Remove ghost device drivers from Windows 7

If you want a way to remove ghost device drivers from Windows 7, or other recent versions of Windows, it just got easier.

What’s a ghost device driver? When you change or remove hardware from a Windows system, Windows keeps the old device driver lingering. You don’t see it in Device Manager, but the time Windows spends chasing ghosts increases boot time, in addition to consuming some memory, registry space, and disk space.

It’s not as much of a problem as it used to be, but if you want your system to run as quickly and smoothly as possible, you don’t want it wasting time managing hardware you’ll never use again. (Don’t worry–if you change your mind and plug the hardware back in, Windows will reload the driver.)

Ghostbuster is a small .NET-based program for Windows XP, Vista, and 7. It isn’t the most intuitive program, but if you stick to removing things like video drivers for video cards you don’t have anymore, USB devices you know you won’t use again, and other hardware you’ve replaced or removed permanently, you won’t hurt anything. If you ever plug it back in again, Windows will reload the driver.

Ghostbuster lists some devices as services. These are generally the devices that your system can’t live without, so it does that to protect you.

If you bought a brand-name system and you never reformatted the hard drive and reinstalled a fresh copy of Windows, you might be running all sorts of ghost drivers. Manufacturers try to build “universal” images that run on all of their machines, so they’ll load drivers for every machine in their product line. These are the machines that stand to benefit the most from careful use of this program, and if you don’t have time to do a clean, fresh install, running this and PC Decrapifier is probably the next best thing.

I ran it on my Dell E1505 laptop. Since I’m the only one who uses that system, I could give it a fairly thorough test. I shut down, booted, observed the boot time and the time to the desktop and observed the memory usage. Then I ran Ghostbuster and repeated the test.

I removed 59 ghosts. I stayed out of the non-plug and play drivers, since that’s one place I could easily get into trouble. I left the ghosted all-zeros device at the top alone, since nobody seems to know what that is. I also stayed out of the system devices, but if you replaced your motherboard and didn’t reinstall Windows afterward, you’ll probably have a lot of ghosts in that section. I’d back up the system before tinkering there, however.

I did remove a ghost memory card reader and the system’s original hard drive, since I upgraded fairly recently to a new Samsung 830 SSD, making that redundant. I also removed all of the ghost USB devices, since I wanted to see how much difference a slash-and-burn approach would make.

If you want to be more cautious about removing USB devices than I was, USB_devices_view is a better tool for that, since it shows the last time you used the device. A device you haven’t used in years is probably safe to remove, but it’s probably a good idea to keep one you used yesterday.

My sacrificial lamb was/is running a clean install of Windows 7 that I did myself about a year ago, so it should have been pretty clean. The results were surprising. I shaved 7 seconds off my boot time–which was already well under a minute anyway–and reduced my memory usage by 84 megabytes. Not bad for a couple of minutes’ work.

Of course, results will vary.  A system with hundreds of ghosts–extreme but not unheard of–will benefit more. But I was surprised with the difference I saw. I’m not willing to do a clean installation to get those kinds of results, but for the couple of minutes I spent, that’s not bad. Presumably if you don’t have an SSD, the difference is greater. Since I don’t have any conventional hard drive-based systems anymore, I can’t test that easily.

Note that if you’re running this tool under Windows Vista or 7, you have to click Remove Ghosts twice. The first time you do it, the program will reload using administrator rights. The second time you click it, it will actually do the work. I didn’t realize this the first time I ran it, so Ghostbuster looked like a do-nothing program until I did that.

I’m always happy to see tools to keep OS rot at bay; this looks like a good one to keep in mind. As part of a routine upgrade, once you replace something like a video card or hard drive and you’re comfortable that it’s working right, running this is a good way to keep the system running at its best and get the maximum benefit from the upgrade. I wouldn’t run it much more frequently than that–if you get OCD about system maintenance it’s possible to do more harm than good.

One thought on “Remove ghost device drivers from Windows 7

  • May 14, 2012 at 9:01 am

    Ohhh.. that’s nice! Makes me realize just how much time has passed since I did a wipe and reinstall, though. 🙁

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