If you're like most system administrators, you want to control and limit the number of programs and services being started on your Windows XP machines. I'm certain you've already been told numerous times to disable any service or startup application you don't need, but it's worth repeating; doing so can speed up performance and system startup times, improve security, and cut down on maintenance of unwanted applications. Thus the question: "Where do I go to configure such things?" If you run an Active Directory environment, you can control most of the network from one central location. But for those of you who don't have the luxury of centralized control, you must turn to the local machine for configuration.
Local configuration can be done in a variety of ways and can sometimes be very time-consuming. Windows XP already provides the System Configuration Utility (MSConfig), but that lacks flexibility in my opinion. The problem with MSConfig is that it's very limited in its selection of services presented to you. If you cannot find what you seek, you then have to turn to a cumbersome registry search.
What if there was a way to display every service, every auto-startup program, and so much more all in one application? You're in luck; Sysinternals' Autoruns to the rescue.
Autoruns is a very powerful freeware utility that can be thought of as MSConfig on steroids. Offering everything from control of auto-starting applications at logon to known startup DLLs, this tool gives you complete control of how the system is going to start. You can display everything all in one tab, or a breakdown of each group is presented as follows: Logon, Explorer, Internet Explorer, Scheduled Tasks, Services, Drivers, Boot Execute, Image Hijacks, AppInit, KnownDLLs, Winlogon, Winsock Providers, and Print Monitors. The built-in help function and the online help provide details about each of these parameters.
Let's discuss the actual use of Autoruns.
I'm going to pick on Windows Messenger for a few minutes because it's one of those Windows applications that seems to never cease to exist even when told to. Even if you remove Windows Messenger from the Windows components section in the Control Panel, it still may remain on your system at startup. In my instance of Autoruns, Windows Messenger is displayed in the "Everything" tab under the HKLMSOFTWAREMicrosoftActive SetupInstalled Components registry key. If you cannot find Windows Messenger, simply search for it with the built-in find function (CTRL + F).
Didn't I just remove this component using the Add or Remove Programs utility in the Control Panel? Yes, I did, but the service is still present. Already, you can see this utility provides valuable insight to the location of a service, even in relation to its whereabouts in the registry. Right-clicking Windows Messenger and selecting "Jump to..." will take you directly to the registry value if so desired. To disable the service, simply deselect the box next to it. You can also delete the startup line, but disabling it is sufficient (just in case you need to restart it later).
If you already use MSConfig, you will have no trouble using this utility. The above example is only a small illustration of how to disable a service, and the options are much more flexible than this. By default, Autoruns displays all information from the current user you are logged in as. Switching the user from the menu at the top shows you every startup profile for each user on the system, giving you the ability to configure each user differently. The verification option allows you to examine whether an application has been verified by Microsoft, and the properties option navigates you directly to the usual Microsoft properties window to view general information or configure security rights. You can even go as far as controlling specific print monitor queues.
If you're tired of those annoying startup applications, give Autoruns a try. Use it along with MSConfig to achieve total control of your system. Even if you don't use it to configure startup applications, you can use it as an investigative tool by right-clicking a service to Google it. Doing so automatically opens your default browser with a fairly accurate search result of the service, and you can finally find out what that mysterious task bar icon is that's been driving you insane!