If Windows won't launch, bypass startup and fix problems in Safe Mode
Even though it’s well into its third decade of life, Windows is far from perfect. One day it’s all plain sailing but the next day your PC may refuse to launch at all. Obviously, there’s usually a good reason – a newly installed program behaving badly, for example – but if you can’t even get Windows to start, fixing problems can be difficult. That’s where Safe Mode comes in.
Safe Mode is a special way to launch Windows that prevents all but the most essential programs from starting. Then, with access to Windows’ armoury of tools restored, the user is able to look for ways to fix whatever problems the PC may be experiencing.
Accessing Windows Safe Mode
There are a couple of ways to access Safe Mode. The simplest method is to restart Windows (or turn on the computer, if you’re starting off) and begin tapping the F8 key soon after the first message appears on screen. Get the timing right and a simple text menu will appear.
Though the precise name and available options depends on the version of Windows, all include a Safe Mode. The menu may also include Safe Mode with Networking and Safe Mode with Command Prompt options.
In all cases the menu can be navigated by pressing the up and down cursor (arrow) keys and pressing Enter to select an option. Choosing the first option, Safe Mode, will launch Windows in a stripped-down state.
However, Safe Mode with Networking is the better choice if you want to access the internet when Windows launches – perhaps to research a problem’s cause.
Safe Mode with Command Prompt, meanwhile, is usually a last resort. It will allow control over the PC using rudimentary text commands that herald from a time before Windows (and for more help with these, see the article titled How to use Command Prompt at www.computeractive.co.uk/2134935).
Starting Safe Mode from Windows
If Windows can launch normally then there is another route to Safe Mode that removes the need to tap F8 after switching on the PC. The technique involves using Microsoft's System Configuration Utility. To launch this, click Start followed by Run, then type msconfig into the Open box and press Enter.
Now, in Windows XP, click to select the BOOT.INI tab of the System Configuration Utility and tick the box labelled /SAFEBOOT. Select either the MINIMAL or NETWORK option and click OK followed by Restart. From now on, Windows will always launch in Safe Mode. When the problems are fixed, launch the System Configuration Utility again and untick the /SAFEBOOT option.
In Windows 7 and Vista, select the Boot tab and tick the 'Safe boot' box. Select either Minimal or Network and click OK followed by Restart. As with XP, these steps need to be reversed to prevent Safe Mode loading on subsequent restarts.
When Safe Mode starts
Launching Windows in Safe Mode allows only software that is essential to the operating system’s functioning to load. As such, most drivers and all normal startup programs will be disabled - this is why Safe Mode is usually a reliable way to access an ailing PC.
Despite this, Safe Mode can take longer to load. And when the Windows Desktop does appear it will look different. The desktop background will be removed, a lower screen resolution is used and the legend ‘Safe Mode’ appears in each corner of the screen.
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