BOOT CAMP 335 (20/07/04)




Persistent and often indecipherable error messages and glitches that occur during or soon after booting up your Windows XP computer can be a real pain. These are mostly caused by ‘services’ and configuration settings that load with Windows, which have become corrupted or disabled.


In the main these programs and settings are automatically instigated by Windows system files, including the infamous ‘Registry’, which as regular readers will know is strictly off-limits to novices. Fortunately Windows has a built-in utility that provides access to these files, it’s called Windows System Configuration, known to its friends as ‘msconfig’. This is an extremely powerful troubleshooting tool that can solve all sorts of problems moreover it is very safe and easy to use. Incidentally earlier editions of Windows (98, SE & ME) also have msconfig  -- albeit with slightly different options -- but much of what follows also applies to these versions.


To use msconfig in Windows XP you must be logged on as Administrator, to launch it go to Run on the Start menu and type ‘msconfig’ (without the quotes). The first time you use it in a fault finding session it is a good idea to go straight to the General tab, click ‘Launch System Restore’ and set a Restore Point (see last week’s Boot Camp) so that in the unlikely event anything goes wrong you can return Windows to its previous state.


Once that is done you can set about isolating the fault by a simple, though often lengthy process of elimination. On the General tab, under Selective Startup you will see a list of four items: ‘Process SYSTEM.INI file’, ‘Process WIN.INI file’, ‘Load System Services’ and ‘Load Startup Items’. If you click Selective Startup all four should be checked.


To begin deselect one item at a time, I usually begin with the last one, Load Startup Items as this is where most problems associated with boot up are to be found. Click OK and Windows will request a restart. When Windows reappears you will see a message to the effect that it is in ‘Diagnostic Mode’, click OK and the boot-up will continue, hopefully without the error message or problem materialising. If so you can go to the next step, otherwise go back to msconfig, recheck the deselected item and try another one.


Once you have identified the section where the problem lies you can start localise the fault. Let’s assume that the error message or problem disappears when Load Startup Items is disabled, open msconfig once again re-enable the item then click the Startup tab along the top edge of the msconfig window. You will now see a list of ‘Startup Items’ each with its own check box. If your PC is more than a few months old then the list could be quite long with 20 or more entries.


Most of these Startup items will have been created by programs that you’ve installed on your PC, some of which you want to start with Windows, such as your virus scanner and firewall etc. Others you don’t want or need and there may even be some spyware or adware components surreptitiously downloaded by malicious web sites. Some of the legitimate entries are responsible for ‘control panels’, for peripherals or running programs, accessed via icons in the System Tray next to the clock, which you probably only use once in a blue moon. The point is that most entries in the Startup list  are not needed; they sap your PCs resources and make use of your Internet connection, often without your consent or knowledge so this can be a useful opportunity to thin them out and reclaim control of your computer.


When you get an error message during Windows boot up look down the list for an entry that contains a matching or similar reference. If you find one then uncheck this first, click OK reboot and see if that fixes the problem and this should help you to identify the offending program. You can then take the appropriate action, which will normally be to uninstall, or reinstall the application, update a driver, or visit the manufacturer’s web site to look for a solution. If there is no obvious link between an error message and an entry in the Startup list then you will have to go though the items one by one, unchecking each one in turn.


If the problem isn’t associated with a vital program, such as those associated with your virus scanner, firewall, a device like a CD/DVD writer, video card or a program that you absolutely must load with Windows then you should re-enable them if they prove to be innocent. The rest I would leave unchecked for the time being. If you later receive another error message that is related to an unchecked item then by all means tick the box but if, after the initial fault has been fixed your PC behaves normally you can assume that the item isn’t required and is just wasting space and resources, see also Tip of the Week.


The same basic procedure can be used if the fault lies in one of the other three sections, though generally speaking it is wise to re-enable unchecked items once they have been ruled out. If you manage to successfully resolve the problem you can return msconfig to its previous state by selecting ‘Normal Startup’ on the General tab, though you can safely leave it in Diagnostic mode, but check ‘Don’t show this message again’ box in the reminder that appears every time you start Windows.


Next week – XP Repair Install





Programs that load with Windows, often used to automatically request updates and upgrades using a PC’s Internet connection



Windows initialisation file used to configure such things as fonts, keyboard and language



Windows initialisation file that loads fonts, wallpaper, screensavers, languages and some drivers




It’s not always clear what the items on the Startup list are for and whether or not they’re important, superfluous or possibly even dangerous, like a spyware or adware component. If you are not sure whether to uncheck an entry refer to the very comprehensive list of common Startup items at:

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