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What Windows Startup Programs Do I Need?

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How do I determine what Windows startup programs I absolutely need to load? Do I really need all of my protection programs like virus and spyware to load at start-up?

Ultimately this is an unanswerable question.

For many Windows startup programs the answer will be “I don’t know”.

But there are definitely steps you can take to at least understand much of what is happening at startup, and perhaps even make a few decisions based on that.

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Everyone’s different

There simply is no single answer. There is no “minimum set” of startup programs that I could list here that would work for everyone. Every machine is different, everyone has different software installed, and everyone has different ideas of what is and is not important.

Instead I’ll give you an overview of the steps I take when managing my startup.

Task Manager Startup

The first place to turn to1 the Start up tab in Task Manager. Right click on the taskbar clock, click on Task Manager, click on More details, if present, and then click on the Startup tab. (In prior versions of Windows you can run the “msconfig” utility for a similar list.)

For example, here’s an image of what it shows me when I run it  on my primary Windows 10 Pro system.

Task Manager's Startup tab on my machine.
Task Manager’s Startup tab on my machine. (Click for a larger image.)

Yes, I’m a “power user” and have many, many entries in my Startup. You may have fewer, or perhaps even more. The key here is not what’s in my list, but rather how to evaluate what’s in yours.

Evaluating startup entries

For each entry in the list ask yourself:

Is this something I actually use? If not, consider uninstalling the software completely rather than just worrying about the Startup entry.

Is this something that actually needs to run at start up? You may not be able to answer this question right away, and that’s OK. Sometimes, however, the answer might be more obvious than you think. For example, in my case Dell Mobile Connect is something that came with my machine that I never use. It’s not something I want to uninstall completely (I might use it some day), but there’s a startup entry for it anyway whether I use it or not.

In many cases the answer is a clear “yes”. Dropbox or Macrium Reflect, for example, are tools that I installed, and indeed are things I want running from the moment I login.

In cases where it’s not clear you might take a few moments to research the tool — particularly if Task Manager indicates that the “Startup impact” is “high”. Right click on the item and you’ll find a “Search online” option that is a good place to start.

AcroTray is an example of a tool that’s been around for ages that most people feel doesn’t need to run at start up, if ever. (It’s associated with Adobe Acrobat Reader.) Most research will clearly tell you that it can be safely disabled.

If you’re still not sure about an item, two things to note:

  • You can safely leave it alone. (As I’ll discuss below, this is typically my recommendation.)
  • Generally items in the Task Manager Startup list can be disabled without serious problem. At worst some program or feature will fail to work, and you can return to the Startup list and re-enable it.

Disabling startup entries

Before you disable anything in the Startup tab, check the options for the associated application. Very often the application itself will have a “start with Windows”, or “run on sign in” option that you can safely turn off without needing to resort to Task Manager’s list. This is the preferred way, as it will allow the application to make additional adjustments, if any are required.

If that option’s not available, then it’s easy to disable items in Task Manager.

You can see that about half of the entries in my startup list are already disabled. To disable an item just right click on it, and then click on Disable.

Disabling an item in Task Manager Startup
Disabling an item in Task Manager Startup

If you later decide that you need the startup entry after all, you can return to the list, right click on it again, and click on Enable to turn it back on again.

Needless to say since doing this affects startup behavior, you’ll want to reboot to have the change actually do anything.

Where’s the anti-malware?

One thing you won’t find in my list is anti-malware. That’s because I rely on Windows Defender in Windows 10, and it runs as a Windows Service. Windows Services are treated differently than Startup items and beyond the scope of this article.

Your anti-malware or security software may very well have startup entries. Since we’re talking about security software, be careful in what you choose to delete. At a minimum research any security related items you find to determine whether it’s safe to disable them.

When in doubt, don’t.

Some items are persistent

One annoyance I’ve encountered is that some programs are extremely persistent. You disable an entry only to find that it’s reset later when you run it manually or more commonly when you take an update.

Unless the program is truly expendable, (at which point I might be motivated to uninstall it completely), I’ll typically leave the startup item in place if it’s going to be that persistent.

Is all this worth it?

In my honest opinion: no.

In practice this can be a lot of effort for very little return unless you’re experiencing a serious problem and are trying to diagnose a solution.

It’s very tempting to want to have a “lean and clean” machine, and I can totally understand that. The problem is that most of these startup items are minor offenders in the big picture. Sure, some might take up visible space in the notification area, but that’s about as bad as it gets. Most use very little memory and almost no CPU. Most are nearly benign.

That’s not to say that many might be totally unnecessary, because in concept many – if not most – are. The services that they perform could be designed completely differently so as not to require software to be resident all the time. The vendors have chosen to write their software this way. It’s annoying, and it’s unnecessary.

But it is what it is.

In general, I don’t think it’s worth the time and effort to try and pare it down beyond the obvious.

Footnotes

1: The prior version of this article discussed using autoruns, a tool from Microsoft SysInternals that goes into much greater detail — and complexity. The Startup list in Task Manager is more than sufficient for our purposes these days.

Footnotes & references

2: Though I disagree with the technique of using a startup, run-all-the time program for this type of functionality. A periodic task that runs perhaps only once a day at some other random time might be more appropriate.

15 comments on “What Windows Startup Programs Do I Need?”

  1. —–BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE—–
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    Indeed, I recommend Black Viper’s site frequently. It can
    get a little technical, but it’s a great resource.

    Leo

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  2. Good article I thought. Alas as an old age pensioner I just use the start up in CCleaner. While this might not be perfect it does in general speed up computer. Also is very simple and in my opinion is a good alternative for the average user.

  3. Soluto is a useful free program for monitoring start up programs.
    It lists Removable Apps, Potentially Removable, Required and Removed. It lists the start up times for each application and gives the options and recommendations for delaying or removing from boot . I have knocked nearly 2 min of my start up times by using it. It also lists frustrations caused by program failures and other useful system information. It is simple and delightfully clear.

    • Yes, I use Soluto and it is an excellent option. It’s safe… if you make a mistake you can undo it easily. The ‘delay’ option is also fantastic.

      • I was looking for a program to organize my start up boot. I downloaded Soluto but I cannot find any information of controlling start up. It seem to be more related to monitoring a network. Did I download the wrong thing? where can I get the correct version?

  4. I have no problem in using this program for years. but why wasn’t it made to be easier to use? The program does not install, you have to extract it to a folder of your choice, no mention of it being a portable version. And you are required to delete things one at a time. There should be an auto delete of all yellow items. The other items are up to you and a Google search.

  5. The Autoruns menu includes Image Hijacks, on which I find 10 entries. Doing some research indicates that I have problems here. Since these are Registry entries, is it safe simply to delete them? One site 6 years old mentioned a registry called ” Image File Execution Options” and suggests these entries are to be removed using the Image Hijack tool . For instance, one entry, HKLM\Software\Wow6432Node\Microsoft\Command Processor\Autorun, actually checking it, Autorun does not exist in the tree. There are 5 entries, none of them Autorun.

    Any comments?

  6. If you have Win Patrol set correctly, it will warn you when I program wants to be added to startup, and gives the option to accept or reject the change.

  7. A simpler way is to click on the Start (Windows-7,Vista and XP) then oin Run, or in the loop of Windows-8/8.1 and write
    MSCONFIG then
    Then choose the tab “Startup”
    and remove the check mark on what you do not need to start with Windows. It will remain available to use but only WHEN YOU NEED IT.

  8. Ccleaner now has a “start up” select option under tools. Fairly easy for the home user ..just un-select a few at a time if not sure and check for results.
    Keeping start ups to a minimum has given many computers I have check a new boost in performance. …
    Make sure only one virus scanner is running at a time and get rid of any search programs other than Google. …hijacked search and home pages is more prevalent than viruses these days and has deleterious results to speed.

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