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Posted by on in IT Support
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What is safe mode and why would I use it?

Imagine you wake up in the morning and you feel kinda cranky.  Lots of things happened yesterday, some good and some bad.  You're not quite sure what's making you feel cranky, but if you knew, you'd be able to sort it out and feel better again.  It's pretty hard doing this when you've got all the pressures of daily life bearing down on you - make the breakfast, get the kids ready for school, do the school run, sit through those important business meetings etc.  Wouldn't it be great if you could start the day with none of these pressures on you, with just the minimum you need to function, to allow you to sort through what happened, and work out a way to fix it!
If only life was so simple!  Fortunately, Windows has such a feature, and it's called Safe Mode.

Sometimes you do something - whether it be updating a driver (windows update is notorious for installing drivers and breaking things!), installing a program, downloading a virus or just having computer problems, booting into "Safe Mode" gives you that breathing space to try and figure out what is going wrong with the absolute minimum interference.

Now, a big caveat.  Safe Mode will NOT resolve every single problem you ever encounter, in fact I have had several incidents where I can't even boot into Safe Mode .. this has me reaching straight for my Linux/BartPE boot disks (for info on this read our forthcoming article).  It might help, it might not.


So, what does Safe Mode actually do?

Safe mode allows you to boot into a windows environment with the absolute bare essentials required.  No pretty desktop, no nice themes, just bog standard windows.  In fact you can even opt to use various "flavours" of Safe Mode - with or without networking (without networking is generally recommended if you've got virus problems), command line, and so forth.

You will NOT be able to use many applications properly, so don't even think about running your machine in Safe Mode for normal operation - this should ONLY be used in the "oh *&"_!" moments when you're having problems with your computer.  In fact, many applications just won't run at all.  If you can only get your computer to boot into safe mode, cut your losses and grab your data off the hard drive before reinstalling Windows.

How do I get to Safe Mode?

When your PC boots up it goes through a "self test" which us geeks call a BIOS POST - this stands for "Basic Input Output System" (what makes your computer run) "Power On Self Test (what it says on the tin - a self test when it is powered on!).  When it runs through the POST procedure you'll see lots of information scroll past the screen, and while it is doing this you need to press the f8 key on your keyboard.  It might take a few cycles to get the key hit at the right time when you first do this!

When you boot into f8 you're presented with a range of options - the most common ones you'll need to use is "Safe Mode with Networking" or "Safe Mode Without Networking".  You'll also notice there is the option to boot into Windows normally.  If for any reason your computer shuts down abnormally, it will show this screen and ask you if you want to boot into Safe Mode to figure out why it shut down abnormally.  Having the "Boot into Windows Normally" option is a get-out clause (also useful if your cat is sitting on the f8 key while you boot!).

When you select your option from the menu using the arrow keys and enter to select, you'll see a whole whoosh of white text on a black background.  This is showing you that your computer is loading those drivers - don't worry, it's normal!  It's fairly normal to have a pause at mup.sys so be a little patient :)

Once the drivers have loaded and you get the login prompt you will have a popup inform you that you're booting into safe mode, in case you weren't aware!

You will notice immediately the sparse layout and probably a drop in the screen resolution - this is because the minimal graphics drivers are loaded .. so no bells and whistles I'm afraid!

If you've got this far, you can run virus scans and such like - many good virus scanners will actually run automatically in "command line" mode if you've booted into safe mode and then run them.

You can transfer files off in safe mode, and also roll back/update drivers, uninstall software and carry out various fault-finding tasks.

Please be aware (and this might be pointing out the obvious but you would be suprised how many times I've had people call up about this one!) that if you boot into "safe mode without networking" and your mate from the other side of the world is helping you out remotely, you might want to get them on the phone, as they won't be able to remotely access your PC when you turn off networking!
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Ben is a Network Security and Linux specialist with experience on a wide range of Unix based Operating Systems, as well as a serious amount of experience with the Microsoft Windows Operating Systems. Ben is also an amateur photographer and enjoys writing articles on technical subjects.


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