What Causes "Windows Rot" and How Can it be Avoided?

Revo Uninstaller Main Screen

NOTE: “Windows Rot” is the name given to the phenomenon that every install of Windows degrades over time, gradually getting slower and slower, using more and more ram, until the computer running it needs to be reformatted and have Windows reinstalled. This phenomenon has existed since Windows 3.1 and is alive and well today more than ever in Windows XP and Vista (although Vista hasn’t been out quite long enough to see some of the worse cases of it).

Grant Gochnauer sent along a link to an interesting blog, Shipping Seven, written by one of the developers on the Windows 7 (Vienna?) team. What I found so refreshing about the blog in general is the complete uncensored nature of it. The author openly criticized Microsoft for things like the 6 GUI libraries currently maintained in Vista and how for $299 the Zune v2.0 is a complete joke compared to the iPod Touch’s capabilities.

There are plenty of interesting entries, but one I enjoyed was about “Windows Rot” and uninstaller applications. Basically the author says that when uninstallers for apps run, they almost never remove their registry entries and frequently leave behind files from their install. I can personally vouche and say this is absolutely true… more and more uninstallers think they are being smart (or just lazy) by leaving half of their apps laying around after the fact incase you ever want to “come back”. When you add up this behavior over time, it’s not much of a surprise that Windows “Rots”.

Flashback to Early 90s…

Do you remember as far back as the QEMM-386 days of computing (Download page)? If you do, then you are (a) a badass and (b) most likely remember another utility from the DESQview for Windows called Install Sweeper… or Uninstall Sweeper… or something like that.

The way this program worked was actually pretty sweet. It stayed resident, and as soon as you were going to install a new piece of software you could trigger the monitor in the Sweeper app to start “watching” your computer for changes, or it would recognize well-known installer names like install.exe or setup.exe and prompt you to turn itself on.

From that point forward the Sweeper app would monitor every change that occurred on your computer (files, registry, shortcuts, etc.) and record it in a script. When you wanted to uninstall that particular application, you would fire up the Sweeper app and run the “script” and it would completely remove it. It was pretty kick-ass.

How Do We Keep Things Clean?

The fact that this Sweeper app recorded everything that occurred as a result of an install was likely what kept your particular install of Windows you used it with from rotting. The “Shipping Seven” blog post about Windows Rot talks about how none of the uninstaller utilities listed on a popular Digg story will help avoid this problem, because they just use the same Add/Remove APIs that Windows Add/Remove does. The author does mention that Microsoft is working on solving this problem, from the looks of it, by way of virtualization. He also points to an existing application, Revo Uninstaller, that exists today and attempts to do full clean uninstalls by Registery/File analysis in addition to the standard uninstall software.

I downloaded Revo and gave it a try and so far it seems to do a pretty decent job.

My first few tests were to run it against Half-Life 2, which I had removed from Steam almost 3 months ago but Steam refuses to ever remove the Add/Remove icons it adds. Also the Steam directory for Half-Life 2 still contained almost the entire game… nice job steam!

To get started I selected the Half-Life 2 icon from the main Uninstaller menu (screenshot at top of post) and hit Uninstall. At this point Revo asks you what kind of uninstall you want to perform:

Revo Uninstaller Select Uninstall Mode

I chose Advanced, because I wanted Half-Life 2 gone! (still a good game… but how many times can you play through the same game?!). Revo first ran the normal uninstaller for Half-Life 2, which is to launch Steam in this case. As usual Steam just sat there after starting, and did nothing.

After closing Steam you hit Next and let Revo do it’s additional deep scans. The deep scans turned up plenty of registry entries and files still hanging around for Half-Life 2 infact:

Revo Uninstaller Left Over Registry Entries

I killed those off and continued on my way. I continued to use Revo with a few other apps and everything seems to be hunky dory at the moment.

I would point out that you might considering combining Revo Uninstaller and CCleaner because if you already have a dirty install of Windows, using CCleaner to get that registry a bit cleaner and get those dead files out of there will help. Using Revo Uninstaller from that point forward should keep things cleaner than normal, but optimally you would have used it from Day 1 of your new install of Windows (might be a good habit to start with clean installs?)

Overall another handy utility to file away in your brain if you are troubleshooting a bogged down/dirty install of Windows or just trying to pick up new habits. Hope it helps!

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About Riyad Kalla

Software development, video games, writing, reading and anything shiny. I ultimately just want to provide a resource that helps people and if I can't do that, then at least make them laugh.

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7 Responses to “What Causes "Windows Rot" and How Can it be Avoided?”

  1. manny January 17, 2008 at 7:13 pm #

    cool , i’ll check that blog out. Sounds like the best place to criticize along with the devs lol.

    I bet steve balmer doesnt read it :)

    before i migrated to linux i had ccleaner and a few others.

    it went well the first few times, but later on those same programs f*cked my registry.

    once i had to format i just decide to give it up and try new things, now am glad i did :)

  2. Kroimpa July 3, 2008 at 4:02 am #

    Thanks for the info, i always wondered how it happens, im currently using CCleaner, Registry Mechanic and Vista Manager to keep my PC clean and i works pretty good! Im goint to try Revo thanks alot!

  3. Riyad Kalla July 3, 2008 at 9:03 am #

    Kroimpa,
    Good deal I’m glad it helped. Honestly before we covered this topic I had no idea what caused the “rot” to occur either… I just know that about every year or year and a half I have to reinstall Windows.

    I was really interested to see that recreating a profile could fix the issue, I had never tried that before, especially on XP, because you were always the administrator account, so I figured when that went, everything was shot ;)

  4. sampson October 14, 2008 at 6:22 am #

    In your example you provided all you’re showing is file associations left over as well as an install ticket for tracking if software had been on the system. Please go back to your drawing board and re-think your issue because you are far off-point.

    The issue windows slows down is due to users not knowing what they’re doing. They install programs that for lack of better words can be considered hack-jobs and do things that aren’t according to Microsoft’s guidelines in how you should make as well as maintain a program. They can leave latent services and yes, quite rarely registry entries that will slow the system down.

    If a user would take the time to actually look at what they’re installing and contemplate if it is a “proper” program a lot less people would be subject to your cute term “Windows rot”. Sure, I experienced this kind of behavior with Windows 98 but you also have to realize back then code was less standardized than it is today. So long as you use quality programs from quality developers you aren’t going to have this issue.

  5. Editor October 14, 2008 at 7:49 am #

    Sampson,

    Revo will also remove latent reg entries and files (services, data, dlls, etc.). My example was the only one I had available at the time and you are correct, it only consisted of a few low-impact things. I don’t know about that being “far off point”, but it does fall short of the more extreme situations that can happen when installing/removing crappy software.

    If you have a better example/screenshots/etc. I’d be more than happy to augment the post with them.

  6. guest December 29, 2008 at 7:55 am #

    “more and more uninstallers think they are being smart (or just lazy) by leaving half of their apps laying around after the fact incase you ever want to “come back”. When you add up this behavior over time, it’s not much of a surprise that Windows “Rots”.” Windows ‘rot’ does exist, but the author has no idea what he is talking about. You can leave as many files as you want on your harddrive, if there are no registry entries, its not going to degrade performance and it is not going to use more ram.
    And of course if you don’t want anything left behind, make sure to always use the advanced uninstaller, and select everything to be removed. My Vista install has been running the same since I installed it thanks to this approach.

  7. woodgnome March 16, 2012 at 6:11 pm #

    Microsoft not being hardware manufacturers are in the habit of reducing functionality of all their software over time to create demand for new hardware this feeds the manufacturers needs and keeps them tied to Microsoft software a neat symbiosis isn’t it .Imagine a scenario where the software maker was also the hardware maker then you would see the company actually striving to keep everything running efficiently -oh wait thats apple !

    if you dont believe this dismiss it as paranoia but after 3 computers developing windows rot i can confirm every time i get an update for Microsoft .net framework from windows update my computer slows down by about 20% i have cataloged this every time -most recently my computer was working perfectly lenovo idea centre Win 7 then in February i got the dreaded .net framework update and now nothing works properly slow start ups and close down takes 4 minutes ! also every programe i open takes about a minute before it loads up also every time computer wakes up i have to reconnect to my own router-i get networks are available -do you want to connect ?-honest Microsoft are doing it on purpose folks but apple i will next time .

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