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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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.
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.
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.