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How do I remove uninstalled software "leftovers"?

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.

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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.

“Sadly, there aren’t many really good uninstallers out there.”

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…

My Recommendation

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.

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17 comments on “How do I remove uninstalled software "leftovers"?”

  1. I use RevoUninstaller – seems to get rid of every last drop of the associated files and folders – giving you the option to delete or not what its found. Its worked great for me, but whether it meets your high, informed standards Leo, I wouldn’t bet my house on it. Oh yeah – and its free!

    Reply
  2. I also use RevoUninstaller and it also gets ride of the registry keys pretending to that program only. and there highlighted in bold as well. I would like to point out it also makes a system restore point so if damage is done you can restore it. try it out i think you will like it.

    Reply
  3. I have tried RevoUninstaller to help clean-up a real messy Dell NETBOOK (8 Gb HDD). Instructions to verify registry entries are unclear. (select all) (unselect all) and (delete). I put in the checkmarks and clicked next (did not work). Verified all check marks and clicked delete and then next … Does anyone know if this was correct?

    So far, it has done a fine job of helping me clean up a very cluttered system. It found two partial uninstalls that I didn’t know I had.

    Thanks for the INFO

    Reply
  4. We use Revo Unistaller on difficult to remove programs all the time. We have yet to come across a problem where it deletes a registry file that was needed for another program.

    And yes D. E. Field .. You check the boxes and then click delete. Everything in the information box w/ disappear or you will get a message saying the rest will be deleted upon restart and then you click next.

    Reply
  5. REVO UNINSTALLER IS GREAT. I HAVE USED IT FOR A LONG TIME. I ALSO USE IT WEEKLY TO GET RID OF ITEMS EMPTIED FROM THE RECYCLE BIN.

    Reply
  6. You mentioned CCleaner: Another such product is “System Mechanic” from iolo. Both products clean out the obvious, yet sometimes hidden junk files. I have used both products, but prefer System Mechanic. I have never experienced a ‘jump’ in performance by using these products, nor doing a defrag on the hard drive. It’s just good to know that the computer is cleaner – thus less susceptible to future problems.

    Reply
  7. ?I have been using Revo Uninstaller for some time. IT seems tyo do a thorough job. After running the application’s own uninstall, it searches for left over registry entries and presents you with the opportunity to keep or remove them. Then it does the same for other folders and files. AT first I was very careful and checked them all, but I have come to trust it. I wouldn’t be without it.

    Reply
  8. I had been using Revo Uninstaller and was impressed until I tried to remove a “messed up” Office2000 program. Nothing worked.
    I found “Perfect Uninstaller” which, like Revo, also checks the registry and other files for stuff left over. It actually deleted the entire Office2000 program (allowing me to reinstall it minus the mess). I did end up buying the Perfect Uninstaller program for $30 (I think).
    Since then, there has been at least one occasion where it didn’t seem to work and I used Revo which did work.
    Both are good, I generally use Perfect Unistaller first.
    Walt in Indiana

    Reply
  9. Revo is the best choice to uninstall anything, use it to gets rid of any remaining junk. And it’s pretty user friendly.

    Reply
  10. REVO is a good app. Another one I have is Total Uninstall 5. It’s not free but is a good utility. I use Total Uninstall whenever possible to install other programs as “TU” monitors (supposedly) what is being installed. TU also allows for the removal of applications not monitored during install. Here is the link — http://www.martau.com/ in case anyone is interested. I use both REVO and TU.

    Reply
  11. I have a Dell XPS M1530 and had to reinstall my OS a while back. I hit F2 or something that launched the reinstall. I am not sure if I “reformatted” or not. Do you have to specifically “select” reformat – or is that usually just “part” of the reinstall process? Just wondering for the next time I have to do it (which you know will happen.)

    While the terms may vary, a reformat is something you typically have to ask for. A reinstall typically happens “on top of” the existing files without erasing the entire hard disk – a reformat erases it first.

    – Leo
    03-Jun-2009
    Reply
  12. All of this is fine, if you use Windows but none of it is of any use when the stubborn bug is burrowed into an Apple.

    Reply
  13. Why not try Ashampoo Magic Uninstaller.They offer FREE programs and fee pay ones too.It’s German company and I’ve alwaysbeen pleased with ALL their products.

    Reply
  14. I have tried quite a few “uninstall” programmes and have found REVO to be the best. It really removes unwanted stuff quite easily. I can highly recommend it. Oh, and thanks Leo for your helpful information

    Reply

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