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How Do I Set Up a “Headless” Machine?

I have a PC running Windows that monitors our security system. Since it must reside near the security hardware I use Remote Desktop to check status, etc. I would like to configure this pc without monitor, keyboard or mouse (i.e. headless) for security and convenience, but XP refuses to boot without a monitor attached.

A ‘headless’ machine is just a machine with no keyboard, mouse or monitor attached, which you access over the network only.

I’ve never heard of Windows refusing to boot because of no monitor being attached. But there’s at least one other ‘catch’ that could be the problem.

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What‘s common is that the BIOS may fail to boot if a keyboard isn’t attached. (Oddly enough, displaying “Press F1 to continue” – how you’re supposed to do that when it knows you have no keyboard is beyond me.) And it’s easy to miss that error if the monitor is not attached.

On more recent machines and recent BIOS’s there’s often a setting in the BIOS configuration that will allow you to instruct the BIOS to ignore a keyboard not present error. Look for that and set it appropriately.

On one of my older machines that’s not an option, and I actually ended up connecting an old keyboard just to keep it happy and make it work.

But mouse and monitor were not required.

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18 comments on “How Do I Set Up a “Headless” Machine?”

  1. i have both a keyboard and mouse attached, but find without a monitor the bootup just loops.
    I end up shifting the monitor upstairs just to boot the thing.
    Very annoying!
    I have graphics card installed, and also tried using KVM switch in between to try and fool the pc into thinking has a monitor to no success.
    Canals Refine

  2. Actually, windows can detect a monitor, its evident when windows only allows you to use resoultions/colors/refresh rates that your monitor supports, as well as recognition of the type of monitor ( if you go into your graphic settings on windows you can choose your monitor which does have a name, and is installed). When you boot without a monitor and it doesnt allow you to get to windows, my only question is how do you know its not loading correctly? try adding the keyboard and not the monitor and see if it loads, and if not try just getting an old monitor from a cumputer junk yard, ebay, or other shops, and just turn it off and remove the power switch.

  3. The resolutions available are a function of your graphics card, NOT the monitor. Some (very few) cards can detect the monitor type, but most cannot.

  4. “The resolutions available are a function of your graphics card, NOT the monitor. Some (very few) cards can detect the monitor type, but most cannot.”

    Also if you have installed your moniter drivers windows can set max res and refresh based on this info, although this could never cause it to not boot

  5. I’ve had this problem myself, although not for wanting to build a headless machine. The dang thing decapitated itself. And no, it won’t boot.

    I have a PIII 450 with about 400 megs of RAM. A new (to me) machine with a fresh install of XP Pro SP2. A friend of mine installed it at his place. I checked it out and everything was great. However since I’ve brought it home, it can’t “see” that it has a monitor (I have a 15″ Sony Trinitron). It goes through the memory check, it shows the XP splash screen, then my monitor goes on standby. I can restart in safe mode and maneuver around, and did set my video extremely low (640×480, 16 bit colour, no video acceleration) but rebooting is still unsuccessful.

    Interestingly, I cannot go into any advanced features in Display properties under the Monitors tab. It’s all greyed out. I also wanted to go into the Device Manager and remove the existing monitor (I presume the model and make of my friend) and reinstall one, but there is no heading for Monitors there. Neither can I get even one monitor listed in the Add Hardware dialog. It’s bizarre. It’s like my computer refuses to acknowledge monitors exist or that they are necessary. And I don’t know how to get around it.

    Normal reboots fail every time. Well, I suppose that could be unfair. XP might be running absolutely tickedy-boo. I just can’t see it.

  6. I am running an IBM Netvista with a secondary Graphics card as well, I was also having trouble with options being greyed out in Windows and the boot would freeze on the graphics card pos. I turned off legacy devices in setup and made sure that the system was looking for an integrated video display instead of PCI only. This solved my problem. Hope it helps.

  7. Hi! I have the same processor, just the motherboard from Gigabyte, GA6BXE. It also won’t start without a monitor attached to it (wanted to use it as a terminal server…)
    It has the Intel 440bx chipset and a Nvidia TNT2 attached to it. Maybe we can find out what’s going wrong.



  8. Strange. I have a Dell Inspiron 8100 and is unable to read anything on the screen for more than 10 seconds. Windows XP SP2 boots allright but I have to attach a second monitor to the laptop to see anything. As long as that second monitor is there everything is fine. Remove it and you see mainly a blank LCD. Help!

  9. I have run into the same issue. I have a computer thats just network storage and a web/FTP server running windows XP. The only things plugged into it are the power and the network cable, all work on the computer is doen via remote desktop. Whenever I need to reboot it windows never finishes booting, yet if I plug a monitor in it boots fine. I got brave one day and plugged a monitor in while the system was running after I tried to boot without one just to see what was going on and there was a “OUT OF RANGE” error on the screen. Hit the reset switch and it booted up fine. The computer refuses to boot without a monitor attached to it. Rolling around on the floor after every time I want to reboot the system isnt much fun.

    Been thinking about buying a KVM but everyone I know with one complains about how they make the screen fuzzy.

  10. I had a similar problem, where a system fails to boot without a monitor. On connecting a monitor I found the machine waiting at the Video BIOS output. Changing the video card from a NVidia Geforce to a 3dfx Voodoo PCI that was sitting about solved it. Maybe it’s down to the video card manufacturers whether they check for a monitor or not!

  11. “The resolutions available are a function of your graphics card, NOT the monitor. Some (very few) cards can detect the monitor type, but most cannot.”

    Nearly every card detects the monitor type by using DDC. This works over DVI and VGA. Both the graphics card and the monitor have to support it. However, at least the vintage S3 can detect the monitor’s specification and therefore exclude inappropriate scanmodes. If no monitor is attached, the graphics card will stick to the last used resolution.

    Newer graphics cards will do kind of plug’n’play with DVI devices. Reconnecting the display will yield the typical Windows plug’n’play “bling-bling” sound, and adjusts the resolution accordingly.

    PS: Why do I need to turn on JS in order to post?

  12. I have the same problem and have no monitor to connect.

    I do see a link for how to stop COM port detection, but the link is not working.

    Can anybody either post instructions or a new link where these instructions may be available.

  13. Well, I can boot without a monitor, but running a remote administration session to the XP machine gives only 800×600 resolution. It seems impossible to change this. The monitor I’m running on the other end definitively can display a higher resolution.
    Sigh… Do I really need to put a monitor in the closet just to be able to change the screen resolution.

  14. I can boot without monitor or keyboard (I have an old machine acting as a file server & print server that I VNC to) – when booting it comes up ‘Keyboard error’, goes on to a summary of memory and drives that invites me to ‘press any key to continue’ (?) then after 30 seconds carries on booting anyway. There’s nothing in the BIOS to switch off the keyboard requirement, so I suppose there’s an inbuilt timeout – it’s ‘Phoenix BIOS’ by the way.


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