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Free startup manager beats Windows 8.1's built-in tools

The Task Manager utility doesn't always provide the information you need to decide whether your system's auto-start apps really need to load each time your PC boots. No such worries with Autoruns.

Windows 8.1 Task Manager Startup tab
Windows 8.1's Task Manager Startup tab lists your auto-start apps but provides precious little information about them. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Say what you will about Windows, you have to admit the OS has legs. Still, you'd think that after all these years and so many versions, Windows would finally have all the tools users need right out of the box. Not so.

After last week's post on essential Windows 8.1 time-saving tweaks, a reader asked me which version of Windows was my favorite. As tempted as I was to answer "Windows 3.1" -- I still miss Program Manager -- I fessed up to preferring the current version 8.1 over any of its predecessors.

Immediately I started to think about all of the current version's shortcomings. At the top of most Windows users' gripe list is having to wait so long for the OS to start. It doesn't take long for any PC's roster of auto-start apps to get out of hand.

The startup-management tools built into Windows 8.1's Task Manager let you disable or remove programs that start automatically when the system boots. Unfortunately, the information and options available under Task Manager's Startup tab are meager; the screen is shown at the top of this post.

In Task Manager it's not always easy to know which programs should auto-start and which don't need to.That's where utilities such as SysInternals' free Autoruns program come in. If it's information you want about your startup apps, Autoruns will tell you everything you want to know and then some.

Like many of the best free Windows add-ons, Autoruns has been around forever. After trying several other free startup utilities for Windows, I keep coming back to the original. (You'll find a great roundup of free Windows startup tools on Gizmo Richards' Tech Support Alert site.)

Task Manager's startup options keep it simple
To open Task Manager, press the Windows key (if you're on the desktop), type "task manager" (without the quotes), and press Enter. Choose the Startup tab to view a list of the programs that start automatically each time Windows boots. If you don't see tabs at the top of the window, click "More details."

As the screen at the top of this post shows, Task Manager lists each program's name, publisher, status, and startup impact in one of three categories: low, medium, and high. Some entries may indicate that the program's startup impact is "not measured."

To prevent one of your auto-start apps from running when Windows boots, select it and click the Disable button at the bottom of the window. You can also right-click the option and choose either "Open file location," "Search online," or "Properties."

Windows 8.1 Task Manager right-click options on the Startup tab
Right-click an entry in Task Manager's Startup list to view options for opening the program's file location, searching online, or opening its Properties dialog. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

When you choose the search option or open the program's Properties dialog, you'll find more information about the app. Maybe this information will help you determine whether you need the program to auto-start, and maybe it won't.

More importantly, Task Manager's startup list doesn't tell the whole story. For a complete snapshot of your system's startup, install Autoruns and launch it by pressing the Windows key (if you're on the desktop), typing "autoruns.exe," and pressing Enter.

The utility displays all the programs, device drivers, codecs, and processes that run automatically when your system starts. The default Autoruns view is the Everything tab; choose the Logon tab to see only your PC's autostart programs.

Autoruns Logon tab
For a soup-to-nuts view of your PC's startup process, open the Autoruns utility; choose the Logon tab to display only your startup programs. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Select an entry to view information about it at the bottom of the Autoruns window. To prevent a program from auto-starting, uncheck it. Note that you'll need administrator privileges to make the change.

When you right-click a program in Autoruns, you're presented with options for deleting or copying the entry, jumping to the entry or image, searching online, or opening the app's Properties dialog. If you have SysInternals' free Process Explorer installed, you can also open the program's entry in that utility. Unfortunately, when I tested this feature on a Windows 8.1 laptop, it opened the program's Properties dialog rather than its Process Explorer entry.

Autoruns lists 18 categories of startup activity, including scheduled tasks, services, and sidebar gadgets. The Print Monitors and Drivers tabs are handy, but I spend most of my time in the program on the Logon tab.

By default, Autoruns filters out Windows' own startup entries, and for good reason. Disabling the wrong startup process can wreak havoc on your system, up to and including rendering it inoperable. To deactivate this filter, click Options at the top of the Autoruns window, choose Filter Options, and uncheck "Hide Windows entries."

Many Windows users would rather patiently wait for Windows to get going than bother with winnowing their PC's auto-start apps via Task Manager or another program. If you're less forbearing, the few minutes you spend installing and using Autoruns can help shorten your workdays for months or years to come.