Starting a PC in Safe Mode means stripping Windows down to its bare bones and preventing all non-Windows applications from starting up. This helps in two ways: the processor has to run at only a tiny fraction of its capacity; and it enables users to test installed software for faults one by one.
Under normal conditions the Windows operating system loads a huge amount of data into its memory for processing, including the drivers for devices such as video and audio cards, CD writers, printers, scanners and so on.
Then the data required to get programs that start automatically up and running must be loaded, such as antivirus software, firewalls, audio and video card managers and other installed software.
In Safe Mode, the computer loads only the files necessary to run basic Windows services so peripherals can’t be used. But that’s the whole point, as it may be one of these devices, alone or in combination with others, that is causing the problem you want to fix.
Not a pretty face
Stripped back to the bare bones, Windows loses its pretty face. The Desktop will have a blocky and distorted appearance, like it would if the resolution had not been set correctly. This isn’t far from the truth because in Safe Mode the computer loads a generic and very basic graphics driver that has only a fraction of the power of your PC’s usual graphics capability.
It makes the screen display images at a resolution of only 640 x 480, much lower than any monitor option. Colors lose their depth too, as Windows XP displays only 24 colors in Safe Mode, and Windows 98 offers only 16.
You don’t lose control entirely, though. The system loads generic drivers to run a mouse and keyboard connected to the serial interface, but any multimedia keys on the keyboard will be disabled, as will a mouse wheel if you have one.
If you have installed a USB mouse and keyboard under Windows XP, they will probably respond to commands, but users of prior versions will have to use their old serial mouse and keyboard.
When to use Safe Mode
The best time to use Safe Mode is if your computer has begun to suffer from recurring problems, such as unexplained shutdowns, especially if you have recently installed new or updated drivers or hardware. Sometimes Windows will actually suggest that you restart in Safe Mode if it recovers its own senses sufficiently following a crash. Getting a black screen on startup on your computer is a common reason to enter safe mode.
Starting Safe Mode is quite easy, but it’s not a job for slow coaches. It involves pressing the F8 key in the time between the computer being switched on and Windows getting the chance to start loading its usual applications.
The knack is to repeatedly press the F8 key before the Windows logo appears. This will launch a black-and-white screen. Your mouse (USB or serial) will not work now, so you will have to use the arrow keys and the Enter key to move between the menu options presented here.
The two most important options on the screen are marked Safe Mode and Safe Mode with Networking. Choosing the first starts Windows in its most threadbare but stable incarnation, while the second option leaves any network connections you have open.
You probably won’t be able to access the internet if you’re on dial-up, but you should be able to if you have broadband. This comes in handy if you need to update drivers, as we’ll explain shortly.
Drivers, the software that enables devices like printers and scanners to work alongside Windows, are a common cause of PC problems. Some become outdated and occasionally they become corrupt – the software equivalent of a breakdown. Working in Safe Mode means you can assess the problem without having to battle with its symptoms. What are device drivers?
Launch Safe Mode by switching on the computer and pressing F8 repeatedly until the plain, black-and-white screen appears, then choose Safe Mode by selecting it with the arrow keys and pressing Enter. The PC will then start as normal, except for the poor graphics we discussed earlier.
To check whether drivers are a possible cause of your PC woes, click on the Start menu and choose Control Panel (if you use an older version of Windows, you will find Control Panel in the Settings folder of the Start menu). Once the window has opened, select System and then the Hardware tab.
You will see a list of device types, which can be expanded by clicking on the + sign next to them. For instance, the graphics card will be under Display adapters, network connections under Network adapters while USB peripherals can be found under the Universal Serial Bus controllers heading. Now for some sleuthing.
If your PC has developed problems after installing some new hardware or an updated driver, start there as it is the most likely culprit. Unplug all USB devices (except your mouse and keyboard if you have XP) and find the appropriate category for your device, then click on the + sign.
Then reinsert the USB lead of the suspect device and look out for it in the list. Companies are not always helpful enough to give their devices specific names, so it can be a matter of deduction. Many USB devices suffer from this anonymity, so look for brand names and model numbers. Some devices that include a hard disk, such as digital cameras and USB memory keys are listed simply as ‘USB mass storage device’.
Double-click on the device to see Windows’s own assessment of the situation. The tab marked General will give you an overview of the device – basically, whether there is a problem with it. If there is, click on Troubleshoot to access the PC’s preloaded Help and Support Centre and follow the instructions.
If you have recently updated the driver – by disc or over the internet – click on the Driver tab. The options marked Update Driver and Roll Back Driver are the only helpful options for you.
Updating will scan the PC for a better version of the driver. If you are still able to access your internet connection, it will search the Windows help site and possibly that of the device’s manufacturer.
If you can’t, roll back the driver. Rolling back a driver will install the previous version, like a mini system restore, so you can continue to use the device without problems while you contact the seller or manufacturer to resolve the problem. However, if you find the device works fine with the old driver and you haven’t lost any features, it might be best simply to stick with the old software.
If the problem is not caused by the driver software, then the device itself may be faulty. In that case, follow your warranty instructions, and remember that making notes of what you have seen on screen in Safe Mode could be helpful to the repair engineers.