10 February 2007

#11. Control Your Startups

Has this happened to you? It’s taking longer and longer to crank up your computer, and then you find that your virtual memory is nearly all used up before you open an application. So you pop open the hood (perhaps with Windows’ built-in System Information or Msconfig) and peer inside. There you find a complex tangle of programs, processes, and services that loaded themselves automatically. What are they? Where do they come from? What do they do? And how can you control them all?

Nice to see you back again at Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill, where I alert you to the most useful free and inexpensive utilities and Web sites on the 10th and 25th of each month. Today, we’ll look at a few of the best free startup monitoring and control programs.

Windows

Windows XP offer various ways to view startup programs:

  • System Information – Under Software Environment, the System Information applet (in Accessories > System Tools) shows running tasks (processes), loaded modules (program DLLs), services (low-level system functions that support other programs), and startup programs, with a little bit of information about each. It also enables you to search for a particular file.
  • Computer Management – Right-click My Computer and select Manage from the pop-up menu. The Services node lists the currently running services, with a short description. You can start, stop, restart, pause, and resume any service.
  • Task Manager – Here you can see all the running applications and processes, but the only action you can take is stopping them.
  • Msconfig – Type msconfig in the Run box (you can’t reach it through the Windows GUI). Here you can view running services and startup programs. All you can do with them, though, is disable (stop) them.

Clearly, Windows’ tools are primitive. What do we need? As Tim the Tool Man always answers: More power! Here are a few of your options.

Startup Monitor and Startup Control Panel

Many years ago, before freeware was common, Mike Lin was among the pioneering few devoted programmers who wrote useful utilities and distributed them gratis. I came to know and love his tiny, efficient Startup Monitor and Startup Control Panel way back when.

Startup Monitor performs one simple but vital task: It alerts you immediately to any program that is trying to start itself automatically at the next boot-up, either in the Startup folder or in the Registry. This is an essential first line of defense against viruses and spyware. Once you have installed Startup Monitor, it is invisible except for its occasional pop-up warnings and the Stop Startup Monitor entry in your Programs list. Here is a sample warning:

Startup Control Panel, from the same author, shows all programs that start automatically from any Startup folder or the Registry. It also shows programs that are scheduled to run once at the next boot-up, though not processes or services. Using its no-frills GUI, you can only disable or enable the listed programs or edit their names and paths. SCP installs itself as a Startup icon in your Control Panel.

Both utilities are available from http://www.mlin.net/. Donations are accepted through a link on the site.

Starter

I switched from Startup Control Panel to CodeStuff Starter several years ago because it offers more bells and whistles. You can view all startup programs and their details, by startup folder or by registry entry. Better yet, you can view additional properties of each listed program (see below). You can enable, disable, or delete any listed program. You also can add new startups, and even launch listed programs from within Starter. Here's the startup list, with one application's properties on top:

Starter provides similar functions for processes and services, and in addition enables you to edit service properties, as shown here:

Starter’s GUI also displays current CPU and virtual memory usage in the status bar. What Starter doesn’t do, however, is alert you to programs that want to start up automatically, so if you use Starter, keep Startup Monitor in the background too. That’s what I do these days.

The Starter home page is http://codestuff.tripod.com/, but downloads are available only from Softpedia, Simtel, and similar download sites.

WinPatrol

WinPatrol includes the functions of a startup monitor and controller in one program, and does even more to protect your computer. It warns you of new startup programs in Startup folders and the Registry and changes in Internet Explorer settings (helpers, home page, and more), though its GUI is not as pretty as Starter’s.

WinPatrol Explorer lists startups, running processes and tasks, and scheduled tasks. You can see their properties, and you can launch programs from within WinPatrol. It also lists cookies, hidden files, and file type associations, and can even remove cookies according to a text string filter. All this information can help you prevent or identify malware infections.

The free version of WinPatrol monitors your system at the minute intervals you choose. Even if you set the minimum interval, therefore, it could take a full minute before WinPatrol issues an alert. WinPatrol Plus offers still more features, such as real-time monitoring and detailed information about start-up programs and services, for a one-time payment that includes lifetime updates. Get the free or Plus versions at http://www.winpatrol.com/.

Beware of Startup Mechanic

You might also come across a similar free program, Startup Mechanic. It is adware of an especially insidious type, and anyway does not appear as good as either WinPatrol or the combination of Startup Monitor and Starter, so avoid it.

What Are All Those Files?

Now that you can see them, what the !@#$% are all those startup programs, processes, and services? Starter and WinPatrol provide some information, but the Web sites listed below can have more comprehensive lists and greater detail. And when your firewall asks you whether to authorize a particular program, you can use these sites to find out if it’s legitimate.

Note: Some of these Web sites might not be updated for Windows Vista. Please note, too, that I am staying with Windows XP for a while, so my reviews and recommendations might not pertain to Vista.

Thank you for lending me your eyeballs. Please post comments and suggestions below. And check back here on February 25th for another roundup of valuable utilities!

This column first appeared at http://www.elephant.org.il/jonathans_tool_bar_grill.

5 comments:

  1. This morning my computer's hard disk was doing read-writes for four hours. Through trial and error, I eventually isolated the source of the problem to my McAffee anti-virus program. It would have been nice to have a utility that identifies which program is causing the disk activity. Do you know of such an application?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for visiting my blog, Marko, and for writing in. our question is a good one.

    I use a shareware task manager called AnVir (www.anvir.com), which shows disk and CPU usage in system tray icons and in its main window. I got it free from www.giveawayoftheday.com, which gives a different shareware program away free each day, only for that day.

    I like AnVir a lot, but I'm sure there must be free utilities that also would meet your needs. I just don't know of any at the moment, and regrettably, I don't have time right now to search for them. You could try searching for disk usage monitors through Google or my favorite metasearch engine, Dogpile. Try also download.com, snapfiles.com, sourceforge.org, and freewaregenius.com.

    I hope this is helpful, and I hope you'll be a regular visitor at the Tool Bar & Grill.

    ReplyDelete
  3. For implementing GTD you might try out this web-based application:

    http://www.gtdagenda.com

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A mobile version is available too.

    As with the last update, now Gtdagenda has full Someday/Maybe functionality, you can easily move your tasks and projects between "Active", "Someday/Maybe" and "Archive". This will clear your mind, and will boost your productivity.

    Hope you like it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Dan, thank you very much for your helpful comment. I have heard good things about gtdagenda for Getting Things Done users. I suspect you intended to publish this comment on post #12, which is about ToDoList and other task managers, so I will republish it there too.

    Thank you also for visiting my blog. I hope you are a regular reader, and will tell all your friends about me.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Starup Monitor sounds useful. I run Spyware Terminator, which tells me if anything tries to modify the Registry. I control startups with Glary Utilities. I wish I knew a good freeware install monitor and uninstaller. I am using Ashampoo Uninstaller, which takes about two minutes making a snapshot of your file structure and registry before you can install (I have a quad core).

    ReplyDelete