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How to Remove a Program Correctly and Completely

by Robert Seth on June 23, 2011

While it seems like a perfectly simple thing, removing a program from your computer can get kind of complicated.  Especially if it’s not done correctly.  So this is one of those things you should try to get comfortable with because it can become necessary more often than you might think.

New computers, especially Windows systems, usually come with lots of junk software.  If not removed, this junk software can really slow your system down.  It also takes up space on your hard drive which, depending on its size, can also slow your system down.  It also makes the drive work harder than necessary.

Most people try out new software at least once in a while.  Some of us do it constantly.  If you’re like me, you do a lot of 30 day free trials.  I probably keep one out of every four programs I try out.  All those unneeded programs can really pile up if they’re not removed.  Again, they slow down the system and take up valuable hard drive space.

Both Windows and Mac have specific methods for removing programs.  They should be followed carefully to avoid leaving fragments of the program hanging around on your system.  Sometimes an incorrectly removed program can cause so much trouble that it will actually reduce system performance instead of improving it.

Removing a program in Windows.

When a program is installed in Windows, it writes information to several different parts of your hard drive.  It’s important to remove it correctly to make sure all the pieces are removed.

To remove a program in any version of Windows, first check to see if the manufacturer of the program has included an uninstall program.  You can check for this by clicking on Start and All Programs and then finding the program in the program list.

Click on the program and see if that brings up a program group.  If it does, there will often be a separate uninstall program.  You can also look in the actual directory on your hard drive where the program lives.  To check, go to Windows Explorer and click on the hard drive where the program is installed. Programs are usually in the Program Files Directory.  The uninstall program will typically be in the same directory as the application and will be called uninstall.exe. When you find the file just double click on it and it should start the uninstall process.

If you don’t find either of these then you’ll need to use the uninstall process that comes with Windows.  In Windows XP, click on Start, and Control Panel.  In the Control Panel click on the item Add Remove Programs.

This will bring up a list of all the programs installed on your computer.  If the list takes a while to come up, please be patient.  If you have many programs on your computer it could take a minute or so to populate the list.

Once the list comes up you can scroll down it to find the program you want to uninstall.  Clicking on the desired program will bring up different options depending on what’s available.  Some will only have an uninstall option.  Others will have additional options like repair or reinstall.  Click on the one you want to do.

Once the program begins to uninstall do not interrupt the process.  Even if it seems to stall, let it finish up.  If you interrupt this process by restarting or running out of power (with a laptop) you can cause nearly irreparable problems with your computer and it will be extremely difficult to finish removing the program.

In Windows Vista and 7 the process is almost identical but the menu items are different.  Once you bring up the Control Panel click on Programs and Features. If you’re using the Classic View in Windows Vista the Control Panel will come up in groups.  In the Program group click on Uninstall Programs.

Once the list populates click on the item to be removed.  Uninstall will appear as an option above the list.  Click on it and follow the instructions.

Something to keep in mind during this process is to not remove too many programs at one time without restarting your computer.  In fact it’s best to restart after removing each one.  Sometimes Windows will ask if you want to restart to complete the uninstall and sometimes it won’t.  Always Restart!

Restarting resets the computer to how it should be without the program installed.  It also removes any little bits of the program that may be left in memory.  If you wait to restart until many programs have been removed, Windows can get confused and end up with problems you may not be able to fix.

Before we leave the Windows side of things, let me mention a couple other things.  First, removing the icon for a program from your desktop does not remove the program.  It only removes the shortcut and makes it more difficult to find the program later.  Most uninstall programs will remove the desktop icon too.  If they don’t, only remove the icon after the program is removed properly.

Secondly, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER go onto your hard drive and try to remove the files from their programs directory.  This only removes part of the program but does nothing to the Windows Registry which is kind of the brainy control center of Windows.

If you do this, your computer will continue to look for the program when you start Windows.  You will get constant error messages that the program cannot be found.  There’s also a good chance this will damage the actual uninstall program so it will be unable to remove the rest of the program.  Your only recourse will be to purchase a third party program made for fixing this sort of problem or to hire a professional to remove the rest of the program.

Removing a program on Mac.

Removing a program from your Mac is much different from doing so in Windows because the operation systems are vastly different.  Special removal programs are not necessary for Mac because Mac programs are not spread all over the computer.  There is no such thing as the Registry like in Windows

Mac programs tend to reside more in groups all in one place.  This is reminiscent of how DOS used to be.  So removing a program from your Mac usually just involves dropping it in the trash.  If the application is part of a group, the whole group should be dropped in the trash.

To remove a program, first locate it in the Applications folder or in Finder. Right click (or Control-Click) on the file in Finder and then click on Show Package Contents. Right clicking on the program in the Applications Folder will bring up the same information but as folders instead of a list of files.  This will show you if you’re dealing with an individual file or a group.

To remove the program, close the program group if you have it open.  Drag the application file, or the program icon (depending on if viewing in Finder or the Application Folder) and hover it over the Trash icon.  When trash opens up, let go and drop the program in.

This removes the program but leaves behind some additional things you may, or may not, want to get rid of.  The first of these are the program preferences.  These are just preferences for how you wanted the program to run or how you had it set up.

Preferences don’t typically take up much space and can be useful if you decide to reinstall the program.  You won’t have to set up the whole thing over again.  If you’re sure you will never reinstall it, these can be removed.

Go to Finder and click on your hard drive (default is usually Macintosh HD under Devices).  Click on Library and then Preferences. The files will be small and probably numerous.  You can tell by their names what program they belong to.  Be careful not to remove files for programs still installed.  This could cause those programs to experience missing information.  If in doubt, don’t delete the files!

The other category of remaining information is Application Support. These files can be small or huge.  They can be things like video or audio files imported for editing.  Again, you may not want to delete these for whatever reason.  If you do delete them though, there is a potential for saving lots of hard drive space.

You access Application Support files by going to your hard drive and clicking on Library and Application Support.  These files are a little easier to sort out as they’re separated into program directories.  For example, if you removed the iWork program, just remove the iWork directory in Application Support and everything for iWork will be gone.

One other thing you should be aware of.  Removing an icon from the Doc on your Mac does not remove the program.  It’s the same as removing the icon from your desktop in Windows.  It only removes the icon but does nothing to the program.  If you accidentally remove an icon from the Doc you can open your application folder and drag the program back to the Doc.  Hover the icon over the Doc where you want it and let go.

General considerations for both platforms.

Sometimes the manufacturer of a program will include an uninstall program on the original program disk or the disk image used to install the program.  This can be the case for both PC and Mac programs.  So you might want to check this before uninstalling in cases where there is no specific program for the task.

These uninstall programs tend to be very thorough and will usually remove all the files associated with a program including preferences and Application Support files.

As with all procedures that involve changing things on your computer, there is always potential for problems.  This is especially the case if your computer is old and the same version of Windows has been installed for a long time.

So when removing programs, it might be a good idea to make a backup first.  You can also set a system restore point (Windows) just in case something goes wrong.

In the event your computer does lock up while removing a program, try pressing Control, Alt, and Delete all at the same time.  This will allow you to bring up the task manager and stop the removal of the program.  If the computer is completely unresponsive you can hold the power button for five to ten seconds which will power off the computer.  Just keep in mind that these methods should only be used as a last resort.  They are the same as interrupting the process and can result in partial uninstall that can be difficult to complete.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Damien Gavin March 13, 2013 at 4:36 am

Hi Robert, I am trying to remove a program from vista. I keep getn a message that my system does not support the language and I cant get rid. Any help greatly apreciated.

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Robert Seth March 13, 2013 at 9:35 am

Hi Damien, Can you tell me what program you are trying to uninstall?

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Vicky June 26, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Once again, you know just what info is needed without overwhelming. You’re the best Robert! Thanks.

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Jandi Theis June 25, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Thanks for the info, Robert! I knew how to uninstall a program (nice to know I’ve been doing it the right way) but not the importance of restarting my computer right away.

It would be nice to know what some of the “junk software” is that comes with the Windows system… there is so much on the list, but I’m afraid to uninstall anything, except what I know I have previously installed… maybe an idea for another blog for you? :)

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Mindy Sartin June 24, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Thanks Robert. What a helpful article. You have such a great way of breaking things down.

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Paul Crowson June 23, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Thanks Robert, I see more now why I like my Mac more, didn’t know all the reasons why, but I know a few more!!!

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Pat June 23, 2011 at 10:28 am

Thanks for the info Robert. I am going to print this out and give to my husband who is my technical help and keeps my computer from crashing.

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OLga Hermans June 23, 2011 at 10:26 am

Yes Robert, this is some powerful info that you give us. I am not sure either if I would try this on my own, I have myhubby/ son who does things like this for me. I will bookmark it though in case they need this :)

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Phil Holleman June 23, 2011 at 10:19 am

Great info, Robert. More reasons why I love my MacBook Pro.

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Tina Winterlik June 23, 2011 at 10:18 am

That’s great detailed advice, I’m sure people will find this very helpful.

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Susan Preston June 23, 2011 at 9:58 am

Thanks, Robert for sharing great information…I learned a few things.

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Michele June 23, 2011 at 9:08 am

Seth,
Thanks for that very informative article about removing programs from my computer. Not sure I am really ready to tackle this on my own, but how great to have this article to refer to should I need to do some deleting.

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