How To Remove Uninstalled Software Data from Windows

Image of a floppy disk being held up.
Where did all that data get saved to?
SOURCE: Flickr

It’s common for Windows users to uninstall applications from their computers. It’s pointless to keep applications on your disk if you no longer use them. Unfortunately, when you uninstall an application, some of its data may remain on the hard disk.  To make matters worse, these application remnants sometimes contain sensitive data.

In this article, I’ll show you where in your system old application data may continue to exist. Finding the leftover application data is the hard part — once you find it, you can simply select and delete it. That’s why this article will primarily focus on the places where you’ll find the hidden software data.  

It’s important to note that these aren’t the only places you can find this data. But, these are the most common locations where leftover application data exists. Let’s first look at the some initial preparations before we jump in.

Initial Preparations

Before I get started, I’ll assume your main goal is to improve your current PC’s privacy. However, if you want to give your PC away, you can simply format its hard disk instead of using the techniques in this article. 

Additionally, no matter how thoroughly you clean up the PC’s hard disk, traces of sensitive data might remain somewhere else on the disk. The only way to be absolutely sure that you’ve removed all of your sensitive data is to securely format, replace, or destroy the hard disk.

Before you get started, remember to back up your system. You might accidentally delete something valuable during this process. And, you can’t always recover it from the Recycle Bin. Now that you’re all set up, let’s find and remove uninstalled software data. 

How to Remove Uninstalled Software Data

1. Application Data

The Windows AppData folder is the first place you can find leftover application data. The AppData folder is beneath the user profile folder (such as C:\Users\Brien). It’s out of sight by default. The easiest way to access the AppData folder is to open the File Explorer and enter %AppData% into the search box.

The AppData folder contains three subfolders: Local, LocalLow, and Roaming. Any one of these folders could contain the application leftovers. However, based on my experience, you can often find leftover software data in the Roaming folder.

Moreover, the Roaming folder typically contains a series of subfolders. Each of the subfolders bears its software vendor name. Open one of these folders, and you’ll see a separate folder for each vendor application. Alternatively, you might find that all the data within the vendor folder is tied to the application you’ve removed.

Image of the Roaming folder contents. Two folders are present called Adobe and Microsoft respectively.
Vendors often store application data in the %AppData%\Roaming folder.

2. The User Profile

Although the AppData folder is a part of the user profile, application data can also exist elsewhere in the user profile. The user profile folder is located at C:\Users\<username> and typically contains the Windows libraries. These libraries consist of dedicated folders such as Desktop, Documents, Pictures, and Downloads, to name a few. 

Screenshot of Brien's user profile. Generic folders including Pictures, Videos, Desktop, and Documents are under the user profile.
Although user profiles are normally meant for storing libraries, some applications will place files into the root user profile folder.

Unfortunately, vendors often treat the user profile as a dumping ground for all types of files. It’s often easy to find these files stored in subfolders of specific vendors. However, it’s common to find random log files, configuration files, JSON files, and text files in a user profile folder.

Consequently, it’s tough to figure out which application created the files. You can try doing a web search on the file names or use the date and time stamp as clues to figure out where the file came from.

3. The Windows Registry

Software leftovers could exist anywhere in the Windows registry. However, exercise caution when editing the Windows registry. A mistake in editing it could destroy Windows or your applications. Thus, you should back your system up before attempting any registry modifications.

Look into the following two locations:

  • HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software
  • HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software

These locations will typically contain vendor-specific folders. These folders will have data related to individual applications. 

In the figure below, for example, the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software folder contains subfolders for Microsoft, Google, and Intel vendors. The Google folder, which I’ve expanded in the figure, has a subfolder related to Google Chrome. As its name suggests, this folder has Google Chrome’s data.

Screenshot of Registry Editor with file tree on the left and folder contents window on the right of the window.
Software vendors will often create application folders beneath the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software folder.

4. Program Files

Most uninstallers also clean up the application binaries. However, some program files might remain. Application binaries exist in the Program Files or the Program Files (x86) folder. The Program Files folder generally stores 64-bit applications. While the Program Files (x86) folder generally contains 32-bit applications.

Screenshot of the C drive folder.
Windows uses the Program Files folder for 64-bit applications and the Program Files (x86) folder for 32-bit applications.

You can also use tools to help you track the uninstalled data. The section below will show you how to use the Disk Cleanup tool for Windows to find and remove data from uninstalled software.

Other Cleanup Options

It’s common for applications to write data to temporary files. These files may continue to exist even after you uninstall the application. If you want to clean up temporary files and other items that waste disk space, follow these steps:

  1. Enter the words Disk Cleanup into the search box in the Windows taskbar
  2. Select Disk Cleanup from the list of results
  3. Choose the Temporary Files option (which is different from the Temporary Internet Files option) from the Disk Cleanup interface. You should also choose any other files you want to remove
  4. Click the View Files button to see what files will the Disk Cleanup remove
  5. Click OK to complete the process
Screenshot of the Disk Cleanup utility window.
The Disk Cleanup tool can often help to reclaim disk space from the operating system.

There you have it. Those were the most likely places where you’ll find uninstalled application data. So, let’s recap.

Final Thoughts

Windows clears out the data related to an application once you uninstall it. But, some applications leave behind configuration data or user data in the system. This data can be sensitive. Once you find the data, go ahead and simply select and delete. The first place to find left-behind files is in Windows AppData. The file you’re looking for will bear the name of its vendor. Further, most vendors’ application data can also exist in the user profile. You can also look for files in Windows Registry. However, any mistake here could damage the Windows. So, back your system up before cleaning up the registry. Moreover, make sure you get rid of the binaries. These are the 64-bit and 32-bit files. And, finally, use the Disk Cleanup option to clear out any application data left behind. 

Want to know more about cleaning up your system data? Check out the FAQ and Resources sections below.

FAQ

Where else could applications leave behind data?

If multiple people use your computer and each person has a unique log-in, each user will have a separate profile directory. Unwanted application data continues to exist in the other profiles even if you remove it from one person’s profile and AppData folder.

What other registry locations contain application data?

The HKEY_CURRENT_USER folder is for the currently logged-in user. The registry also contains a hive, HKEY_USERS, which contains all users’ data. You can find other users’ application data tied to other users within the HKEY_USERS hive.

Why would Windows install a single application in both the Program Files and the Program Files (x86) folders?

The Program Files folder is generally for 64-bit applications. However, some 64-bit applications use 32-bit components. Therefore, Windows stores the 32-bit portion of an application in the Program Files (x86) folder.

Why does an application leave behind configuration data after you uninstall it?

The reasons for this can vary. The application vendor could be trying to make things easier for you. For instance, for configuration purposes. Since the configuration file from the previous installation exists, you wouldn’t have to worry about configuration.

Why isn’t the Disk Cleanup tool removing all of the temporary files from my system?

A few reasons may be responsible here. One reason is that Windows might still be using temporary files. Additionally, the application could be storing temporary files in a non-standard location. The Disk Cleanup tool can’t reach every location on the system.

Resources

TechGenix: Article on Disk Cleanup

Learn more about the Disk Cleanup utility.

TechGenix: Article on Reclaiming Space

Read more on how to reclaim lost disk space.

TechGenix: Article on Microsoft Libraries

Discover why Microsoft applications use libraries.

TechGenix: Article on User Profiles

Get more information on how to display user profiles in Explorer.

TechGenix: Article on Windows Registry

Read more on how to manage the Windows registry.

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