How Do I Find Autostarting Applications?

Frequently when Windows starts a number of other programs start with it. Some of these you will see as small icons in the System Notification Area at the bottom right of your screen by the clock; for example…

System Notice Area

Others may not leave an icon but run in the background anyhow. Using one of a number of utilities (or looking in the task manager = press the CTL-SHIFT-ESC keys together) usually displays their names. Often these are programs you want running in the background. Sometimes, however, a program that doesn’t have to autostart will impolitely install itself as autostarting without giving you the option. When this happens, how do you stop it from running every time you start Windows?

First, be certain you know the name of the program you are trying to stop from autostarting. If you just let the mouse cursor rest over an icon the name of the controlling program will usually pop up after a short period. If it doesn’t try right-clicking on the icon to see what menu pops up and work from there. Autostarting programs also usually have a counterpart in the Start|Programs menu; you can look for matching icons. Or in the Windows Task Manager (the window that pops up when you press the CTL-SHIFT-ESC keys together) you can find the names of running programs.

Once you have the program name there are several places to look for the command that starts it when Windows starts. Try them in order as some are more commonly used than others (and easier to work with):

CKnow Information Startup Folder

Polite programs will install autostart shortcuts into the StartUp folder (\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\StartUp in XP and \Users\[user name]\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Startup in Vista). Any shortcut found in this folder when Windows starts will be run as part of the Windows startup routine. Open the Windows Explorer (right-click My Computer and pick Explore). Navigate to the above-named folder to see what’s there (you can get a quick look by clicking Start|Programs|StartUp). Edit as necessary (Computer Knowledge recommends you drag the shortcuts you are removing onto the desktop or into a temporary folder until you are certain you don’t need them; they’ll be easier to replace than recreate if you make a mistake).

Be careful. Some things may not be obvious. Try removing one thing at a time and then restarting the computer to see what happened. Changing more than one thing will make it difficult to detect which is at fault if problems occur.

One you probably should consider deleting would be Microsoft FindFast. That program is supposed to speed file searches in Office but more often than not is the source of problems.

CKnow Information Using MSCONFIG

Microsoft provides one utility (MSCONFIG) that can manage some of the startup files found in the registry and other common locations. It’s not perfect but can be used for quick testing and diagnosis for startup files found in common locations.

Start the utility by clicking on Start|Run and then typing “msconfig” (without the quotes) into the dialog box that appears or, in Vista, just type it into the Start menu’s search box. When open, you should see a number of tabs that can be used to examine the various programs and services that start when Windows starts. Check each tab for the program or service you are looking for. If found, uncheck it and then click OK to close the utility. When you do, you will be asked to restart to make the change active. Do so and see if this fixes your problem. If so, you can just leave the entry unchecked or you can look in the locations below to find the specific entry and actually delete it.

CKnow Information Registry

The registry contains much information of importance to both Windows and programs running under Windows. For this reason one has to take great care in working with the registry. A backup is critical before doing anything with the registry. This is easily done from within the registry editor.

Start the registry editor by clicking on Start|Run and then typing “regedit” (without the quotes) into the dialog box that appears or, in Vista, just type it into the Start menu’s search box. Click OK or hit return. Navigation in the registry editor works just like navigation in Windows Explorer. First navigate to the key:


There you will see, in the right window, more programs that Windows runs at startup. If you intend to delete or modify any of these entries first export the key to a file you can use to reinstate the entries should there be problems. With the Run key selected click on Registry|Export Registry File. Pick a name and location you can remember for the exported file and then export the key.

Now, edit the registry as necessary and then immediately restart Windows. If there are no problems, great; if there are problems double-click on the Run key registry file you created and then restart Windows. Double-clicking on the file will install it into the registry and restarting Windows should put things back the way they were.

Now, repeat the whole procedure above with the key:


(Never said this would be easy![Smile]

CKnow Information WINSTART.BAT

You remember batch files from DOS (if you are old enough — if not, see the CKnow tutorial on batch files). These are text files that run commands in them; line by line. If you have not found the autostart program you are looking for do a search for the file WINSTART.BAT. It will usually be in the root directory of the drive. If found while your computer is starting this file will be given control before Windows itself starts. The errant autostart program may be hiding here. Use any text editor to look at the contents of the file if one is found (this is rare but possible).

CKnow Information AUTORUN.INF

An AUTORUN.INF file is designed to hold the information necessary to allow a disc, like a CD-ROM, to autostart when loaded. As the disc is detected by the operating system the AUTORUN.INF file is detected and the information in that file directs the operating system to, perhaps, start a particular program on the disc. This can be very convenient but it also can be a problem in that the operating system does not restrict itself to just CD-ROMs for AUTORUN.INF. If that file is found in the root directory of the system boot drive (usually C:\) then it will be accessed and the directions in the file followed during system boot. Thus, AUTORUN.INF becomes yet another way of autostarting something during Windows boot. If you find and need to delete an AUTORUN.INF file you may have to change its attributes first; if copied from a CD it’s likely to be a read-only file (right-click the file, choose “Properties” and uncheck “Read-only”).

CKnow Information WIN.INI

This is a startup holdover from Windows 3.x. No matter; if found in the \Windows directory later versions of Windows will read and process the file. Navigate to the \Windows folder using Windows Explorer and look for a WIN.INI file. Use any text editor to look inside the file. What you are looking for is a line starting with either “load=” or “run=” in the section [windows] which is usually right at the start of the file.

If found, make a backup of the file and then edit those lines as necessary relative to your autostart program problems. Restart Windows and see if that fixes things. If not, use the backup to put things right and restart Windows to continue searching.


These startup leftovers from DOS still run on startup if found in the root directory of your main drive (usually C:\). While of little practical value they may contain older “real mode” drivers and programs that must load before Windows because the hardware these drivers control is not able to be reconfigured dynamically (Plug and Play). To see if any real mode drivers are active right-click on My Computer, select Properties, then click on the Performance tab (or, in Vista, the menu item of the same name). Look for any real mode drivers listed. If found, decide if you need the drivers and, if not, edit either AUTOEXEC.BAT or CONFIG.SYS to delete them (instead of deleting the line just put the letters REM and a space in front of the line so it’s not executed; makes it easier to reinstate the line if necessary).

The easiest way to check to see if these files are needed is to use Windows Explorer to rename them (right-click on the file and select Rename). Then, reboot and see if there are problems. If not, great; if there are follow the prompts to boot into Safe Mode (if needed) and then rename the files back to their original names. After restarting again the problems should disappear.

Final Notes

We’ve described a number of places programs that start automatically when Windows starts can hide. And, we’ve described how these places can be modified to stop these programs from autostarting. But, you need to know that Windows is a very complicated operating system and can be fairly sensitive to changes. It’s very important that you have a good backup before attempting to make any changes to any autostarting programs and then proceed with great caution; changing one thing at a time and then testing to see if the change caused any problems. This incremental approach will take much longer but is considerably safer.

Good luck.