Is your Windows machine freezing, crashing, or just not up to snuff? It could be a bad application, a quirky driver, or even a faulty piece of hardware.
One way to get to the bottom of the problem in a Windows machine is to start the operating system in Safe Mode, which launches Windows in a clean, pristine, barebones fashion by preventing certain drivers and other items from loading. If Windows works happily in Safe Mode, it typically means the fault lies within a certain driver, service, or other plugin that would otherwise load automatically.
The steps offered here assume that you can at least boot into Windows and access the Safe Mode feature.
How to Start Windows 10 in Safe Mode
In the search field at the bottom of your screen, type the command msconfig. At the top of the search results, click System Configuration or just press Enter.
Alternatively, click the Start button, scroll down the apps list and open the folder for Windows Administrative Tools. Click the shortcut for System Configuration.
In the System Configuration window that appears, your current setting is most likely Normal Startup or Selective Startup. Click the second option for Diagnostic startup, which loads only basic drivers and services.
Note that the drivers and services for audio, networking, and certain other functions won’t load with this option, so you won’t be able to use or test those features. Click OK. At the System Configuration message, click the Restart button to immediately reboot your computer.
After your PC restarts, sign back into Windows and try to reproduce the problem you were experiencing. Whether or not the trouble persists, you’ll still need to perform further testing to narrow it down. Open the System Configuration tool again. Click the Boot tab. Select the checkbox for Safe boot.
Under Safe Boot are four different options: Minimal, Alternate shell, Active Directory Repair, and Network.
- Minimal loads only the very minimum drivers necessary for Windows to work but still lands you at the GUI so you can navigate using your mouse.
- Alternate shell starts Safe Mode with the command prompt, so for this one you’ll need to know how to load Windows without the GUI available.
- Active Directory Repair is an option for computers in an enterprise environment that connect to Microsoft’s Active Directory.
- Network loads the necessary network drivers in the Windows GUI so you can access and test network connectivity.
Among these, Minimal and Network are probably the most useful options for the average person troubleshooting a problem. Select Minimal, reboot, and try to reproduce the problem. Do the same with Network.
If the problem goes away, you can always open System Configuration again and try booting into Normal mode and see if the trouble is really gone. Otherwise, some of the other options in the Boot section of System Configuration can be helpful. No GUI, Boot log, Base video, and OS boot information can be used with Diagnostic startup or Safe boot. You can enable any or all of these four options.
No GUI Boot
No GUI boot simply disables the animated dots during startup, so it’s not particularly useful for troubleshooting.
Boot log generates a special text file that shows you which drivers were loaded and not loaded during startup, so this is a helpful option for troubleshooting a problem. Enable Boot log and restart your computer. Sign into Windows. Launch File Explorer and open the following file: C:\Windows\ntbtlog.txt. Check the file for the status on each driver.
Base video loads the drivers for standard VGA graphics instead of the drivers for your specific video card or hardware. As such, this option is a useful way to troubleshoot problems with your graphic display.
OS Boot Information
OS boot information displays a list of drivers and other information as your computer starts up. But it works only in Windows 7, not Windows 10 or 8.1.
Disable Suspected Troublemakers
Beyond using the built-in Safe Mode options, you can check to see which services and startup programs are loading and disable any you believe are causing trouble. At the System Configuration window, click the Services tab. You’ll likely see a lot of services here, many of which are difficult to decipher. So you’re best leaving most of them alone. But if you spot an easily identifiable service listed as running, disabling it is another option available for troubleshooting a problem.
At this point, if you can narrow down the problem to a specific driver or service, you can run a Google or Bing search for that item to see if other people are bumping into trouble with it and learn how they may have resolved the issue.
Quick Boot Into Safe Mode in Windows 10 (or 8.1)
If you’re running Windows 10 or 8.1, you have other options for booting into Safe Mode. In Windows 10, click the Start button > Settings > Update & security > Recovery. In the Advanced Startup section, click the button to Restart now.
If you still have Windows 8.1, launch the Charms bar, then click the Settings charm > Change PC Settings > Update & recovery > Recovery. In the Advanced Startup section, click the button to Restart now.
From this point in both Windows 10 and 8.1, your screen will display a blue menu. Choose Troubleshoot > Advanced options > Startup Settings > Restart. At the next Startup Settings screen, press one of the keys from 1 through 9 to select a specific startup type—for example, 1 to Enable debugging, 4 to Enable Safe Mode, or 5 to Enable Safe Mode with Networking. Then click the Restart button.
Your PC reboots with the startup type you selected. You can now once again try to reproduce the problem you’ve been experiencing in Windows to see if you can narrow it down and hopefully resolve it.