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 understand much of what is happening at startup and make a few decisions.
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There simply is no single answer. There is no “minimum set” of startup programs that I can 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 to manage my startup.
Task Manager Startup
The first place to turn to1 is the Startup 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 I see 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 is not what’s on my list, but how to evaluate what’s on yours.
Evaluating startup entries
For each entry in the list, ask yourself:
Is this something I use? If not, consider uninstalling the software completely rather than just worrying about the Startup entry.
Is this something that needs to run at startup? 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 log in.
In cases where it isn’t 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 startup, 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:
- 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 allows the application to make additional adjustments, if any are required.
If that option is 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 click on Disable.
If you decide you need the startup entry later, you can return to the list, right-click on it again, and click on Enable.
Needless to say, since doing this affects startup behavior, you have to reboot to implement the change.
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 are beyond the scope of this article.
Your anti-malware or security software may have startup entries. Since we’re talking about security software, be careful what you choose to disable or 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 it reset later, after you’ve run it manually or (more commonly) accepted an update.
Unless the program is truly expendable, (at which point I consider uninstalling it completely), I 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 totally understand that. The problem is that most of these startup items are minor offenders in the big picture. Some 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 they perform could be designed 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 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.