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Windows Boot Options: Safe Mode and Clean Boot

written by: Donna Buenaventura•edited by: Bill Fulks•updated: 5/19/2011

Diagnosing hardware and software related problems in Windows can be done by using clean boot or safe mode. Find out the differences between these two boot options and how to start in safe mode.

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    Diagnostic Modes

    Identifying problems in software and hardware drivers in a computer can be done by starting the computer ing safe mode (also called safe boot) or clean boot (also called clean start). These two diagnostic modes can be used to troubleshoot problems in the computer or access Windows if normal booting won't work.

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    Difference Between Safe Mode and Clean Boot

    Safe Mode - Starting the computer in safe mode or safe boot means you are shutting down almost everything that is not necessary to get Windows to run or launch. Only a few drivers will run during safe mode e.g. standard VGA video drivers. You will notice that there are programs that can run in safe mode and this is possible if the developer of the software has programmed it to do so.

    Safe mode is used to troubleshoot both software and hardware-related issues (Windows and third-party software and driver) and this is not the same as clean boot. Booting the computer to safe mode can be done with or without networking. You can choose to boot the computer without networking drivers or allow it to load the networking drivers so you could connect to the Internet to download some software that you need while in safe mode.

    The images below are examples how Windows will be displayed, if you started the computer in safe mode:Safe Mode in XP Safe Mode in Vista Clean Boot - Using the clean boot option means you will start the computer normally but third-party applications or services will not load. Clean boot is only used to identify software-related issues and not problems in Windows itself. It means you will only use the clean boot option if you are sure that the problem is not related to Windows at all, but third-party programs.

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    How to Start in Safe Mode

    To start the computer in safe mode while you have access to Windows, follow these steps:

    • Click Start > Run > type msconfig.exe in the run box. Hit OK button to open System Configuration Utility. If you are using Windows 7 or Vista with UAC enabled, click Continue to proceed launching the utility.
    • Click the boot tab (in Vista or Windows 7) or boot.ini tab in XP.
    • Under boot options, click to select Safe boot. Next, click to select Network if you want to use the network drivers. Otherwise, leave only minimal as selected safe boot option.Safe mode option in Windows 
    • Click OK and then click the Restart button in the System Configuration dialogue box window:System Configuration Prompt 

    To start Windows 7 in safe mode (this also applies to earlier versions of Windows) if Windows won't boot normally but the computer can start or power-up:

    • Turn on or restart the computer.
    • Immediately press the F8 key on the keyboard until the Windows Advanced Boot Options menu appears.Advanced Boot Options in Windows 
    • Select the safe mode or safe mode with networking boot option. Hit enter key on the keyboard.
    • The computer will now start in Safe mode and allow you to manage or troubleshoot problems in software or hardware drivers.
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    Safe Mode and Malware Removal

    Starting the computer in safe mode or using the Windows 7 safe mode option can help not only in troubleshooting problems even for trusted or legitimate applications. It can also help in removing spyware, adware, trojans or other types of malware that prevents loading Windows in normal mode. Some antivirus and anti-malware programs can be run in safe mode which you should take advantage of when dealing with malware or rogue software. It is best to boot using Safe Mode with Networking so you can try to update the virus or malware detection signatures of the security protection tool.

    If you are only troubleshooting problems in third-party software and do not have malware, Windows or hardware-related problems, you can use the clean boot option.

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    How to Start in Clean Boot

    To perform a clean boot in Windows instead of starting the computer in safe mode, follow these steps:

    • Click Start > Run > type msconfig.exe in the run box. Hit OK button to open System Configuration Utility. If you are using Windows 7 or Vista with UAC enabled, click Continue to proceed launching the utility.
    • For Vista and Windows 7 users: On the General tab, click Selective startup and uncheck the box before Load startup items.Clean Boot option: Selective startup 
    • For XP users: On the General tab, click Selective startup and then uncheck the boxes before Process SYSTEM.INI File, Process WIN.INI File and Load Startup Items. Only leave Load System Services selected and make sure that Use Original BOOT.ini is selected.Clean Boot in XP: General tab 
    • Click the Services tab and click the box before Hide all Microsoft services. When the list of services has refreshed by only displaying non-Microsoft services, click the Disable all boxes button. Important note: Do not click the Disable all boxes button without selecting first the Hide all Microsoft services. Doing so will delete restore points created by System Restore and logs created by Event Viewer or other error reporting tools in Windows. Only click Disable all boxes if Microsoft services are hidden already.Clean Boot Option: Services tab 
    • Click OK and then click Restart in the System Configuration dialogue box.
    • Windows will now load using clean boot mode. You should see Windows load normally except no startup items or third-party application and services will be running.

    Note that Windows 7 and Vista users can take advantage of Windows startup repair, if Windows won't boot normally.

    Image credit: Screenshots taken by the author.






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