller programs that may be able to help. A good example appears to be Revo Uninstaller. I’ve downloaded it and looked around a bit, but have yet had call to use it. What I’m hearing from readers is that it’s a quite useful and complete uninstallation tool. Revo also includes additional tools to help manage auto-start, junk files and more.
If you’re planning on investigating those kinds of areas, I’d actually point you at three other tools:
I’m not a big fan of registry cleaners, but the fact remains that a lot of what’s left behind by an incomplete uninstall is left behind in the registry. If you’re experiencing a problem and a registry cleaning is called for I’d point you at JV16 Power Tools. Once again, in addition to the primary function of registry cleaning, JV16 includes a number of other management tools as well.
CCleaner (originally called “Crap Cleaner”) is a general purpose cleanup utility that can also assist in removing a variety of files, registry settings and more.
Autoruns is a utility from Microsoft that will allow you to examine and manage all the things that happen automatically at startup. It can be a tad overwhelming, but it’s the most complete solution.
Unfortunately, I can’t really point you to something that I consider a good one-stop solution to “just clean it up”. The definition of what’s “dirty”, what’s safe to remove, and what’s critical is not something everyone actually agrees on, and not all tools cover all the bases in the same way.
Which leads to…
First, do no harm. As I said, unless you’re experiencing a problem that needs correcting, do nothing. The side effects of incomplete installs are often quite benign.
Second, seek specific advice. If you are experiencing a problem with a specific program, then start by seeing if you can solve only that problem. Quite often what you’re experiencing will not be new, and technical support or other support forums specific to the software you’re dealing with may well have an answer.
Third, plan on periodic reinstallation. This is the part that people don’t like to hear, but particularly for systems that have simply gotten slow over time, or are just seeming to be somewhat unstable as software has been installed and uninstalled and upgraded and who-knows-what else, sometimes the best cure is to start over. And by start over I do mean:
Literally erasing everything and then reinstalling Windows and whatever else you actually use.
I say “prepare for” because one of the things this approach requires is that you have installation media (or saved downloads) for Windows and for every application you use.
But quite honestly, it’s the only sure cure for software rot that I’m aware of.