The Windows system Registry can be likened to a file system. Like a file system, it is organized hierarchically. Just as the file system has a root folder that contains one or more child folders, each of which in turn contains one or more child folders, and so on, the Registry has a top-level key that contains one or more child keys, each of which in turn contains one or more child keys, and so on. (Unlike the file system, though, the Registry has either five or six top-level keys, depending on the version of Windows you're using.) Just as the purpose of a folder is to store files, so the purpose of a Registry key is in part to store values.
A Registry value itself more closely resembles an item in a collection than it does a file. Like the member of a collection, a Registry value has a data type. The following are the data types the Registry supports:
Also like members of collections, most Registry values are named. Figure 1, for example, shows that two named values are stored in the
HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\.txt key. The first,
Content Type, is a string (
REG_SZ) whose value is "txtfile". The second,
PerceivedType, is also a string; its value is "text".
Figure 1 shows one additional value, indicated by the name "(Default)". A remnant of the Registry in 16-bit Windows systems, this is the default or unnamed value. As Figure 1 shows, it also is a string, or
REG_SZ, that has been assigned the value "txtfile". There can be only one unnamed value per Registry key. A Registry key, then, while it has a value that is of a definite data type, may or may not have a name.
Figure 1. A registry key with its values (You can click on the screen shot to open a full-size view.)
When you write a particular value to the Registry, you know precisely the name of the value, its data type, and the data you'd like to assign to it. Although this is sometimes the case when reading a particular Registry value, it also very frequently happens that you don't know the precise names of Registry values (if they have names at all), nor do you know their data types or their values. In this article, we'll show how to deal with all three of these common scenarios, as well as show you how to write values to the Registry.
When you know the name and the data type of the value that you want to retrieve, you can retrieve it directly. To do this, you simply open the key containing the value, then retrieve the value itself.
For instance, suppose that you're developing a Registry utility and you intend to respect the wishes of the system administrator, who may have disabled the use of Registry tools for a particular user. In that case, you know that you want to retrieve the
DisableRegistryTools value of the HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\System key. You know that
DisableRegistryTools is a
REG_DWORD) that can take one of two possible values:
0 indicates that the user can have access to Registry tools, while
1 indicates that he or she should be prevented from directly accessing the Registry. Since both the value and the key are typically created by System Policy Editor when a user's Registry access is blocked, you must also be prepared to handle cases when either the key or the value is not present. The following
IsRegistryEditable function does that:
' Determines whether Registry tools have been disabled for the current user Public Function IsRegistryEditable() As Boolean Dim lValue As Long ' Variable for value Dim sKey As String ' Key to open Dim hKey As Long ' Handle to registry key sKey = "Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\System" If RegOpenKeyEx(HKEY_CURRENT_USER, sKey, 0, KEY_READ, hKey) <> ERROR_SUCCESS Then ' Key does not exist, return True IsRegistryEditable = True Else ' Determine if value exists If RegQueryValueEx(hKey, _ "DisableRegistryTools", _ 0, _ REG_DWORD, _ lValue, _ Len(lValue) _ ) <> ERROR_SUCCESS Then ' value does not exist, return True IsRegistryEditable = True Else ' Return opposite of value (0 = Editable, 1 = Disable) IsRegistryEditable = Not CBool(lValue) End If End If End Function
Since we know what we're looking for in the Registry, we simply call
RegOpenKeyEx to open the Registry key containing the value we want. If the function fails, it does not return ERROR_SUCCESS, so we know that something has gone wrong. (For details on
RegOpenKeyEx, see Reading and Writing Registry Keys with Visual Basic). If the key is opened successfully, we call the
RegQueryValueEx function, which retrieves the value. Its syntax is:
Public Declare Function RegQueryValueEx Lib "advapi32.dll" Alias "RegQueryValueExA" ( _ ByVal hKey As Long, _ ' Handle to open registry key ByVal lpValueName As String, _ ' Name of value ByVal lpReserved As Long, _ ' Reserved, must be 0 lpType As Long, _ ' Registry data type constant lpData As Any, _ ' By reference variable for data lpcbData As Long _ ' Number of bytes of data written ) As Long
Two of the parameters,
lpcbData, are passed to the function by reference. When the function returns,
lpData will contain the value's data, while
lpcbData will indicate the number of bytes written to
lpData. This allows us to allocate a buffer that is large enough to hold the data and to know how much of the buffer must be trimmed to extract the actual data. In our case, since we're reading a long integer (a Visual Basic
Long or a Registry
REG_DWORD), we don't need to be concerned about the size of our buffer and possible buffer overflows. Similarly, we've provided a literal value,
Len(lValue), rather than passing a variable by reference as the
lpcbData argument, since we already know how many bytes will be written when we retrieve a
Often when retrieving values from the Registry, our code has to handle the failure to find a particular key. In the case of the
IsRegsitryEditable function, for instance, the function returns
True, indicating that the Registry can be accessed by user tools, if the key or value does not exist.
While this example is straightforward enough, in other cases we know which key we want to access but either aren't certain what kind of data it holds or don't know what the size of that data is. Imagine, for instance, that you're developing a utility that launches the application capable of handling a file-system object the user selects. In this case, we'll simply extract the extension from the file that the user has selected, then use its file extension to form the path to a file identification key. Once we open the file extension key, we can retrieve its unnamed value, which is the name of its file association key. From there, we can retrieve the value of the
Shell\Open\Command subkey to retrieve the name of the application capable of handling the file. The following code accomplishes this:
Public Function GetAssociatedApp(sExten As String) As String Dim sBuffer As String, sProgName As String Dim sPath As String Dim lBuffer As Long, lProgName As Long Dim hKey As Long, hProgKey As Long sBuffer = Space(20) lBuffer = Len(sBuffer) ' Open Key If RegOpenKeyEx(HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT, sExten, 0, KEY_READ, hKey) <> ERROR_SUCCESS Then ' Key does not exist, return null string GetAssociatedApp = vbNullString Else Dim lType As Long ' Get key's unnamed value RegQueryValueEx hKey, vbNullString, 0, 0, ByVal sBuffer, lBuffer RegCloseKey hKey sBuffer = Left(sBuffer, lBuffer - 1) ' Open Command key of File Association key's Open subkey sPath = sBuffer & "\shell\open\command" If RegOpenKeyEx(HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT, sPath, 0, KEY_READ, hProgKey) = ERROR_SUCCESS Then ' Determine data type and buffer size of key RegQueryValueEx hProgKey, vbNullString, 0, 0, ByVal vbNull, lProgName ' Retrieve file association sProgName = Space(lProgName + 1) RegQueryValueEx hProgKey, vbNullString, 0, lType, ByVal sProgName, lProgName RegCloseKey hProgKey sProgName = Left(sProgName, lProgName - 1) ' Check if environment string is present If lType = REG_EXPAND_SZ Then Dim lProg As Long Dim sProg As String sProg = Space(MAX_PATH + 1) lProg = ExpandEnvironmentStrings(sProgName, sProg, Len(sProg)) sProgName = Left(sProg, lProg - 1) End If GetAssociatedApp = sProgName Else GetAssociatedApp = "" End If End If End Function
The first part of this code is quite similar to the code in the previous example. Because we know that our code is looking up a file extension, we know that we want to open the HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\<file extension> key and read its unnamed value. We know that that value will be a string that we can use to form a path to the next Registry key we'd like to open, HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\<file identifier>\shell\open\command, and that we'd like to retrieve the latter key's unnamed value.
Although there is some similarity to the code in the previous example, there are also some salient differences. Whereas we were working with a named value in the previous example, here we're attempting to retrieve the unnamed value of a key. Because of this, we pass
vbNullString as an argument in place of a value name. Second, because we're passing string data to and from the function, we must override Visual Basic's default method of passing strings by reference by providing the
ByVal keyword. Third, because a string's length is variable, we must allocate a buffer that's sufficiently large to hold all the string data plus a null character to mark the end of the string. When the function returns, we must trim our string so that it contains only characters actually written to the buffer by the function.
Once we open the HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\<file extension>\shell\open\command key and are about to get the name of the program responsible for handling a particular file type, we're no longer completely sure of the format of the value that we're looking for in the Registry. We don't know how long the unnamed value of the key is, nor do we know precisely what type of string it contains. Along with standard strings (of type
REG_SZ), there are also strings with embedded "macros" (
REG_EXPAND_SZ) and string arrays (
To ensure that we allocate a buffer large enough to retrieve the program name, we call
RegQueryValueEx twice. In the first call, we provide null values for all but one by reference argument, the number of characters written to the buffer. This preliminary function call allows us to determine how large a buffer we need to allocate in order to successfully retrieve the data. Note that the value of
lpcbData includes the length not only of the data, but also of the terminating null character.
Finally, although we know in advance that we are handling string data here, we must check the precise type of the data. Along with conventional string data, Registry strings can include environmental variables (like
%WinDir%) that need to be expanded into their values. To do this, we call the
ExpandEnvironmentStrings function if the result of the
RegQueryValueEx function call indicates that the function has returned
Very frequently, we're even less sure of the basic items of information that we need to access Registry values. Possibly we don't know the precise number and names of the values we want, or we don't know their precise data type, or we have no real idea of how long they are. This is frequently the case, for instance, when working with most recently used (MRU) lists, which often are stored in the Registry. Although there are a number of implementations for MRUs, most commonly the name of a file is assigned a simple, one-letter value name (
c, and the like), and an
MRUList named value keeps track of the entries by simply listing their names in order. For instance, the string stored to
MRUList might be
dcabe, indicating that the value stored to d was most recently used, followed by the value stored to
c, and so on. In our case, we'll build a routine that reads the MRU list for the Windows Run dialog, which is accessed by selecting the Run option from the Start menu.
When our uncertainly about Registry values extends to most of the values of a key, as it does in this case, we can begin by calling
RegQueryInfoKey to collect three useful items of information about the key's values. Its syntax is:
Public Declare Function RegQueryInfoKey Lib "advapi32.dll" Alias "RegQueryInfoKeyA" ( _ ByVal hKey As Long, _ ByVal lpClass As String, _ lpcbClass As Long, _ ByVal lpReserved As Long, _ lpcSubKeys As Long, _ lpcbMaxSubKeyLen As Long, _ lpcbMaxClassLen As Long, _ lpcValues As Long, _ ' Number of values lpcbMaxValueNameLen As Long, _ ' Length of longest value name lpcbMaxValueLen As Long, _ ' Length of longest value data lpcbSecurityDescriptor As Long, _ lpftLastWriteTime As FILETIME _ ) As Long
We can substitute a null or a null string (depending on the data type) for arguments in which we're not interested. The function tells us the following:
In the case of the MRU list, calling
RegQueryInfoKey once can save us from having to call
RegQueryValueEx twice for each value, since we don't know the amount of data that each value contains.
In building our MRU list routine, once we know the longest value name and the size of the buffer we need to create, we can begin to read values in either of two ways. One way (which we won't use here) is to retrieve all of the values in the key by calling
RegEnumValue. Its syntax is:
Public Declare Function RegEnumValue Lib "advapi32.dll" Alias "RegEnumValueA" ( _ ByVal hKey As Long, _ ' Handle to open key ByVal dwIndex As Long, _ ' Index (0 to total - 1 ByVal lpValueName As String, _ ' name of value lpcbValueName As Long, _ ' kength of value name ByVal lpReserved As Long, _ ' reserved, must be 0 lpType As Long, _ ' data type lpData As Byte, _ ' value data lpcbData As Long _ ' length of value data ) As Long
The major disadvantage of
RegEnumValue is that it takes a byte array as the
lpdata argument, and so requires that we reassemble our data from the byte array. While this is easy to do, it offers horrendous performance for keys with large numbers of values or for values with large amounts of data. A better alternative is to call
RegEnumValue to get the value's name and, if necessary, its data type, and then to use this information to call
RegQueryValueEx. The following code fragment illustrates this:
' Open registry key RegOpenKeyEx HKEY_CURRENT_USER, sPath, 0, KEY_READ, hKey ' Collect information on key's values RegQueryInfoKey hKey, "", 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, nValues, lValueName, lValueData, 0, ft ' Enumerate values For nCtr = 0 To nValues - 1 ' Reinitialize buffer on each iteration lName = lValueName + 1 sName = Space(lName) ' Get enumerated value RegEnumValue hKey, nCtr, sName, lName, 0, lType, ByVal 0, 0 ' Trim value name sName = Left(sName, lName) ' If necessary, handle data types ldata = lValueData + 1 sData = Space(ldata) ' Get data RegQueryValueEx hKey, sName, 0, 0, ByVal sData, ldata ' Trim string data sData = Left(sData, ldata) ' Process value name and data nCtr = nCtr + 1 Next RegCloseKey hKey
However, let's take a look at what we know about the values we want to retrieve. We know that they are all strings (of type
REG_SZ). Once we call
RegQueryInfoKey, we can determine how large a buffer must be allocated to accommodate the data. And we know the name of one value,
MRUList, whose data is an ordered list of the names of the values that we want to retrieve. This means that we can omit enumerating the values and implement our routine by calling
RegQueryValueEx for each key that we want to retrieve. The code appears as follows:
Public Sub ShowRunMRU() Dim iCtr As Integer Dim hKey As Long Dim nValues As Long, lValueData As Long Dim lData As Long Dim sPath As String Dim sList As String Dim sMsg As String Dim sData As String Dim sName As String Dim ft As FILETIME sPath = "Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\RunMRU" ' Open registry key RegOpenKeyEx HKEY_CURRENT_USER, sPath, 0, KEY_READ, hKey ' Collect information on key's values If RegQueryInfoKey(hKey, "", 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, nValues, 0, lValueData, _ 0, ft) <> ERROR_SUCCESS Then sMsg = "Run MRU list not found" Else ' initialize data buffer lData = lValueData + 1 sData = Space(lData) ' Retrieve MRUList Value If RegQueryValueEx(hKey, "MRUList", 0, 0, ByVal sData, lData) <> ERROR_SUCCESS Then sMsg = "Run MRU list not found" Else ' Trim MRU list data sList = Left(sData, lData - 1) For iCtr = 1 To Len(sList) ' Get value name sName = Mid(sList, iCtr, 1) ' Reinitialize buffer on each iteration lData = lValueData + 1 sData = Space(lData) ' Get data RegQueryValueEx hKey, sName, 0, 0, ByVal sData, lData ' Trim string data sData = Left(sData, lData - 1) sMsg = sMsg & sData & vbCrLf Next End If RegCloseKey hKey End If ' Display MRU list MsgBox sMsg, vbOKOnly, "Run MRU List" End Sub
To write a value to the Registry, you call the
RegSetValueEx function. Its syntax is:
Public Declare Function RegSetValueEx Lib "advapi32.dll" Alias "RegSetValueExA" ( _ ByVal hKey As Long, _ ' Handle to registry key ByVal lpValueName As String, _ ' Name of value ByVal Reserved As Long, _ ' Reserved, must be 0 ByVal dwType As Long, _ ' Registry data type constant lpData As Any, _ ' Value's data ByVal cbData As Long _ ' Length in bytes of data ) As Long
The function is fairly straightforward, as far as Registry functions go. A few comments are in order, though:
If you are writing an unnamed value to the Registry,
lpValueName should be a null string. You also have to be careful about platform: On Windows 95/98/ME, the unnamed value must be of type
REG_SZ. On Windows NT/2000/XP, it can be of any valid type.
REG_EXPAND_SZ) must be null-terminated. In string arrays (
REG_MULTI_SZ), each array element must be null-terminated, and the array as a whole must be terminated with two nulls (one for the last element of the array, and one for the array itself). Visual Basic, however, takes care of adding the final terminating null when we pass the string by value.
cbData, the count of bytes in the data, must include the terminating null character or characters for Registry string data.
The function will create a new value if one does not already exist. If it does exist, it will overwrite the old value with the new one. Because of the possibility of accidentally overwriting data, in some cases you may want to call
RegQueryValueEx to check whether a Registry value exists.
The following code illustrates the use of the major Registry value types used by developers.
' Defined to save as REG_BINARY data Public Type AppFontInfo Name As String * 15 Size As Integer Bold As Boolean Italic As Boolean End Type Public Sub WriteRegistryValues() Dim hKey As Long Dim lDisp As Long Dim sPath As String Dim sa As SECURITY_ATTRIBUTES Dim sValueName As String sPath = "Software\MyCompany\MyApp\Settings" If RegCreateKeyEx(HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE, sPath, 0, vbNullString, REG_OPTION_NON_VOLATILE, _ KEY_ALL_ACCESS, sa, hKey, lDisp) <> ERROR_SUCCESS Then MsgBox "Unable to create registry key." Exit Sub End If ' Create a REG_DWORD value Dim dword As Long sValueName = "MRUItems" dword = 5 RegSetValueEx hKey, sValueName, 0, REG_DWORD, dword, Len(dword) ' Create a REG_BINARY value Dim fi As AppFontInfo fi.Name = "Arial" fi.Size = 12 fi.Bold = False fi.Italic = False sValueName = "DefaultFont" RegSetValueEx hKey, sValueName, 0, REG_BINARY, fi, Len(fi) ' Create a REG_SZ value Dim sValue As String sValue = "GraphicsViewer" sValueName = "AddIn" RegSetValueEx hKey, sValueName, 0, REG_SZ, ByVal sValue, Len(sValue) + 1 ' Create a REG_EXPAND_SZ value Dim sLibPath As String sLibPath = "%windir%\twain_32.dll" sValueName = "Library" RegSetValueEx hKey, sValueName, 0, REG_EXPAND_SZ, ByVal sLibPath, Len(sLibPath) + 1 'Create a REG_MULTI_SZ value Dim ColorString As String Dim Color As Variant, Colors As Variant Colors = Array("Yellow", "Black", "Purple") ' Form array string For Each Color In Colors ColorString = ColorString & Color & Chr(0) Next sValueName = "Colors" RegSetValueEx hKey, sValueName, 0, REG_MULTI_SZ, ByVal ColorString, Len(ColorString) + 1 ' Close registry key RegCloseKey hKey End Sub
Figure 2. Registry after running WriteRegistryValues procedure (You can click on the screen shot to open a full-size view.)
Ron Petrusha is the author and coauthor of many books, including "VBScript in a Nutshell."
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