Windows XP includes a System Configuration Utility, Msconfig.exe, which is incredibly valuable and often misused. It allows you to see most of the programs that run at startup and selectively disable programs for troubleshooting purposes. To start the System Configuration Utility, type msconfig in the Run dialog box and press Enter.
The Startup tab of the System Configuration Utility is intended for use as a troubleshooting tool (it’s not intended to be a full-time startup manager). By clicking Disable All, you can clear every check box in the list, preventing Windows from starting any programs automatically at startup; then, through an iterative process of restoring one or two programs at a time to the list, you can restart programs and see which one is causing a particular problem.
To test whether it’s safe to remove a single program from the list of those that start automatically with Windows, clear the check box to the left of the program’s name on the System Configuration Utility’s Startup tab and restart your computer. After verifying that your system works properly without that program starting automatically, you can safely reconfigure the program so it doesn’t start automatically.
If you’re experiencing problems that start immediately after you start your computer, troubleshoot by clicking the Disable All button to clear every program from the list. Restart and see if the problem goes away. If it does, add a handful of programs and restart (I recommend that you add no more than five at a time). When the problem resurfaces, you can focus your attention on the last batch of programs you added.
Should you use Msconfig as a startup manager? I strongly recommend against it. This tool was designed for troubleshooting, not for everyday use. You’re much better off removing auto-starting programs manually, using one of these methods:
- Look first for an option in the program itself. Most programs that start automatically allow you to change this behavior by clearing a check box in an Options or Preferences dialog box. It might take some digging around, but this is always the preferred option.
- Remove the program shortcut from the Startup folder. Be sure to look in the Startup folder for your profile and the corresponding folder in the All Users profile. This option won’t work if the auto-start option is set in the registry. You can move the shortcut to another location if you think you might want to restore it later.
- As a last resort, edit the registry manually. This technique is messy, risky, and not always successful; some particularly persistent programs will restore the startup values in the registry the next time you run the program.
Easiest of all, use a third-party tool like Mike Lin’s excellent (and free) Startup Control Panel or Autoruns from Sysinternals. Both allow you to temporarily or permanently remove an item from the auto-start list. And if you can’t figure out what each item on the list does, look it up at Paul “Pacman” Collins’ most excellent Start-Up Applications page.