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Dump Unwanted Automatically-Launching Apps and Services

Step-by-step, here's how to rid your PC of unwanted programs that launch as system startup, robbing your PC of precious system resources.

By Scot Finnie

Many, MANY, Windows crashes, hangs at system start, freezing, and Windows Shutdown glitches derive from automatically launching programs that initiate at Windows startup. You may not even be aware of these programs, which often run in background and may or may not appear as icons in the system tray on the task bar (next to the clock). New PCs are sometimes the worst offenders. PC makers seem to think that loading Windows down with a lot of so-so software is a good way for them to differentiate themselves and add value. Frankly, I think we should all tell PC makers we don't want this stuff on our PCs. But that's another tirade.

The biggest problem with auto-launching programs is that you may not even know they're there. The second biggest problem is finding out how to get rid of them. In three parts, here's everything you need to know to take care of both aspects of this problem.

Part I, Startup Folder and WIN.INI
Windows launch times bog down the more programs queue themselves to be run automatically on system startup. You may even be unaware that this is happening as you install programs and drivers. The first place to check for these unbidden programs is in your StartUp folder. Move them out of StartUp into a new folder named "StartUp (Disabled)." Another way to prevent programs from auto-launching is to remove entries you may find on the LOAD= or RUN= line in the WIN.INI file. Open WIN.INI from your Windows folder using Notepad and delete unwanted program names from these lines. You can also place a semicolon at the head of either line to prevent Windows from reading it--a good way to test your changes while preserving previous settings.

Part II, System Configuration Utility
If you have Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, Windows Me, or Windows XP, you have an excellent resource at your disposal for handling all types of auto-launching programs. To access the System Configuration Utility (SCU), run the System Information utility in Start, Programs, Accessories, System Tools. Open SysInfo's Tools menu, and choose the System Configuration Utility menu item. Or choose Start > Run > type "msconfig" without the quotation marks > press Enter. Once in SCU, click the Startup tab. At the very least, you'll see a short list of auto-launching programs and services. Remove the check mark beside any item to disable it. Because SCU keeps track of the programs and services you disable, you can also reinstate them at any time just by putting a check back in the box. So your strategy is to remove all suspect check marks, and reboot. Because it can be difficult to identify what each of the programs listed actually does before you turn it off and reboot, some things you might want running may stop working. But hopefully problems — like the lack of free system resources — will disappear. Make changes and reboot, and continue that process until you get it right.

For more detail on using MSCONFIG, see Using MSCONFIG to Temporarily Disable Background Apps.

Part III, Manually Edit Registry - For Windows 95 Windows 95, Windows NT, and Windows 2000 all lack MSCONFIG. There are third-party utilites for NT and 2000, and that's the route I recommend you take. In Windows 95, I recommend manually editing the System Registry.

There are four locations in the Windows 95 Registry where programs append themselves, and these are the same locations that System Configuration Utility tracks and lets you change in Windows 98/SE and Me. By navigating to these locations in the Registry, you can weed out unwanted program entries:

HKEY_Local_Machine\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run

HKEY_Local_Machine\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\RunServices

HKEY_Users\.Default\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run

HKEY_Current_User\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run

Any changes you make to the Registry will be permanent, so back up your Registry files first. Use the System Registry Editor to check each key, and when you find specific entries in the right pane for programs and services you're sure you don't want running, just delete them. Note: Some entries, including SystemTray, may be required for Windows to run properly, so when in doubt, leave it. Be careful in there.

Testing System Resource Usage
Did you know that a gradual drop in your PC's system resources often precedes a potential fall? In other words, there's a figurative time bomb ticking away in your PC. The longer you use it without restarting, the more likely it will become unstable and possibly crash.

So what are "system resources"? A PC's operating system stores information about many things it is does during a session (the time between when you restart or turn on a PC until you restart it again or turn it off). It counts things, stores small data items, and keeps notes on system events in several internal heaps and stacks. As time goes by, the operating system may run out of space to store this information. Even bigger culprits are the applications and components (like Control Panels or folders) you use in a session. As you exit programs or controls, some aren't entirely cleared from system memory, which uses up big chunks of system resources.

The good news is that there are steps you can take to manage the problem. The first is to check your system resources the next time you start your computer, before you do anything else. (Under Windows, right-click My Computer and choose Properties, then click the Performance tab. Make a note of the percentage number next to the "System Resources" label.) As you work with your computer, especially during longer sessions, periodically re-check the system resources, closing all running folders and applications before you do. I call it the 80-percent/60-percent rule. As soon as Windows starts, it should have at least 80 percent free system resources. And during a session, you should consider restarting your PC if it falls below 60 percent free system resources (with no applications running).

The 80-percent/60-percent rule targets two different areas you can do something about. The 60 percent part of the rule equates more than anything else to the software you choose to run. So, try not to open and close applications repeatedly. Train yourself to periodically check system resources. And when they fall short of 60 percent (50 percent may be more realistic on some PCs), give your PC a fresh start to clear out system memory. One additional rule you should stick to is the 30-percent rule. Close programs, save files, and reboot when Windows 95/98/Me falls below 30 percent free system resources.

The 80 percent part of the rule brings up some facts that may surprise you. Many people have serious system resource issues from the moment they first plug in their new PCs. Some well known computer makers overburden "consumer" PCs with programs that run automatically at start up. Some new PCs I've examined in retail stores have as little as 60 percent available system resources when they start. That's a prescription for disaster — not because you can't run at 60 percent, but because people invariably install applications that add more background applications, and before you know it, you're PC is running on the red line.

If your PC has fewer than 90 percent system resources at startup, your best recourse is to uninstall automatically-launching programs you don't need. I can't help you in choosing which ones to keep or unload, but I can give you some pointers on how to remove them. Under Windows, use the Add/Remove Programs Control Panel to remove programs you're sure you don't want. Many popular programs, such as Quicken and Microsoft Word, add small automatically-launching applets that will be removed if you uninstall the whole program. Next, check your StartUp folder (in the Windows folder) for programs that launch there whenever Windows starts. Move the ones you don't want into a new folder you create called "StartUp (Disabled)." Another place to find what may be unwanted running programs is in the System Tray. That's the panel on the right side Windows Taskbar that contains the clock. Right-click icons there to discover what they are, and look for a way to "disable" ones you don't want. Each program works differently. To take full control of the situation, you may need to read the documentation for each program, check its Help file, look for its options screen, check the software maker's Web site, or call the company and ask them how to fully or partially disable programs that run automatically when Windows starts. It's not impossible to figure these things out; it just takes a little initiative on your part.

Finally, if your PC is absolutely bogged down with programs, you may need local help to fix the problem. Don't live with this problem, get it fixed even if you're not up to the task yourself.