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Identify mystery start-up apps in XP and Vista

Unless you built your PC yourself, there are probably a bunch of programs installed on your system that start with Windows, though what they do--and whether they really need to start with Windows--is anybody's guess.

I get impatient waiting for my Vista PC to boot up. I could just leave the machine in sleep mode, but going long stretches without rebooting can cause problems of its own.

Instead of relying on sleep mode to get my workday started faster, I make it a habit to open Windows' list of start-up apps on a regular basis to determine whether any rogue programs have slipped in, slowing my start-ups unnecessarily. It seems that every time I check the list, some entry catches me by surprise.

To view your start-up apps in XP, click Start > Run, type msconfig.exe, press Enter, and click the Startup tab. You can follow these steps to open the System Configuration utilities' Startup tab in Vista as well, but I recommend you use Windows Defender's Software Explorer instead. To open Software Explorer, press the Windows key, type windows defender, and press Enter. Then click Tools > Software Explorer, and choose Startup Programs on the Category drop-down menu.

On my Vista laptop, Microsoft dominates the list with nine entries. HP, the machine's vendor, is next with six start-up programs, though they're listed in five different entries, one of which isn't labeled as belonging to HP but rather as "Publisher Not Identified." The file name is "HPHCScheduler.exe" and it's stored in an HP folder, so it's not hard to guess who's responsible for it.

Microsoft Windows Vista Software Explorer list of start-up programs
Select entries in Vista's Software Explorer to get more information about your start-up apps. Microsoft

As I worked my way through the Microsoft section of the start-up list on my Vista laptop, two entries caught my eye: Microsoft Media Center Tray Applet and Microsoft Userinit Logon Application. (The other Microsoft start-up apps were OneNote, Windows Explorer, Windows Defender, and four Rundll32 host processes--all either required by Windows or chosen explicitly by me to start automatically.)

I searched the name of the Media Center Tray Applet--ehtray.exe--and learned that it is used for viewing TV and other video. I also found out that it isn't essential and will start automatically when Media Center requires it, so the program doesn't really belong in my start-up list.

A similar search of the file name userinit.exe for the Userinit Logon Application made it clear that this is an essential Windows file that needs to start automatically. The program manages the boot sequence.

Figuring out what to do with the HP programs was tougher. The first two entries were for CyberLink's QuickPlay, a media player with functions similar to Windows' own Media Player, and Quick Launch Buttons, which activate the keyboard's multimedia controls.

HPHC_Scheduler.exe wasn't identified as an HP program in Software Explorer's start-up list, but it's associated with the HP Health Check Scheduler, the company's own built-in diagnostic utility. Likewise, the "hpwuSched Application" (which checks for updates from the company) and two HP Wireless Assistant utilities are worth retaining as auto-start apps.

After you've worked through your list of start-up apps, check your currently running processes. In Software Explorer, select Currently Running Programs on the Category drop-down menu. In XP, you can view the programs running on your PC by pressing Ctrl-Shift-Esc or Ctrl-Alt-Delete to open Task Manager and then clicking the Processes tab (not the Applications tab).

The entry that caught my eye on this list was "HpqToaster.exe." Like HPHC_Scheduler.exe, the program was not identified as an HP app but was stored in an HP folder. I searched the Internet for an explanation of this file but found out only that it may be a "gateway" utility used by other HP programs.

There's a good chance that "HpqToaster.exe" serves a valuable purpose and poses no risk to the security of my system, but I'll never know for sure. I don't understand why hardware and software vendors make it so difficult for their customers to figure out exactly what programs are running on their systems, and why they sometimes--or always--run without you starting them.

In researching these mystery executable files, I saw repeated references to problems related to them, such as security vulnerabilities with HP's Quick Launch Buttons. On the long list of Windows enhancements I'd like to see is a file-name library that describes what each executable file does and why you do--or don't--need it.