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Dig deeper to find the cause of Windows start-up delays

Use Windows' own tools to determine why your PC seems to take forever to boot.

Who doesn't want their PC to start faster? Even if you've trimmed the list of Windows' start-up apps, as described here in October 2008, you may still find your PC starts too slowly.

A year ago, I wrote about the free Startup Delayer from R2 Studios that lets you adjust how Windows loads your start-up programs. Two useful free tools for trimming your PC's roster of start-up apps are Pirisoft's CCleaner and Microsoft's (formerly SysInternals') AutoRuns. The problem is, you can do massive damage with such registry-editing programs--to the point of making your machine unbootable.

More than one way to start Windows
The first step in rooting out the cause of interminable boots is using the System Configuration utility's "Diagnostic startup" option. Press the Windows key (in XP, the Windows key plus R), type msconfig, and press Enter. Under the General tab, select "Diagnostic startup" and click OK. When you restart Windows, only basic services and devices will be available. With this option selected, Windows should start in just seconds.

Windows Vista System Configuration dialog
Windows' System Configuration utility provides a "Diagnostic startup" option for troubleshooting slow boot times. Microsoft

System Configuration's "Selective startup" option lets you exclude system services and/or start-up items when Windows loads. Microsoft provides more information on these and Vista's other System Configuration options in a Help and How-to article, Using System Configuration. Similar information for XP is available in Microsoft's "System Configuration Utility overview."

If you'd like to get a closer look at your PC's start-up performance, one of Vista's internal monitors breaks down boot speed by application and process. You can view this data in the Event Viewer utility, as Ed Bott describes in "Microsoft's hidden diagnostic tool unlocks Vista start-up secrets."

Try a faster security solution
Sometimes, balky (and bulky) security software is the source of such slowdowns. Not all security software is created equal. Back in 2006, Oli Warner examined What Really Slows Windows Down and pointed the finger squarely at the big-name security programs.

Even though recent releases of antivirus and other security apps are faster and have much smaller footprints, you might be able to shave precious seconds off your daily boot times by switching to a faster security program. For example, in last October's "Security software that won't slow you down," Dwight Silverman of the Houston Chronicle marveled at the speed of Microsoft's free Security Essentials.

In some situations, slow starts go with the territory
It didn't take long for me to figure out that on my Vista PC, the three programs slowing start-ups the most were my security software, automatic-backup service, and virtualization app. In all three cases, I'm willing to live with the slowdown in exchange for the protection the programs afford me.

I'm otherwise happy with the security app. Once it has started, it's fairly unobtrusive, and most importantly, the program has kept the machine malware-free. The backup service is another keeper; it has saved my bacon on more than a few occasions, and like the security program, I'm hardly aware of the utility's near-real-time backups--after it loads, that is.

Since I don't start the machine in a virtual mode, I could set the virtualization program not to run at start-up. However, I'm forever downloading, installing, testing, and uninstalling the programs I review, so it's convenient to enter my PC's sandbox simply by clicking the virtualization app's icon in the taskbar's notification area.

I don't mind putting another 10 or 15 seconds between me and the start of my workday if doing so might save me from having to spend hours later recovering from a PC catastrophe.