BOOT CAMP 348 (19/10/04)


Windows XP Safe Mode part 1


The next two episodes of Boot Camp are by way of a postscript to the recent series of articles on Windows XP troubleshooting and concern an extremely useful tool that can help to diagnose a range of problems that occur during and after boot-up.


Safe Mode is a utility that lets Windows PC users boot an unresponsive or cranky PC into a basic configuration, by-passing potentially troublesome start-up files, drivers, programs, viruses and other nasties that load automatically with Windows, which can cause a computer to crash, lockup or slow down. Once in Safe Mode you can then set about isolating the fault as it gives you full access to your disc drives and important Windows settings.


Incidentally, Safe Mode is not new to XP and it first appeared in Windows 95. The XP version is a little more sophisticated but the basic principles are the same. If you are using Windows 9x (95, 98, SE or ME) then you might like to have a look at Boot Camp 82.


To enter XP’s Safe Mode re-boot your PC and repeatedly press the F8 key, don’t give up if it doesn’t work first time, it can take a couple of attempts on some PCs. Depending on how your machine has been set up you may first see a list of ‘Boot Devices’ (floppy disc, hard drive or CD/DVD drive), select your primary hard drive and press Enter. If you have multiple operating systems you will then be presented with another list called ‘OS Choices’ where you select your version of Windows XP. The main Safe Mode menu screen should now appear. It’s a fairly long list and we are mainly interested in just two items but for the sake of completeness we’ll start with a quick run through what each one does.


The first one ‘Safe Mode (SAFEBOOT_OPTION=Minimal)’ is the one we’ll be concentrating on in these articles, so more about that in a moment. Option 2, ‘Safe Mode with Networking’, is essentially the same as option 1but it also loads the drivers and components necessary for network access. Option 3 ‘Safe Mode with Command Prompt’ boots the PC into XP’s basic DOS mode. 


‘Enable VGA Mode’ is the other option worth knowing about if you are having problems with your display adaptor or monitor. In this case Windows loads normally but the display is set to 640 x 480 resolution, which means you will get a useable desktop on just about any monitor. Option 5 ‘Last Known Good Configuration’ is handy if your PC has suddenly and inexplicably crashed. Windows launches using a previous, and hopefully serviceable Registry and configuration settings.


The next two, ‘Directory Service Restore Mode’ and ‘Debugging Mode’ are really meant for experts and service engineers, so we can safely ignore them. ‘Enable Boot Logging’ also has limited use for most home users as it launches Windows as normal but automatically records every step of the boot up process. Finally ‘Start Windows normally’, ‘Reboot’ and ‘Return to OS Choices Menu’ do exactly what they say.


Now you are ready to start Windows in Safe Mode, so highlight the first item on the list and click the mouse button or press enter. You will now see several screen-fulls of apparently meaningless data scroll by, the screen goes blank then you will be asked to log on. Select Administrator (in XP Pro you may be asked for your password), the screen turns black again with the words ‘Safe Mode’ in each of the four corners and a dialogue box appears, select Yes to continue (or No to start System Restore -- see Boot Camp 334).


After a few moments the Windows desktop appears but it will look a little strange, with a plain background and large icons due to the fact that the display has been reset to 640 x 480. Don’t worry it will revert to its previous setting the next time Windows is booted normally.


If your PC has successfully entered Safe Mode you can assume that the problem that bought you here is either due to dodgy software (Windows starts but then locks up or crawls to a halt) or a corrupt driver (Windows crashes during boot up). Before we begin troubleshooting it is worth knowing that most of your non-Internet applications should work normally in Safe Mode so you can open edit or retrieve documents and files and save them to floppy disc. Safe Mode is also a very good place to run your virus scanner and disc cleaner utilities, for removing spyware and adware programs, some of which may reappear if you try to delete when Windows is running normally.


If the problem is associated with a program that start automatically with Windows, and you know which one it is, you should be able to uninstall it from Add/Remove Programs in Control Panel, or remove it from the Startup folder. If you are not sure which one is causing the problem go to Run on the Start menu and type ‘msconfig’ (without the quotes) then select the Startup tab. Deselect one item at a time and see if you can reboot Windows, otherwise go back and try another. Not all programs or ‘services’ that start with Windows show up in msconfig so it’s worth downloading a little utility that delves deeper into the Windows Registry, where things like ‘malware’ may have concealed themselves -- see Tip of the Week. In part two we’ll look at how to identify and fix problems caused by errant drivers.


Next week – XP Safe Mode, part 2





Blanket term for spyware, adware, trojans and other malicious programs that find their way onto a PC



Operating system -- the software that (i.e. Windows) that controls your PC and the programs that it uses



A measure of how much fine detail a PC’s video screen can display in pixels. The minimum resolution for Windows is 640 x 480 but most home and business systems are set up to display in 1024 x 768, or higher, depending on screen size



Autoruns is a tiny freeware utility that lists all of the programs that run automatically from the Registry whilst Windows is loading.  Each item has a check box, which you can untick to stop suspect programs launching when Windows boots up. Autoruns works on all versions of Windows, the download file is just 140kb and the program is small enough to fit onto a floppy disc. To obtain your copy go to:


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