When Windows starts and takes you to the desktop or Start screen, it looks simple and straightforward. However, behind the scenes there are numerous programs running. Not that you'd know it, of course, as they typically remain hidden and don't open on the desktop. See also: Windows 8 Advisor

Common examples include security programs like antivirus suites and other utilities such as Skype. They load and run in the background, often without announcing their presence at all.

There are many more programs, services and other items that load with windows and over time the list grows longer. This leads to Windows bloat and increasingly longer startup times. An old PC can take several minutes to get to the desktop, whereas a new one can take just 30 seconds or so. Adware, viruses, spyware and other undesirable software can automatically load with Windows too.

If your PC is slow to boot up or you suspect that you might have some form of malware on the computer, the first place to look is at the list of items that automatically run when Windows starts.

You may be aware of the built-in msconfig utility and can use the Startup tab to list startup items. You may not realise its limitations, however. A much more powerful tool is Autoruns, a free utility which provides the most comprehensive list of startup items of any software. You will be amazed at the number of programs, services, and other things that automatically load when Windows starts.

The only snag is that the sheer amount of information can make it a bit daunting to use at first. You won’t understand everything, but don’t worry because it isn’t that difficult to use.

In this tutorial we'll show how to get information on startup items and to find out whether they are safe or suspected malware. You can save the startup list and compare it after installing software to see what has changed or why your computer is running more slowly than it used to. A companion utility called Process Explorer can be downloaded from the same website and this provides further information about startup items.

Autoruns does not itself solve problems, but it can be used to track down their cause. It is up to you to find a solution. For example, startup items can be disabled or deleted, or you might simply uninstall a program that adds a lot of startup items, slowing Windows down, and install an alternative that doesn’t bog down the system.

You can download Autoruns for free. Unzip the file and run it with admin privileges by right-clicking on it and choosing Run as administrator.

How to use Autoruns

Step 1: Autoruns lists everything that loads with Windows. Look for entries highlighted in yellow and clear the tick box. They refer to files no longer on the disk. Removing them from the boot process streamlines it and helps speed it up. Changes are applied instantly, so you can simply exit the application when you're finished.

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Step 2: It isn’t always obvious what an entry is or whether it is necessary. Select it to see useful information in the panel below and right click to search online for it. A web search reveals sites that provide more information.

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Step 3: Browse the search results and you will often find references to the unknown file. The sites will tell whether it is safe or is suspected malware. This one’s safe, but check other entries that look suspicious.

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Step 4: Before you install any software, start Autoruns and when it has finished scanning, select Save on the File menu. This saves the current list of startup entries and enables you to compare future startup lists and view the differences.

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Step 5: After installing new software, start Autoruns and select File, Compare. Choose the file saved earlier and examine each tab for green entries. These have been added by the program and they will cause Windows to start more slowly.

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Step 6: After installing just two programs, Autoruns Compare feature reveals large expanses of green. These are extra items that Windows has to load on startup and the more there are, the slower it will get. Try to avoid software like this, if you can.

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Step 7: After uninstalling the programs, Autoruns compared the startup list to the original saved list. Clearly the uninstallers didn’t remove everything and this is how Windows becomes bloated. You may need to manually remove extras.

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Step 8: Right-click an entry in the startup list and on the pop-up menu is Process Explorer. It is an optional extra and if you download it and run it on its own it looks like this. Start it and then just minimise it.

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Step 9: Right-click entry in the startup list and select Process Explorer. A Properties window is displayed and it can help you to identify an unknown item that may or may not be malware. A Kill Process button stops it running.

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