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What’s an “Automatic (Delayed start)” Service?

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I have a Lenovo Thinkpad with Win7. In looking at Services (through Computer Management) there are services that are ‘Automatic’ start, and others that are ‘Automatic (Delayed Start)’. What is the difference? Can I speed up Start Up, or regular operation, by changing seldom used services from Automatic to Automatic (Delayed start)?

No.

Or, rather, I wouldn’t; not without knowing one whole heck of a lot more about the specific services we’re talking about and how they’re used by Windows.

You see, services – autostart or not, delayed or not – kinda sorta are Windows. And by tweaking what does and doesn’t start and when, you’re pretty much saying you know what’s good for Windows better than Windows does itself.

Let’s look at just what these things are and why we need them.

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Big caveat: this is of necessity an over-simplification. Operating system design is the product of deep research, high level degrees and incredible complexity. We’ll have none of that here. 🙂

In the beginning

In the beginning1 was DOS.

Now, the term “operating system” actually applied only very loosely to DOS. It was really more a combination of a simple program loader with a file system and a a few administrative utilities.

The important distinction about DOS was that when your program was running nothing else was. When your program wrote to disk, it did so through DOS, but in a way that made DOS more of an extension to the program than some kind of entity of its own.

If you’ve done any programming, you can think of DOS as a convenient collection of subroutines that did helpful things, but not much more.2 It was still a one-program-at-a-time “operating system”.

Loading DOS was, of course, very quick, since not only did it not have all the features and functionality of Windows, it didn’t have to do more than be ready to run programs on command.

DOS begat Windows

Windows began as not much more than a program that ran in DOS. In fact, up through Windows Me, DOS remained the underlying architecture that Windows relied on to perform much of what it did. Oh, DOS might be well-hidden, but in the earliest versions of Windows it was DOS that clearly loaded first and ran a program called “win”, for Windows, after which the graphical user interface appeared.

These versions of Windows, collectively often referred to as “Windows 9x”, were not really true multi-tasking operating systems.

In addition to the operating system responding to application requests to “do things”, much like DOS, a new concept was added: “cooperative multi-tasking”. Windows programs all had to cooperate in a specific way to make Windows appear to be multi-tasking. Essentially, they all had to agree to very carefully take turns doing their work, and then letting another program have at it. At a high enough rate of handoff between programs, the system looked like it was running them all at once.

Of course if any one program became greedy, or hung, then the entire system came to a halt.

Loading Windows 9x, while somewhat slower than loading DOS because it did include more functionality – like that graphical interface – was still pretty snappy by today’s standards.

Windows begat Windows?

Windows ServicesWhile both have the name “Windows”, Windows versions beginning with Windows NT (New Technology) were a completely different beast than what had come before. They were true multi-tasking (and multi-user, as it turns out) operating systems.

So what does “true multi-tasking” mean? It means that the programs don’t have to cooperate. The operating system itself maintained what’s called a “scheduler” (not to be confused with the Task Scheduler application) which controls what program got to use the CPU and for how long, measured in microseconds. The task scheduler would simply allow one program to run for “a bit”, then another, then another, and so on. Programs could legitimately be considered to be running simultaneously.

This allowed the concept of “services” to be born, at least in Windows. They’d been around for a long time in other operating systems like Unix, referred to as “daemons”.

The concept is very simple: the operating system would provide functionality in the form of a program that ran all the time, in the background. When the program you were running needed something, it could make the request of that service program. They could then both go off and continue running simultaneously until the request had been completed.

A good example might be writing to disk. In many cases, there’s no need for the program you run to wait for a disk write to complete. So it could just tell the disk service to “go put this on disk”, and carry on being responsive to you while the service did that whole “write stuff to disk” thing in the background.

But then things got complex. As it evolved Windows delegated a lot of what it does to services that operate in the background. From scanning for malware, to updating Windows, to a raft of other functions, the majority of programs running at any point in time are, in fact, services.

And when you have that many services that all need to start when you boot, it can take a while.

OK, I can wait

Finally we get to answer your question: what’s a delayed start service?

As Windows increased in complexity and functionality, start-up time naturally continued to get longer. One of the things that people realized is that while it’s important for some of the services to be running eventually, they don’t all have to run immediately.

Two concepts build on this:

  • Services that start “manually”. These services don’t start at all until or unless some other program requests functionality that they provide. Never need it? It’s never loaded.
  • Services that start “later”. These services do need to be running for some form of Windows functionality, but they don’t need to be started immediately. Windows instead starts them automatically after all the other services that do need to start right away have started.3

What this does is get you a more responsive machine sooner when you boot. Yes, those other “later” services will still end up starting and perhaps impact performance slightly when they do, but generally the impact is negligible. If nothing else, you get to start using your computer sooner.

If it ain’t broke, please don’t try to fix it

Now, given the definition I’ve just laid out, it’s really tempting to say “Awesome! Let’s see what else we can delay-start to make the machine boot even faster!”.

Don’t. Please, just don’t.

As I’ve said, services really are Windows, and they’re configured to start the way they start for a reason – and usually a good one. Second guessing the operating system’s designers, at least not without a lot more information about what it is you think you’re doing, just isn’t a good idea.

I’ll put it this way: in the worst case you could render your machine unbootable. And nobody wants that.

If you just can’t resist twiddling

I know that the preceding statements will fall on more than a few deaf ears.

For those of you who just can’t help yourselves, I have two recommendations.

One: BACK UP. Seriously, I wasn’t kidding about your ability to damage your Windows configuration. Restoring from a backup image will fix it.

Two: Do some research, and visit Black Viper. He maintains an exhaustive reference of Windows services. “Includes complete explanations of each service and advice on which services you can safely disable”.

But backup first, and often, OK?

Footnotes & references

1: Of the modern PC era – no need to tell me that DOS wasn’t the first OS. 🙂

2: Yes, there were assorted extensions and TSRs (“Terminate and Stay Resident” programs) and whatnot that blurred the lines, but I’m focussing on the fundamentals here.

3: Actually my understanding is that it’s after the required services have started, plus a delay. The delay is, naturally, configured somewhere in the registry, and I believe defaults to two minutes. But don’t quote me.

15 comments on “What’s an “Automatic (Delayed start)” Service?”

  1. This might surprise some of the Windows 8x detractors, but if you want a system to start up fast, upgrade to Windows 8x. My computer went from taking about 10-12 minutes to get to the point where I could use it to starting up in about 2 minutes from a cold start. It seems like they finally got the startup process perfected.

    • I agree. I find Windows 8 to be sleek and powerful. I even put it on an old Acer that originally came with Vista and it works better than it did when it was new.

  2. First, I agree about Windows 8 being the fastest starting (and shutting down) OS ever. I find it very stable too, but due to unwarranted propaganda against it, usually by people who do not understand it, it is difficult to convince others. As for using delayed start, I have found no reason yet to use it in Win 8, but on my older XP machines I use a utility called WinPatrol that offers a delayed start feature. This has come in very handy when for some reason a tray icon fails to show or 2 startup programs or services are fighting with each other at the same time causing the hour glass to hang. Like Leo says, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but delayed start could be very handy in some circumstances.

  3. Is there any way to reset all the Microsoft services to the original “default” mode? Afraid I have played with services component before reading this article?

  4. While everything you say is true of Windows services, many third party applications install themselves as services and then fight for CPU time on bootup.
    Adobe, anti-virus programs, Skype, SQL, Bonjour, to name but a few. A delayed start on some of these these might be of benefit, subject to the cautions expressed. I’m certain that while the Windows services are designed to play together more or less nicely, the same is not necessarily true of the many combinations of third party programs and services that exist in the wild.

    • Disabling 3rd party programs which start up with your system is one way I speed up the startup process. Often these services aren’t helpful. I disable all Apple (Bonjour), Adobe, Skype and any programs I don’t run frequently. Of course I allow AV, screen capture software and any programs that I may need to start at the touch of a shortcut key sequence. If you are a regular Skype user, you would want to have Skype start up with your computer so people can Skype you. Since I have Skype on my phone, I don’t always need it running on my computer. So what to disable is a very personalized decision where you have to decide what’s right for you.

  5. It’s very irritating that all third party programs load on at Windows startup by default. One has to search in all possible places of UI for deselcting that option(?). I consider it as an intrusion in my system. Some gentle versions politely show it during installation while the rogues like messengers hide it. Any chance that default loading on statup be made illegal?

      • Certainly if it were made illegal in the US, then the practice would be effectively deterred for a large portion of the internet, at least for larger organizations that stand to lose a lot when they break the law. Of course, people who distribute malware would probably ignore such regulations.

        Recently, a law took effect in Canada that levy heft fines against companies who send email to people that wasn’t explicitly requested (and they have to retain documentation of that explicit request). However, that law will likely have little effect on spam since most spam doesn’t come from legitimate business entities. The legitimate businesses will follow the law, and the spammers (who don’t live in Canada) will continue to purvey their (lack of) wares.

        A US law against automatic loading of software probably would make a real difference, though, because most of the stuff that loads up automatically is actually from legitimate companies (Apple, Adobe, etc), as opposed to spam which can originate from anywhere. But I think such a law is unlikely to happen any time soon.

  6. I have a major sized multi-boot setup, that just came to be as each O/s came about from win98, The Hardware and ‘Box’ has changed several times, but The best so far that I will have to say is Windows 8.1,

  7. About Windows 7 and 8.1. Have both. Have found that the less software you install on your machines, the quicker they start; i.e., they start really fast when first purchased. Been using computers for 30 years; finally came to the conclusion that if the computer isn’t “broken,” don’t fix it!!! I had computer insurance left, but I didn’t want a tech to tell me to reinstall everything, because things worked pretty well……….I usually fix my own machines.

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