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How to Use Safe Mode to Fix Your Windows PC (and When You Should)

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Windows’ Safe Mode is an essential tool. On computers infected with malware or crashing because of buggy drivers, Safe Mode may be the only way to start the computer.

Safe Mode boots a computer without loading any third-party software or drivers, so it’s a great way to remove problem-causing software without that software getting in the way.

When Safe Mode Can Help

When Windows boots, it normally launches its startup programs and loads the hardware drivers you have installed. If your computer is infected with malware or has unstable hardware drivers that cause blue screens, Safe Mode can help you fix it.

In Safe Mode, Windows uses a very low screen resolution, doesn’t initialize much hardware support, and avoids loading third-party startup programs. This allows you to troubleshoot Windows without all the third-party software and potential hardware driver problems getting in the way.

If there’s a problem with your computer and you can’t seem to fix it — or if your computer is unstable and keeps crashing or blue-screening — you should drop into Safe Mode to fix it.

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Booting Into Safe Mode

Your Windows PC should automatically boot into Safe Mode if it continues to crash on boot. However, you can also boot into Safe Mode manually:

  • Windows 7 and earlier: Press the F8 key while the computer is booting, then select Safe Mode in the menu that appears.
  • Windows 8: Hold Shift and press F8 to access the recovery screen, then restart into the Windows Startup Settings menu. You can also hold Shift and click the Restart option in Windows to access this screen.

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Fixing Your PC in Safe Mode

Once you are in Safe Mode, you can perform system maintenance tasks to fix your computer:

  • Scan for Malware: Use your antivirus application to scan for malware and remove it in Safe Mode. Malware that may be impossible to remove in normal mode — because it’s running in the background and interfering with the antivirus — may be removable in Safe Mode. If you don’t have an antivirus installed, you should be able to download and install one in Safe Mode.
  • Run System Restore: If your computer was recently working fine but it’s now unstable, you can use System Restore to restore its system state to the earlier, known-good configuration. Assuming your computer is unstable and crashing, it may be possible to run System Restore without crashing from Safe Mode.
  • Uninstall Recently Installed Software: If you recently installed software (such as a hardware driver or a program that includes a driver) and it’s causing your computer to blue-screen, you can uninstall that software from the Control Panel. Your computer should hopefully boot normally after you’ve uninstalled the interfering software.
  • Update Hardware Drivers: Assuming your hardware drivers are causing system instability, you may want to download and install updated drivers from your manufacturer’s website and install them in Safe Mode. If your computer is unstable, you’ll have to do this from Safe Modee — the hardware drivers won’t interfere and make your computer unstable in Safe Mode.
  • See Whether a Crash Occurs: If your computer is unstable normally but works fine in Safe Mode, it’s likely that there’s a software problem causing your computer to crash. However, if the computer continues to crash in safe mode, this is often a sign that there’s a hardware problem with your computer. (Note that stability in Safe Mode doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a hardware problem. For example, your graphics card may be faulty and causing crashes under load. However, it may be stable in Safe Mode because your computer isn’t performing demanding operations with it.)

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Beyond Safe Mode: Reinstalling Windows

If you are having computer problems, it’s often not a good use of your time to spend hours isolating and fixing them. It may be much faster to reinstall Windows and start over with a fresh system.

Of course, reinstalling Windows will cause you to lose your personal files, so be sure you have a backup. On Windows 8, Refreshing your PC will preserve your personal files while replacing the system software.

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If your computer continues to be unstable after a full Windows reinstall, your computer’s hardware may be faulty. A complete Windows reinstall rules out any software problems, unless there’s a faulty hardware driver that needs to be updated.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 06/6/13

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