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Computer Care: Safe Mode helps you track down system problems
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Before you call a technician to fix your computer, there are a couple of things you could try on your own. System Restore is one option, but we covered that in a previous column. Safe Mode is another option. The former loads an alternative version of the registry, one when everything was working the way it should.

When you can’t boot normally into Windows, the latter lets you into a version of the OS with only the absolute necessities running, allowing you to attempt repairs. You will not have sound, Internet or printing capabilities and the display will look different. It will load with only 16 colors and a resolution of 640 x 480, making everything look larger. Although limited, you will have enough functionality to troubleshoot your problem.

Once there, you’ll be able to destroy malware, eradicate viruses, address system conflicts and repair your registry, if it warrants it.
So how do you get there? Reboot your computer and tap the F8 key immediately after the initial messages appear on screen. If you get to the Windows logo, you missed your window of opportunity. Reboot and try again.

You’ll see a window entitled “Advanced Options Menu” if you did it correctly. The top option is Safe Mode, but there’s another one you should try first.

Halfway down the list, find “Last Known Good Configuration” and click on it. It is a form of System Restore that will take you back to better times. It may or may not work for you, but it’s worth a try.

After booting into Windows with that option, if nothing has changed reboot and try again. This time hit the top Safe Mode option. You’ll get a confirmation pop-up advising you that you’re about to enter Safe Mode. Click “Yes” to continue.

If you get a password window and don’t have one, just hit enter and continue. You’ll see a black screen with scrolling text. This is normal. When it settles down and you are in Windows, you’ll see the words “Safe Mode” in all four corners of the screen.

If this didn’t work for you, there is another way to get there. From inside Windows, click “Start,” and then “Run” in XP or use the Search box in Vista or 7. Type “msconfig” to bring up the System Configuration Utility. Under the Boot.ini tab, check the box next to “Safeboot” and make sure the “minimal” option is also checked. When you reboot, you’ll be where you need to be.

Now it’s time to get to work. You’ll need to play detective and try to figure out what changes to your system stopped it from working properly. Determine if the culprit was newly added hardware, software or an updated driver.

When you add these things, it’s important to be certain they are compatible with your particular operating system. Windows is not Windows. If you have Win 7, make sure the box or Web site you got it from says, “Compatible with Windows 7.”

Use the proper delete method for whatever you are getting rid of. Control Panel has Add/Remove Hardware and Software utilities or you could use third-party applications.

Uninstall that new program, reboot and see if it helped. Then try uninstalling the printer or mouse you just added, reboot and see if that helped. Then try the drivers. Do it in steps.

If you want to roll back a device driver, go to Device Manager and double-click on the mouse, for example. Then choose to roll it back to a previous version.

To get out of Safe Mode, you only need to reboot normally, unless you had to use the System Configuration Utility. In that case, go back and uncheck the box you initially checked for Safe Mode.

If all of this troubleshooting fails to remedy your problem, it’s time to get out the big guns. Find your Windows CD.

If you boot to it, you can choose to initiate a Windows repair. If you’re not careful, you’ll be reinstalling Windows, which you may have to end up doing anyway, but not yet.

 The second time you’re asked, hit “R” to run the repair module. It will appear as if Windows is reinstalling, bit in fact it is just copying and replacing files. When all is done, you’ll still have your programs and documents.

Don’t abort this process. You’ll only be asking for more trouble if you do and will have to finish it later anyway.

If the repair didn’t take, the last thing to try is a complete and full reinstallation of Windows. That WILL delete your files and you’ll be starting from scratch. But at least everything will work as it should.

Don’t jump to conclusions so fast though. That’s why there is Safe Mode. It will let you in to fix the system when you couldn’t normally. Try using it first. It could save you both time and money.

We techs are always here if you need us.

Arthur Glazer is a freelance writer and computer technician in Gainesville. His column appears biweekly. Arthur welcomes your computer questions and ideas for future columns.