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Using MSCONFIG to Temporarily Disable Background Apps

System Configuration Utility is one of the essential tools for maintaining your PC's tip-top performance and operation. Here's how to use it.

By Scot Finnie

There are lots of reasons to temporarily disable background applications on your PC. For example, prior to running a major software change, such as a Windows upgrade, you should disable antivirus applications. If you're having a software conflict, disabling background apps one at a time can help you figure out the culprit. But how do you do it? Several of newsletter readers, including Ed Morgan, asked me that question, and Roger Hutflesz helped to answer it.

There's a utility in Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, Windows Me, and Windows XP called System Configuration Utility (SCU), more commonly known as MSCONFIG, which refers to the program's filename: MSCONFIG.EXE. This utility makes it easy to temporarily disable all or some of the programs that launch automaticaly when Windows starts. (System Configuration Utility is not available under Windows 95, NT, or 2000, although there are third-party utilities that purportedly handle the chore.)

To temporarily disable all background applications and some device drivers in Windows 98, open System Configuration Utility by choosing Start > Run and then type "msconfig" without the quotation marks and press Enter. On the General tab, click to add the radio button beside "Selective startup." To be utterly certain of disabling all start up programs, remove all the check marks in the Selective Startup area. It is possible that needed device drivers will be disabled by eliminating CONFIG.SYS or AUTOEXEC.BAT. There are also possible consequences from disabling the processing of SYSTEM.INI and WIN.INI. Worse case scenario is that you could wind up starting in Safe Mode, in which case you would launch MSCONFIG again and revert the settings to the way you found them. Truth now, SYSTEM.INI, WIN.INI, CONFIG.SYS, and AUTOEXEC.BAT do little any more that critically affects Windows operation.

On the other hand, you might just want to start by disabling the "Load startup group items" seting. (In Windows XP, also remove the check mark beside "Load System Services." This one change is likely to have the biggest effect in turning off background applications running under Windows, and it's also unlikely to cause any boot problems. Note that this setting does far more than remove the programs found on the Start Menu > Programs > StartUp menu. It also disables Windows services that are loaded from the System Registry. Once you've made up your mind, click the OK button and say Yes to the prompt asking whether you want to reboot.

The changes you make in SCU following this message stay in effect until you manually change them back by reversing the steps above. That's a good thing, since installing a major software update — including a Windows upgrade — usually requires a reboot as part of the install process. But don't forget to go back into SCU and revert to the original condition by clicking the "Normal startup" option on SCU's General tab.

The Startup Tab: Truly Selective
In a way, the "selective" startup in strangely named. What it really does is disable all or many of your auto-loading services. To selectively disable services and programs, click MSCONFIG's Startup tab. There you'll find a listing of the individual programs, system services, and in some case device drivers or programs that support devices. Notice that in this window, you can stretch MSCONFIG's window borders so you can look at all the many things running on your system at once.

Anything you change in this part of MSCONFIG can be changed back. So the trick is, don't make a big bunch of changes at once. If your goal is to free up system resources, try to identify programs you don't really care about. A lot of times these are utilities or little gew-gaws that came preinstalled on your machine. Junky stuff, sometimes. Start by eliminating the four or five items you're most sure of, then click OK and reboot. If you're trying to narrow down a software conflict of some sort, try disabling only the program — again the one you think that's the most likely culprit. Reboot your computer. Did the problem go away? Whatever you're doing, try to be methodical about it. Trial and error is the order of the day. But keep track of the changes you make.

For other ways to remove background applications, consult Best Of's Dump Unwanted Automatically-Launching Apps and Services. See also: PC Makers: Lose the Junky Software.