How to stop programs from starting automatically

Many programs assume that you want them to be running all the time, and as soon as you start the computer. Many of them are wrong. Here's how to keep those presumptuous programs from slowing down your boot and wasting your time and system resources.
Published: Apr 10, 2008
Author: Jordan Running
Related OS: XP / Vista

I'm willing to bet that if you were to restart your computer right now, a number of programs would start themselves up automatically, programs you're not really interested in using and but presumptuously assume they should be running the moment your computer boots. You probably handle this by taking a minute or two to quit those programs that get in your way or maybe just ignore or minimize them. This is effective, but a waste: A waste of the time it takes to fuss with them, and a waste of system resources--memory and processor cycle. Once you know how to deal with those pesky programs, however, you can deal with them once and never again. Here's how.

Phase 1: identify programs that start automatically

First, of course, you have to figure out which programs are starting automatically. If you don't know, restart your computer (bookmark or save this article first) and make note of the names of those programs that appear by themselves. Many programs only run in the "background" instead of appearing as a window on your screen, but still take up memory and processor cycles, so also check in the notification area (the area on your taskbar next to the clock--click on the little arrow to reveal all of the icons). Each icon represents a program--if you don't recognize the icon, hold your mouse over it for a moment and a tooltip with the program's name may appear; if it doesn't, try clicking, double-clicking, or right-clicking for clues.

You may encounter unfamiliar and mysterious icons. My greatest bit of advice is not to disable anything without knowing what it is or what it's for. If you don't know what it is, I recommend entering its name into a search engine like Google and doing a bit of research. If your computer is new--i.e. you haven't installed many things on it yourself--you can call the manufacturer's technical support line and ask if the mysterious program was something installed at the factory.

Now let's start getting rid of the ones you don't want or need.

Phase 2: Uninstalling

The best way to keep a program from automatically starting is to remove it entirely from your system. This has the benefit of also freeing up some hard drive space, but of course this method should only be employed if you don't foresee wanting to use the program again in the near future. If you change your mind later--and still have the install disc or file or can easily reacquire it--you can always install the program again, but you'll want to make sure before you uninstall anything that you won't lose settings or preferences that will be difficult to configure if you decide to install the program a second time.

Most programs, once installed, can be uninstalled via the Control Panel. To do so, first quit the program and then open the Control Panel (under the Start menu) and navigate to Add or Remove Programs in Windows XP or Programs and Features in Windows Vista. Here, scroll down to the program in question, select it and choose Uninstall, then follow any prompts that appear. Once it's uninstalled it will disappear from the list and will plague you no longer.

Phase 3: Asking politely (options and preferences)

Some programs, however, you merely want to keep from starting automatically rather than removing them entirely. Well-behaved programs give you an option that turns auto-start behavior on and off, but the placement and naming of this option is wildly inconsistent from program to program. So it'll take some hunting.

If the program has an icon in the notification area, your first stop should be right-clicking on that icon. If a menu appears, it may have an item called "Auto-start" or "Start automatically" or "Start with Windows." Unchecking that item ought to have the expected effect. If the program doesn't have a notification area icon, or if its right-click menu has no such item, you'll have to dig into the program's Options or Preferences dialog. Go to the program's main window (if it lives in the notification area you may have to click or double-click on its icon) and click around its menus until you find Options or Preferences, often but not always under the Tools or File menu. Again, it may appear under a variety of names.

If you can find no option to disable automatic starts in the program's menus or options dialog, you may find information in its Help files or online documentation. If your efforts in this vein are fruitless, you must turn to more drastic means.

Phase 4: The Startup folder

This phase will be brief, and probably fruitless, but is worth mentioning. You've probably seen a folder on your Start menu, under Programs (All Programs in Windows Vista), called Startup. This is actually an old hold-over from Windows 95 and earlier, and very few programs use it, but it still works: Placing a shortcut to a program in the Startup folder will automatically start the program when Windows starts. You've probably figured out what to do already: If the program you want to keep from auto-starting has an icon under Startup, just delete it! This won't remove the program, only the shortcut, and henceforth the program won't start automatically.

Incidentally, if you ever want a program to start automatically and it doesn't have an option to make it do so, dropping a shortcut to it in the Startup folder will do the trick.

Phase 5: System Configuration

This is where things can get a little dicey. If a program is starting automatically but doesn't have a shortcut in the Startup folder, then that means it has an entry in the Windows registry, a twisty maze of data and settings. Fortunately, Windows includes a utility for enabling and disabling these entries, called the System Configuration tool. In order to start it, click on Start and then Run... and enter msconfig in the text field and click OK.

Now, a warning: You can mess things up in here. Don't mess with anything if you don't know exactly what it does. Really, you might break stuff--there's a reason the System Configuration tool is hard to get to. Okay?

System Configuration utility

Now, click on the Startup tab. This area has an entry for every program that's configured to launch automatically when Windows does. The number of items in the list might surprise you, but once again: Don't mess with it if you don't know what it's for. A lot of these things you probably need. They might be necessary for your printer or even your network connection to work. But some of the entries are for those programs that start up but you know you don't need them. The trick is figuring out which ones they are.

The first column on the Startup tab will tell you the name of the program--hopefully. If you recognize the name and are one hundred percent certain you don't need it, uncheck the box next to it to disable it. If you don't see the program that's plaguing you in the list, you'll have to do some sleuthing. Expand the Command column and you'll be able to see the path on the hard drive belonging to each item. The path might contain the name of the program or the company that makes it. Sometimes they'll be abbreviated and you can use some deductive reasoning to figure out what's what. Windows Vista adds a Manufacturer column to this interface that may give you some additional hints, but again be careful--don't make any wild guesses. If you're trying to disable multiple programs, I recommend only doing one or two at a time, so if something goes wrong it will be easier to undo the damage.

Once you've disabled what you came to disable, click on OK and restart your computer to see if it worked. If you've managed to break anything, go back into System Configuration--you may have to boot into Safe Mode first--and undo what you did and restart again.

Phase 6: Last resorts

If you've tried all of the above and are still being plagued by a pesky program, your last resort is to ask for help: Contact the program's vendor and ask them what to do, or if the company has support forums try posting a message--clear, polite, and calmly-worded, of course--asking for the solution.

About Jordan Running

Blogger since 1999, Jordan Running went pro in 2005 and never looked back. Sometimes programmer, occasional photographer, and serial tinkerer, he decided to to switch to Linux in 2001 but just hasn't quite gotten around to it yet.

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