How To: Diagnose Your PC with a Clean Boot

Alex Castle

One of the most frustrating experiences you can have as a PC user is when something just won’t work . Maybe it’s a game that blacks out after the title screen, or an app that refuses to launch when you tell it to, but in any case it doesn’t give you much of a clue what’s going wrong, and it’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out.

One possible cause of these mysterious crashes is interference with one of your computer’s background processes. Unfortunately, a whole host of them start with Windows, so it can be tricky to figure out if they’re causing a problem, and if so, which one.

In this article, we’ll show you how to use a clean boot to identify harmful program interactions. A clean boot is a boot where no unnecessary background processes launch at startup. Some functionality of the computer may be lost while performing a clean boot, but it’s easily reversible and a powerful diagnostic technique.

Time: 30 Minutes

Performing the Clean Boot

Windows XP

To perform a clean boot on a system running XP, you’ll need to start by clicking the ‘Run’ option in the start menu, which will open a dialogue.  In the ”Open:” field, type “msconfig.”

The System Configuration Utility will launch, which will allow you to modify which services startup with Windows. Click the radial button marked “Selective Startup” then uncheck the boxes marked “Process SYSTEM.INI File,” Process WIN.INI File,” and “Load Startup Items.” Leave the “Load System Services” box checked.

Next, you’ll navigate to the “Services” tab, which contains a list of all services that launch on startup. We don’t want to screw with anything vital to the computer, so check the box that says “Hide All Microsoft Services.” Then click the “Disable All” button, which will uncheck all the boxes, and click OK.

Windows Vista

A clean boot in Vista is performed in very nearly the same way as in XP. You start by entering “msconfig” into the Start Search Bar in the Start menu, which will launch the System Configuration Utility.

In the System Configuration Utility, click the “Selective Startup” radial button and uncheck the “Load Startup Items” option.

Go to the Services tab, select “Hide All Microsoft Services” and press the “Disable All” button. Click OK.

On either operating system, you’ll be prompted to restart your system. Do so, and when it reboots, your computer will be running clean. Try running the program you’ve been having trouble with. If the problem persists, then it’s likely not due to interference by another program. If this is the case, you can return your startup settings to normal simply by launching the System Configuration Utility and selecting the radial marked “Normal Startup – load all device drivers and services.”

If the problem’s gone, it probably does have something to do with interference, so read on to find out what to do.

Isolating the Problem

So now you know that one of the programs you disabled is the cause of your problem. That’s cool, but you probably disabled a whole fistful of services, and most of those are likely doing something worthwhile, so now we’ll need to narrow it down to just one culprit. First, we’ll divide the field by manually re-enabling half the services in the System Configuration Utility and rebooting.

Run the software that you’re having trouble with. If the problem still occurs, then one of the programs you just enabled is the perpetrator. Otherwise, it’s one of the other half of the programs. Either way, you’ve eliminated fifty percent of the services as potential trouble makers. Now, change the list so that only half of the suspect services are enabled and repeat the process.

After a couple iterations of this halving process, you should be able to pinpoint the program that’s causing your problem. You’ll have to decide how you want to resolve the issue. If the interfering service is something you know you can live without, you can go ahead and disable it from the System Configuration Utility’s “Services” or “Startup” tabs, depending on the program.

If it’s something you want to keep, you’ll need to figure out some way to resolve the conflict. This can be easier said than done, but a good place to start is with a Google search for the interaction, or by visiting the conflicting programs’ forums, if they have them, or contacting their support departments. Good luck!

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