Troubleshooting with Windows Safe Mode or Clean Boot

(For Geeks Only)
By Joe Callison
23 December 2020

When looking for solutions to problems using Windows, you will sometimes read advice to run in “safe mode” or run after a “clean boot”. They both do similar things but there are some differences that can make one more appropriate than the other for specific situations.  

Safe Mode
Windows Safe Mode is the more extreme of the two methods of starting with limited processes and services. It runs the minimum of Windows core processes and without third party video and audio drivers or software that is loaded automatically during normal startup. The low-resolution display in some versions of Windows can be challenging but many programs can still be used. If the computer can boot to Safe Mode, then the core Windows processes are not likely the area of trouble and the focus should be on drivers or other software installed. Often just booting to Safe Mode and then restarting Windows normally will fix Windows problems. I sometimes use Safe Mode with networking to run antivirus or antimalware scans because they can be more effective at removing the most persistent infections. The networking option allows the software to check for the latest updates before running the scan. You can also download and install additional software while in Safe Mode with networking. If System Restore is not able to run to completion in a normal startup it may be able to in Safe Mode.

For Windows 7 and prior versions, you could use the function key F8 during startup to enter the Safe Mode. There are multiple methods of getting to the Safe Mode in Windows 10. If your computer can boot at least to the sign-in screen, you can click the power icon and hold the shift key down when selecting restart. The Windows recovery environment will be booted if it is intact on your startup drive, and you can use the advanced options in the troubleshooting area to get to the Startup Settings. After clicking the Restart button, Safe Mode options can be selected either from a list or by number depending on the version of Windows. If you can’t get to the sign-in screen, then three failed startup attempts will normally bring up the Windows recovery environment if it is intact. If not, then you will have to use Windows installation media or bootable recovery media on a disk or USB drive that contains the Windows recovery environment. You may need to press a designated key for your particular computer system (usually briefly displayed at the beginning of the boot process) to access the boot options, or on some systems you may even need to enter the bios or UEFI settings, to change the boot device order to boot from the CD/DVD drive or a bootable USB device first.

Clean Boot
Windows clean boot loads more processes and services than Safe Mode does. It is not a mode you can select but is something that can be configured using the System Configuration app named MSConfig. It is useful for finding conflicts preventing apps, programs, or updates from running or installing. Entering msconfig in the “Type here to search” box is the easiest way to find the app. Open the app and In the Services tab, click the Hide all Microsoft services box and then click the Disable all button which will uncheck all of the non-Microsoft services. Click the Apply button and then go to the Startup tab which will have a link redirecting you to its new location in Task Manager. Click and disable each of the startup items listed, close Task Manager, and then click OK in the System Configuration app. Restarting will load Windows device drivers and services only. If Windows appears to be stable and the problem app, program or update works with the clean boot, then the next step for troubleshooting would be to go back to MSConfig and try enabling only a subset of the disabled services to see if the problem returns after restarting. Instead of enabling one service at a time and restarting, doing it in groups should be quicker. If a problem is not found in any of the services, then use the same process for enabling the items in the Startup tab of Task Manager. In either case, any offending service or startup item can be identified and left disabled for further investigation.

Posted by Joe Callison

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