Near-certain ways to improve PC startup times

Fred Langa

Four free tools offer safe and certain ways to pare your boot times to the minimum.

The process takes a little time and effort, but if you follow the steps outlined here, better boot times are all but guaranteed!

PC startup times are clearly a hot-button issue for many Windows Secrets readers. In the July 12 Top Story, “House Call 2012: One family, four PCs,” a passing mention of a semi-automated, boot-time improvement tool brought a flood of e-mail that continues to this day.

Using that tool — Soluto (free; site) — I trimmed the boot time of one House Call PC by 25 percent. But Soluto is not a panacea, and it has too many serious drawbacks to merit a general recommendation for routine use.

In fact, Soluto requires so many caveats that I devoted the entire Aug. 16 LangaList Plus column to discussing Soluto’s pros and cons. I also showed how to use it — when it does make sense to do so.

But that raises a question: If not Soluto, then what’s the best general-purpose way to optimize boot times?

The solution isn’t automated, but it is tried and true. It’s also relatively easy, though it will take some time.

In this article, I’ll show you how to analyze and optimize your PC’s startup, using any of four different startup editors — all free. As Soluto does somewhat automatically, you’ll be manually selecting which apps are loaded when Windows boots. (The fewer the apps loaded at startup, the faster the boot time.)

These editors differ in complexity and power, but all use the same basic step-by-step process. Because of that commonality, I suggest you read this article through to the end before doing anything to your PC. That way, you’ll have a complete overview of the options available, and you can select the right tool for your needs and abilities.

First steps for safety and reliability

As always, before making significant changes to the Windows system, start by creating a system image (or at least a complete file backup). Store the new backup somewhere other than the hard drive you’re working on — such as on optical discs or another hard drive. This guarantees you’ll be able to roll back or undo any changes that might unexpectedly muck up your system.

(Need a refresher on system imaging or backups? See the May 12, 2011, Top Story, “Build a complete Windows 7 safety net.”)

Now you’re ready to safely reconfigure Windows’ startup. Start by timing how long your PC takes to boot with its current configuration. This is your baseline, which you’ll use to gauge the benefits of any changes you make. (Removing some apps from the startup folder might have negligible effect on overall boot time but will take more time to load from scratch later on.)

If you want real precision, dig out a stopwatch. But frankly, split-second startup time differences are not going to improve your computing productivity. So it’s fine to stick with any standard clock with a sweep second hand or seconds counter (or even with careful, metered counting — i.e., “one-thousand one, one-thousand two, …”).

A quick and easy change: Edit the Startup folder

All versions of Windows have a Startup folder that might contain shortcuts to software that runs at boot time. I say “might contain” because many programs bypass the Startup folder and instead insert themselves into a lower level of the boot process that’s harder to get at. We’ll deal with those later.

Those exceptionally well-behaved programs that do use the Startup folder are very easy to modify. Open your Startup folder by clicking Start/All Programs/Startup.

My PC’s Startup folder is shown in Figure 1. Yours will undoubtedly be different. As you can see, mine contains shortcuts to the Secunia PSI (site) and What’s my computer doing? (site) utilities. (Want to know why they’re there? See the July 26 Top Story, “Software that updates your other software,” and the Aug. 22 LangaList Plus column, “Apps temporarily — and randomly — freeze.”)

Start menu options

Figure 1. My PC's Startup folder contains just two shortcuts: one to Secunia PSI and the other to What's my computer doing.

Because these are useful programs that I want to run at startup, I’ll leave their shortcuts in the Startup folder.

If your Startup folder has shortcuts to software that doesn’t need to run at startup, simply cut and paste the shortcut elsewhere (such as to your desktop).

Programs whose shortcuts have been moved will no longer run at startup — but you can still launch them manually, whenever you like, by clicking the relocated shortcut.

If you removed anything from your Startup folder, restart your system and re-time Windows startup. If there’s no significant reduction in boot time, simply paste the shortcut(s) back into the Startup folder and things will be back to the way they were before.

Less quick and easy: Using System Configuration

It would be great if all startup items were that easy to edit, but they’re not. To see and alter the rest of a system’s startup items, you need to use a special-purpose startup editor.

You already own at least one editor; it’s built into your current version of Windows. The System Configuration tool is relatively basic, but it works and is always available.

To open System Configuration in all current versions of Windows, simply type msconfig in the Start menu’s text-entry box and press Enter.

When System Configuration opens, select the Startup tab. Figure 2 shows what’s in my Startup list (yours will, naturally, be different).

MSConfig

Figure 2. System Configuration's Startup tab lists all apps automatically loaded during system startup. (Win7's version shown; Vista's and XP's are similar.)

You can drag-adjust the utility’s column widths for ease of reading, and you can click on the column headings to sort (or reverse-sort) the listed items.

Spend some time carefully working through your list of startup items to identify software that you don’t want or need to autorun at startup.

How do you know what’s needed at startup?

Some of System Configuration’s listed startup software will be self-evident. For example, if you see something called “Google Update” or “Java Auto Updater,” there’s little mystery as to what the software is.

On the other hand, some software isn’t so easy to identify by name. In those cases, you can use Google, Bing, or the tool of your choice to search for the name of any mystery software. You can also use specialized software-identification tools such as PC Review’s free Startup Files Database (site).

As you identify each piece of startup software, decide whether it really needs to autorun at startup or not. This is a judgment call.

For example, I don’t need Google Update in my Startup list. That’s because most Google tools (Chrome, etc.) already check for updates when you run them. Having Google Update run at startup is largely redundant.

I already run Secunia PSI at startup (see the July 26 Top Story for more info on Secunia), and it ensures that many other programs on my PC are kept up to date. (With a centralized update tool such as Secunia PSI running, I don’t need additional third-party auto-updaters also running at system startup.)

When you identify software that doesn’t need to autorun at Startup, simply uncheck (deselect) it in the System Configuration Startup list. Unchecked items will not run during subsequent startups — simple as that.

Figure 3 shows that I’ve unchecked Google Update, hpwuSchd (an auto-updater for my HP printer), the Java updater, and three pieces of Kies software (little-used Samsung smartphone-related tools).

Startup app selection

Figure 3. Disabling startup items is simply a matter of clearing their checkboxes.

After you’ve disabled one or more items, reboot and retime your startup again. If it turns out that you disabled something you shouldn’t have, simply rerun msconfig, recheck the box to enable the item, and reboot.

Note! Don’t go nuts and deselect everything. Some items truly belong in your system startup. For example, you want security tools (antivirus, anti-malware, etc.) to be up and running as quickly as possible, so leave them in your startup list. Use common sense and remove only those items that you clearly can do without.

Next stop: Editing the startup Services list

When you’ve cleaned up items in the System Configuration Startup list to your satisfaction, check out the Services tab. There’s more risk in modifying these items — they’re deeper-seated, system-level software services — but there are usually a few items here that are safe to remove from the system-startup process.

Use the same technique you applied to applications: identify each item and make an informed judgment as to whether it needs to be in startup or not. (If you’re not sure about any given service, it’s best to leave it alone.) Deselect unwanted items, reboot Windows, and note the effect on startup time. Also keep an eye out for anything that’s no longer running properly.

Figure 4, for example, shows that I’ve unchecked the auto-updaters for Flash (which I update via Secunia PSI) and the Bing Bar (which I almost never use).

caption here

Figure 4. Some system-level services may be safely removed from startup. Here, I've unchecked the Flash updating service and the Bing Bar.

When you’re done with all your edits, your start times should be lower than your baseline number — perhaps significantly so!

More start-time editing tools and other options

As mentioned at the top, System Configuration is a basic tool. Windows has one more tool built in — the Administrative Tools’ Component Services applet — that offers additional startup-editing options. But it’s a tool aimed at expert users. I’ll cover it, separately, in a future column.

Meanwhile, the following three alternatives offer more ease and/or more options than System Configuration. All are available in free versions and all run on Windows XP, Vista, and Win7.

Piriform’s CCleaner (free and paid versions; site) is often recommended in the Windows Secrets newsletter because of its ability to remove junk files and bogus Registry entries. But it also has a built-in startup editor that offers all-in-one access to more startup-related options than does System Configuration — for example, startup options for Internet Explorer (shown in Figure 5), Scheduled Tasks, and Windows Explorer’s Context Menus.

CCleaner Startup control tool

Figure 5. CCleaner's startup editor gives easy access to system startup items and more.

WinPatrol (free and paid; site) is another multifunction utility, but one that’s geared toward monitoring system changes. It includes an excellent and comprehensive startup editor, shown in Figure 6.

WinPatrol startup controls

Figure 6. WinPatrol's nicely designed startup editor makes it easy to dig into and modify almost all system-startup behaviors.

Perhaps the most powerful startup editor of all is Microsoft’s Sysinternals Autoruns (site), which can be used as a live, online tool (no formal installation required) or as a conventionally downloaded utility. (See Figure 7.)

Sysinternals Autoruns benefits from Microsoft’s inside knowledge of how Windows works. It can reveal more details on autorunning and startup software than any other tool I’m aware of.

Sysinternals Autoruns

Figure 7. Microsoft's Sysinternals Autoruns offers extensive control over all aspects of Windows startup.

Take your pick! Start with System Configuration if you’re not a Windows expert. Make a system backup, and then begin editing your startup software by using the aforementioned steps.

A faster boot might be just minutes away!



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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2012-09-06:

Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.