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Crashes and Error Messages (part 3) - Manage Startup Programs

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3. Manage Startup Programs

The Startup folder in the Start menu is where most people go if they want Windows to start an application automatically when it boots. Just drag a shortcut to the program into the folder, and Windows will do the rest.

Or, if there's a program you don't want Windows to load—either because it's causing an error message or because Vista is booting too slowly—just right-click the shortcut in the Startup folder and select Delete.

Trouble is, there are many ways to configure startup programs, and if you're trying to solve a problem or just reduce boot times, you need to look at them all:

Startup folders

There are actually two of these on your hard disk, but shortcuts in both places show up in the Startup menu (under All Programs in your Start menu). If you have a lot of cleanup to do, you'll find it's easier to open Windows Explorer than to repeatedly open the Start menu. First, your personal Startup folder is located here:

C:\Users\{username}\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Startup

and programs listed therein will load automatically when you first log in to your user account. Next, the "All Users" Startup folder here:

C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Startup

lists the programs to load automatically when anyone logs into your PC.


There are several places in the Registry in which startup programs are specified. Installers add their programs to these keys for several reasons: to prevent tinkering, for more flexibility, or—in the case of viruses, Trojan horses, and spyware—to hide from plain view.

These keys contain startup programs for the current user (er, you):


These keys contain startup programs for all users:


The naming of the keys should be self-explanatory. Programs referenced in either of the Run keys listed previously are run every time Windows starts, and are where you'll find most of your startup programs. An entry referenced in one of the RunOnce keys is run only once and then removed from the key.

If you find yourself returning to the two Run keys frequently, use Registry Editor's Favorites menu to create shortcuts to each location, and name them accordingly (e.g., HKCU-Run and HKLM-Run).


The Services window (services.msc) lists dozens of programs especially designed to run in the background in Windows Vista. The advantage that services have over the other startup methods here is that they remain active, even when no user is currently logged in. That way, for example, your web server can continue to serve web pages when the Welcome/Login screen is displayed.

By default, some services are configured to start automatically with Windows and others are not, and this distinction is made in the Startup Type column. Double-click any service and change the Startup type option to Automatic to have it start with Windows, or Disabled if you never want it to start automatically. You can even group all the automatic services together by clicking the Startup Type column to sort the list.

Changing the Startup type for a service won't load (start) or unload (stop) the service. Use the Start and Stop buttons on the toolbar of the Services window, or double-click a service and click Start or Stop.

So, you've decided to scour your system for superfluous or dangerous startup programs, and you've encountered one you don't recognize. Before you pull the plug on a particular entry, follow these steps to find out what it's for:

  1. First, determine the name of the file involved. If it's a Registry entry, the filename (and usually the full path) is shown in the right column in the Run/RunOnce key. For Startup folder items, right-click the shortcut icon and select Properties to uncover the program filename. Or, if it's a service, double-click the service and look at the Path to executable line under the General tab.

  2. Once you have the program filename, open Windows Explorer and navigate to the file's location. (If the pathname wasn't included, type the filename into Explorer's Search box, and be sure to look beyond the index .

    Right-click the program executable, select Properties, and choose the Version tab. The manufacturer name, and sometimes the product name, will be listed here. If there's no Version tab, it means the file has no version information, a symptom typically indicative of a virus or some form of malware .

  3. If the file itself doesn't explain its own purpose, fire up a web browser and search Google for the filename. In nearly all cases, you'll find a web site that describes what it's for, and in the case of malware, how to remove it.

  4. Still stumped? Some malware installers create new, random filenames for their startup programs specifically so you can't easily identify them. If you have a hunch that an entry doesn't belong, try temporarily relocating it.

    If it's a shortcut in your Startup folder, move the shortcut to a temporary folder rather than deleting it, which allows for easy retrieval if it turns out to be necessary.

    For entries in your Registry, create a Registry patch  to back up the key, and then simply delete the offending entry. Now, as a test, click another key in the Registry tree, and then flip back to the Run key where you just made your change. Is the entry still gone? If not, you may be dealing with malware that knows how to repair itself,.

  5. Restart your system, and look for abnormalities (as well as normalities). If all is well, you can probably discard the removed entries.

If you don't feel like looking in all these places separately, but you also don't feel comfortable ignoring them, open the Performance Information and Tools page in Control Panel and click the Manage Startup Programs link on the left to open the Windows Defender Software Explorer. You can also try a program like Startup Control Panel, available for free from http://www.mlin.net/startupcpl.shtml. Among other things, it has a "Recycle Bin" of sorts that lets you easily recover recently axed Startup programs.

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