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Registry Tasks and Tools (part 4) - Export and Import Data with Registry Patches & Prevent Changes to a Registry Key

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9/22/2011 5:04:43 PM

5. Export and Import Data with Registry Patches

Typing in Registry data gets awfully tedious, particularly when the N key breaks on your keyboard. Thankfully, it's not the only way to add keys and values to the Registry.

A Registry patch is a plain-text file with the .reg filename extension that contains one or more Registry keys or values. Double-click on a .reg file, and Windows runs the Registry Editor, which "applies" the patch to the Registry, meaning that its contents are merged with the contents of the Registry.

Patch files are especially handy for backing up small portions of the Registry, distributing Registry settings to other PCs, and duplicating keys.

For example, say you spend an hour or so customizing the toolbars in a particular application used by many employees in your office. Since most programs store their toolbar settings in the Registry, you can use a Registry patch to not only back up the completed toolbar setup—and thus save an hour of reconfiguring should your PC subsequently burst into flames—but to quickly copy the toolbar to all the other PCs in your office.

Or, perhaps you've spent the last six months gradually customizing your file types , only to find that a newly installed application or a Windows upgrade erased all your hard work and reset all your context menus. All you need to do is to make a Registry patch containing all your saved file types, and then reapply it should the need arise.

5.1. Create a Registry patch
  1. Open the Registry Editor, and select a branch you wish to export.

    The branch can be anywhere from one of the top-level branches to a branch a dozen layers deep. Registry patches include not only the branch you select, but all of the values and subkeys in the branch. Don't select anything more than what you absolutely need.

  2. From the File menu, select Export, type a filename and choose a destination folder, and click OK. All of the values and subkeys in the selected branch will then be stored in the patch file. Make sure the filename of the new Registry patch has the .reg extension.

Clearly, there's not much to making Registry patches with the Registry Editor. But it gets a little more interesting when you modify them, or even create them from scratch to automate Registry changes.

5.2. Edit a Registry patch

Since a Registry patch is just a plain-text file, you can edit it with any decent plain-text editor, or lacking that, Notepad (notepad.exe). The contents of the Registry patch will look something like the text shown in Example 1.

Example 1. Contents of a Registry patch created from HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT \.txt
Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

"Content Type"="text/plain"


The first line, Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00, tells Windows that this file is a valid Registry patch; don't remove this line. The rest of the Registry patch is a series of key names and values.

Backward Compatibility

Registry patches created in Windows 95, 98, or Me can be imported into the Windows Vista Registry without a problem (that is, not taking into account the screwy settings contained therein).

However, the same is not true the other way around. Patch files made in Windows Vista, XP, 2003, and 2000 are encoded with the Unicode character set, and as you've seen, bear a header indicating the 5.0 version number that will choke the older Registry Editor. To use a Vista-created .reg file in Windows 9x/Me, you'll need to deal with both of these issues.

First, replace the Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00 header line with REGEDIT4. Whew, that was hard.

Next, to convert the Unicode .reg file into an ASCII-encoded file, those earlier versions of Windows can understand, open the file in Notepad. Then, from the Notepad's File menu, select Save As and choose a new filename, and from the little Encoding drop-down listbox at the bottom of the window, select ANSI. Click Save, and your patch is now backward-compatible.

The key names appear in brackets ([...]) and specify the full path of the key, thus indicating where the values that follow are to be stored. On each subsequent line until the next key section begins, the name of a value is given first (in quotation marks), followed by an equals sign, and then the data stored in the value (also in quotation marks). A value name of @ tells the Registry Editor to place the value data in the (Default) value (as shown in the fourth line of the example).

You can go ahead and make changes to anything in the Registry patch file as long as you keep the format intact. Of course, those changes won't take effect in the Registry until the Registry patch is merged back into the Registry, a process described in the next section.

So, why would you want to edit a Registry patch file? Modifying a large number of Registry values often turns out to be much easier with a text editor than with the Registry Editor, since you don't have to open—and then close—each individual value.

It may be tempting to perform a quick search and replace in the text editor, and then apply your changes back to the Registry. But be careful, as the effect may not be what you expected. If you replace any text in the name of a value (to the left of the equals sign) or even the name of a key (the lines in brackets), Registry Editor will create new values and keys with those names when you apply the patch, leaving the old values and keys intact. A better choice is to use a tool like Registry Agent.

There's no requirement that the keys in a Registry patch file need to have lived next to one another in the Registry, or that they be in any particular order. This means you can combine several separate patch files into one, and use it to restore any number of keys in one step. All it takes is a little copy and paste between side-by-side Notepad windows. The only thing you need to do, besides making sure all the keys and values remain intact, is to remove any extraneous Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00 header lines.

If you're creating a Registry patch to be used on other PCs, make sure you fix any references to absolute pathnames before you distribute the file. If, for example, your patch file references D:\Windows\notepad.exe, it'll cause a problem on any PC where notepad.exe is located in C:\Windows\. The best solution is to use expandable string values, along with the appropriate system variables, like this: %SystemRoot%\notepad.exe. Now, since expandable string values are stored like Binary values in Registry patch files, such an entry would look like this:


Now, as you may've guessed, it's considerably easier to edit expandable string (and binary) values in the Registry Editor than in any text editor, so you'll probably want to make such corrections before you export the key to a patch file. If you need to add a binary or expandable string value to a Registry patch file you've already started editing, though, all you have to do is return to the Registry Editor, create a temporary key somewhere, and then create your new value. When you're done, just export the key to a new file, delete the key from the Registry, and then copy and paste the value to your other Registry patch file.

5.3. Delete keys and values from a Registry patch

Although the Registry Editor won't ever create a patch that deletes Registry keys or values, it's easy enough to make one by hand. To delete a key with a Registry Patch, place a minus sign before the key name, like this:

-[HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\don't load]

This patch, when applied, deletes the specified key and all of its values, as well as any subkeys. To delete a single value from a key, place a minus sign after the equals sign, like this:

[HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\don't load]

Of course, these tricks only work if you have sufficient permission to delete those keys.

5.4. Apply a Registry patch

To copy the stuff from a Registry patch file back into your Registry, you need to apply it. The easiest way is to double-click the file (it doesn't matter if the Registry Editor is running or not).

If you see a UAC prompt at this point, click Continue. Then answer Yes when asked whether you're sure you want to add the information in the .reg file to the Registry, and finally, click OK when you see the "Information in MyPatch.reg has been successfully entered into the Registry" message. (You can also apply a patch from within the Registry Editor: from the File menu, select Import, select the patch file to apply, and click OK.)

To apply a Registry patch without any other warning messages, you need to use the command line. Either from an open Command Prompt window or from Start → Run, type the following:

regedit /sc:\folder\mypatch.reg

where c:\folder\mypatch.reg is the full path and filename of the patch file to import. Or, if you want to get rid of the confirmation messages when you double-click a .reg file, add the /s switch (as shown here) to the .reg file type.

If the Registry Editor is already open and one of the keys modified by a patch that was just applied is currently open, RegEdit should refresh the display automatically to reflect the changes. If it doesn't, press the F5 key or go to View → Refresh.

When you apply a Registry patch, you merge the keys and values stored in a patch file with those in the Registry. Any keys and values in the applied patch that don't already exist will be created. If a key or value already exists, only its contents will be changed. It's important to understand that if a key you're updating already contains one or more values, those values will be left intact if they're not explicitly modified or deleted by the patch.

6. Prevent Changes to a Registry Key

Security has always been one of Microsoft's favorite marketing buzzwords, and never more so than when Windows Vista was introduced. But as it turns out, Vista's security features are quite a bit more useful for protecting your PC from itself than from any alleged intruders.

The permissions system doesn't just protect files and folders, it restricts who can read and modify Registry entries. This feature is tremendously important, yet most people don't even know it's there. It means you can lock a Registry key to prevent employees from installing software on a company PC, or prevent kids from disabling parental controls on a family PC. Permissions also let you lock file type associations , preventing other applications from changing them. And by locking certain other keys, you can help protect your PC from viruses and spyware.

Here's how you do it:

  1. Open the Registry Editor, and navigate to the key you want to protect.

    You can't protect individual values, but rather only the keys that contain them. This means that if you lock a key to protect one of its values, none of its values can be modified. You can, however, choose whether or not your changes are made to the subkeys of the selected key.

  2. Right-click the key, and select Permissions.

  3. Click Advanced, and then click Add.

    If the Add button is disabled (grayed out), you'll have to take ownership of the key, close the Permissions window, and then reopen it before you can make any changes to the permissions of this object.

  4. In the Enter the object names to select field, type Everyone, and then click OK. (The "Everyone" user encompasses all user accounts, including those used by Windows processes and individual applications when they access the Registry.)

  5. In the next window, "Permission Entry for...", click the checkbox in the Deny column, next to the actions you want to prohibit, as in Figure 5. See below for examples.

    Figure 5. Lock a Registry key to prevent applications or Windows from modifying it

  6. When you're done, click OK in each of the three open dialog windows. The change will take effect immediately.

Now, you may be tempted to remove Allow permissions for a particular user (or even all users), rather than add the Deny entry shown here. The problem is that doing so wouldn't prevent an application or Windows from taking ownership or adding the necessary permissions and breaking your lock. Furthermore, it would make it much more difficult to restore the old permissions should you need to remove the lock; using this procedure, all you need to do is remove the Deny rule and you're done.

This works because Windows gives Deny rules priority over Allow rules, which means you can lock a key even if there's another Allow rule that expressly gives a user permission to modify the item.

So, which keys do you lock, and which actions do you forbid? Here are some examples:

Make a read-only key.

To lock a value yet still allow applications and Windows to read it, place a Deny checkbox next to Set Value, Delete, and Write Owner, as in Figure 3-10.

Create a complete lock-out.

To prevent all applications from reading, modifying, or deleting a value, place a Deny checkbox next to Full Control.

Keep away ShellNew.

To prevent applications from making new keys under the selected key, place a Deny checkbox next to Create Subkey. For instance, you can do this to file type keys to prevent applications from adding themselves to Windows Explorer's New list.

Enforce security policies.

To prevent another user from modifying a security policy , use the procedure in "Section 3.3," earlier in this article, to locate the corresponding key in the Registry. Then, instead of adding a Deny rule to the key as described above, remove any permissions that allow anyone other than an administrator to delete, modify, or add subkeys to the key. Make sure that there's still at least one rule for the Administrators group (or at least your own administrator-level account) that affords Full Control.

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