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It's not uncommon for uninstallers to leave behind "leftovers" after they complete. Sometimes intentional, sometimes not. How to deal with 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.

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:

  • Backup

  • Reformat

  • Reinstall

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.

Article C3747 - May 29, 2009 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

Dave, France
May 29, 2009 3:31 PM

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!

May 29, 2009 10:03 PM

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.

D. E. Fielding
May 31, 2009 11:28 AM

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

Shanon Hite
June 2, 2009 8:24 AM

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.

June 2, 2009 9:04 AM

I did use Revo Uninstaller,and it did a great job

June 2, 2009 9:54 AM


Steve Zeigler
June 2, 2009 9:58 AM

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.

Bill Cooke
June 2, 2009 12:26 PM

?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.

Walt Dalsimer
June 2, 2009 2:25 PM

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

Todd Corson
June 2, 2009 3:05 PM

I just want to point out that sometimes what appears to be "software rot" on an old machine, especially a laptop, might actually have a hardware-related cause.
Recently, I finally got fed up with my wife's 3-year-old Dell laptop that always seemed to be running slowly and decided to do some cleaning up. At some point I remembered that laptop processors have an ability to slow themselves down when they're not being utilized or when they're getting too hot. I installed a freeware program called CS Fire Monitor and confirmed that my CPU was typically running at less than half its maximum GHz rating. Then I installed SpeedFan, another freeware application, and found that after starting the laptop, all the device temperatures in the machine climbed steadily until things got really hot. The CPU actually reached a temperature of 79.5C (175 Fahrenheit!) before it stabilized.
This, in hindsight, should have been fairly obvious as the cause since the CPU fan was pretty much running at high speed all the time, but I guess we just got used to it as it started to occur more often over a long period of time.
To make a long story short, the solution was to open up the machine (for Dell machines, at least, you can download service manuals directly from their site that explain all the required steps) and remove the quarter-inch-thick "dust sponge" that had accumulated between the fan and the cooling fins. After that, the laptop runs quietly, doesn't burn our laps or cause a giant hot spot in the middle of the bed, and performs like it was new again. You'd never get that kind of a performance boost from removing unused software, and cleaning the registry, and defragging your hard drive (though I did all three), or from reinstalling Windows.
Just remember to LISTEN to your PC every once in a while to find out what it's telling you - and it can't hurt to take the system's temperature every once in a while to see if it's sick due to a respiratory problem.
Happy Performance Boosting!

June 2, 2009 5:32 PM

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

June 2, 2009 7:58 PM

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 --- in case anyone is interested. I use both REVO and TU.

Sandy Smith
June 2, 2009 8:07 PM

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

June 3, 2009 2:16 AM

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.

Raymond Schleicher
June 3, 2009 8:20 PM

Revo works fine for me. I use it first to remove any programs instead of going to control panel and then remove icon. I believe Remo and Ccleaner are the same company. Ray

June 5, 2009 9:42 AM

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.

Isobel Swade
June 8, 2009 7:15 AM

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

December 15, 2009 6:12 PM

As already stated here "Revo Uninstaller" seems to be the best and most newbie friendly prog for the job.

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