Tools: A Lightning Tour of msconfig.exe

The Windows system configuration tool, msconfig.exe has been around for some time. The easiest way to launch this utility is simply to type msconfig in the Start menu’s search box, but you can also access this utility by typing “system configuration” into Windows Help and Support, then selecting the “Start System Configuration” item that appears in response to this search. You must have administrative privileges, or be able to elevate access, to run this utility.

The General tab

By default, msconfig.exe launches with the General tab on display, as shown in the following screenshot. This is where you can switch among startup modes that include normal startup (which essentially matches the “Start Windows Normally” prompt that shows up in Vista after the system has recovered from a reset or some kind of serious system error that forces a reboot). The Diagnostic Startup item corresponds to “Boot in Safe Mode.” Selective startup let you elect whether or not to load system services, impose selections (from the Startup tab) on Startup items, and so forth. A teal field in the “Load startup items” checkbox indicates that you’ve disable some startup items on the Startup tab, as shown in the screenshot as well.


System Configuration General tab
The General tab provides easy access to general startup behavior controls.

The Boot tab

The Boot tab lists available system boot configurations found in your BCD (boot configuration data) files, and lets you manage a range of boot settings, most of which appear in the Boot options pane at the lower left of the Boot window, as shown in the next screenshot. Within the boot options pane, Safe boot provides GUI access to various controls that will affect system boots as long as those settings remain in effect. These include the following items:

  • Minimal: Boots to the Vista GUI in safe mode, just like the first Safe mode prompt from the F8 boot-up menu. Networking is turned off, and only critical system services are running.
  • Alternate shell: Boots to a command prmpt in safe mode, with no GUI available, no networking, and only critical system services running.
  • Active Directory repair: Boots to the Vista GUI, with only critical system services running and enough networking capabilities to access Active Directory.
  • Network: Boots to the Vista GUI, and loads network drivers as well as critical system services.
  • No GUI boot: Turns off the Vista splash screen while booting.
  • Boot log: Writes a log entry for each boot activity completed during the boot process, including loading drivers, system components, starting services, and so forth.
  • Base video: defaults to the built-in basic VGA (640×480 resolution) driver for Windows, which lets you get around driver problems with your graphics card when that’s necessary.
  • OS boot information: Lists driver names as they’re loaded during the boot process.

Outside the Boot options pane, two other entries appear. The timeout value controls how long the system waits for you to select a specific boot option when more than one is available. The default value is 30 seconds, which many users with multi-boot environments like to cut to 5 or 10 seconds to speed the boot process. The “Make all boot settings permanent” forces all changes you make using msconfig.exe to persist over time, and they may only be changed manually when this box is checked (otherwise, you could use the normal startup radio button on the general tab to return to default startup behavior). If you want to dig into the controls available through the “Advanced options” tab, check out the discussion in Greg Schulz’ article “System Configuration Utility–Vista revamp” at TechRepublic.

System Configuration Boot tab
Options on the Boot tab provide numerous different controls that govern how Vista will boot itself up.

I only seldom use the controls available on the Boot tab myself, mostly when I’m troubleshooting startup or boot problems, or trying to understand boot time delays. In such cases the various Safe mode options often come in handy (and eliminate the need to time hitting the F8 key exactly right during boot-up), and I also find the Boot log entry helpful, not just to list drivers as they load, but to show me how long each one takes to load, where delays might be occurring, and when boot hangs, which driver may be involved.

The Services tab

This tool provides a quick’n’dirty alternative to Services.msc, which is the Services control panel item that provides much more detailed and extensive control over Windows services and their startup characteristics. You can uncheck services to turn them off at boot time when troubleshooting services, but no less a Window services expert than Charles Sparks (of, my favorite Windows services information source) recommends NOT using this tool to control service boot selections. In other words, it’s OK to use msconfig.exe to experiment with services to see if you might want to disable something or not, but it’s best to use Services.msc to make such settings permanent (or not) when you’re finished experimenting and are ready to make permanent changes.

System Configuration Services tab
The Services tab lets you de-select services that start with Vista by unchecking the boxes to their left.

The Startup tab

This tool lists all items ensconced in the various registry entries or Windows shortcuts that determine what items get executed automatically each time Windows boots up. These are called startup items, and this tool lets you uncheck items you don’t wish to have start automatically. The screenshot for this tab is scrolled all the way to the bottom of the list so that you can see that unchecked items appear at the bottom of the list by default, once you’ve turned them off and Windows reboots for the next time. You can use this tool to control startup items, but Vista will remind you each time you reboot your system that you’ve turned off some startup items, either until you turn them back on, or click a link in that “nag box” to tell it not to appear upon boot up any more. I think this explains why many Vista power users prefer more friendly startup management tools, such as CCleaner’s Startup tool, PC Magazine’s Startup Cop, and so forth. If you do use a third-party tool, I recommend that you stick to one (and only one) startup management tool, just so you can make and manage startup tweaks in only one place.

System Configuration Startup tab
By default, de-selected startup items appear unchecked at the bottom of the list, as shown above.

The Tools tab

This tab provides a launch pad for commonly used Windows tools, control panel items, and utilities, all of which are at least conceivably related to system administration tasks of some kind. You’ll want to explore the entries here, and see if using this approach to launching system widgets makes sense to you. I tend to jump straight to these tools myself, using either shortcuts, executable names, or search terms in the Start menu search box instead. The Selected command textbox in this tool does tell you the names and locations of all the associated executables, control panel items, management consoles, and so forth, though, so some exploration here may be illuminating.

System Configuration Tools tab
Tools accessible here include management consoles, control panel items, utilities, and more.

 Get to know msconfig.exe!

Once you begin to work with this handy little Windows utility, you’ll come to appreciate its many and varied capabilities. My biggest beef with this tool is that you can’t resize its window, so you have to read some of the listings by growing fields of interest to see what they contain. Otherwise, it’s both easy to work with, and easy to understand.


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