How to Force Uninstall a Program That Won't Uninstall
It happens all the time: You install a program, decide you don't like it or need it, and you want to uninstall it. So you open up the Windows Add/Remove tool and click to uninstall the program—only to find that you can't. In this article I will explain how to force uninstall a program.
First, however, I will try to explain what happens during installation.
What You Need to Know About Installing and Uninstalling Programs
Several things happen during the installation of a program, which can help explain why you are having difficulties uninstalling it:
- When you download a program, the files are copied to a specified folder, which is usually somewhere inside the Program Files folder.
- Some files, such as shared libraries (.dll files), will be copied into a folder inside Program Files called Common Files.
- Other files, such as drivers or shared libraries (again), are copied into the WINDOWS\System32 and WINDOWS\System32\drivers folders.
- After that the installer makes some changes inside the Windows Registry. This is a database where all the settings and options for the operating system are stored, as well as for any applications or OS components that are programmed to use it. The installer can make changes inside the Registry if a shared library needs to be registered or if certain types of files need to be associated with the program being installed. For example, if you install Microsoft Word, then you will also be able to open Microsoft Word documents.
- After this is done, a key is added to the Windows Registry where the Windows Add/Remove tool looks for installed programs.
- During installation, all these operations for installing are logged in a special log file (for example, setup.log), and the installation program usually puts that file inside the application's folder along with the uninstaller. When a user tries to remove a program through the Add/Remove tool, Windows looks for the registered uninstaller inside the registry and executes it. The uninstaller goes through the log file and undoes all the changes done during installation. That is, it deletes all the files that have been copied, all the Registry keys the installer created, and so forth.
- If there is no log file, or if there is no record of the changes made to the registry the uninstaller might fail to uninstall the program, and will need to be removed by other means.
In short, normally programs are removed using an uninstaller, reading the documentation written during their installation. If for some reason the file that contains these instructions was never produced in the first place, the program will be impossible to uninstall normally using the Windows Add/Remove tool.
Force Uninstall Using the Windows Registry
If you're comfortable working with the Windows Registry yourself, you can perform a manual force uninstall. Be careful when working in your operating system's database as you don't want to accidentally delete essential files. It goes without saying that this is pretty advanced stuff, and if you're not a power user, then perhaps you should consider downloading an uninstaller.
To manually remove a program you have to find the program key in the Windows Registry. The Registry contains keys and values; keys are containers that perform a similar function to file folders, and may contain values or more keys. However, before manipulating the Registry, it would be wise to back it up in case something goes wrong.
How to Back Up the Windows Registry
For Windows Vista or above:
- If operating Windows 8 or above, swipe from the right and bring up Search. In Windows 7 or Vista, click Start.
- Type regedit.exe into the search box; provide administrator confirmation if asked.
- Click the Registry key you wish to back up.
- Select File, then Export. Select the location where you want to save the backup, then Save.
If using Windows XP:
- Click Start and then Run.
- Type %SystemRoot%\system32\restore\rstrui.exe. Click Enter or OK.
- You will be taken to the Welcome to System Restore page. Select Create a Restore Point then Next.
- Type a name to be the restore point and Create. Close.
Now, you can carry on with your uninstall, and restore the registry as is if you delete the wrong thing.
Navigating the Windows Registry to the Uninstall Log
Click Start and choose Run in the menu (If you're using Windows Vista then press Win+R on your keyboard). Type "regedit" (without quotation marks) and hit Enter:
The Registry will open with a settings tree is on the left side. To locate the program's uninstall key, navigate to the following sub-folder:
Follow the sequence below to reach the correct key:
Inside the Uninstall folder (image above) you'll find a lot of keys that belong to different programs. Some are named after the program's name, others as a mix of numbers and letters that probably make no sense. When you click on one, the right-side pane will display the key's information, including a category called DisplayName, which is the name of the program as it's displayed to the user.
The image below shows an example of one of the Registry key's contents:
In the screenshot below, the DisplayName item has been highlighted. This item will show you the name of the program as you know it, rather than its coded name within the system. Use the DisplayName item to find the correct program:
Delete the keys with that show your program’s name under DisplayName by right-clicking on the items and selecting Delete. Now your program won't appear on the Add/Remove programs list.
Some programs create new entries in the registry to store their configuration options, so you may need to hunt down these files as well. These entries can usually be found in HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software, HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software, or, occasionally, HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\System\CurrentControlSet\Services. Look for the program name or the name of the company that made the software and delete the relevant folder.
Delete Program Files From Uninstalled Program
Finally, you need to find all the files that were copied onto your computer during installation. Open the folder where the uninstalled program should be, and look for files which are named uninstall.log or setup.log or something similar. Inside this file is a list of files that have been installed with the corresponding program. Open the file on Notepad and read through to find all of the files that have been copied onto your system during installation. Delete the files and you'll get rid of the program almost fully.