Diagnose boot problems in Windows XP using MSCONFIG

Getting to the bottom of a Microsoft Windows XP boot problem doesn't have to be a lesson in patience. The MSCONFIG utility will help you identify the possible problem area. Steve Pittsley explains all the features.
Original article by Steven Pittsley

Among all the wizards and utilities in Microsoft Windows XP is one great utility that has its roots in the Windows 9.x product line: the System Configuration Utility, or MSCONFIG. This handy utility allows you to make changes to boot files and startup parameters when troubleshooting boot problems. I'll teach you all about the features included with MSCONFIG so you can eradicate pesky boot problems from a Windows XP workstation.

Launching MSCONFIG

To use MSCONFIG, click the Start button and select Run. In the Open box, type MSCONFIG and click OK. The utility will open, as illustrated in Figure A.

Figure A

You must be logged on to the computer using an Administrator account before you can run MSCONFIG.

The MSCONFIG window contains six tabs: General, SYSTEM.INI, WIN.INI, BOOT.INI, Services, and Startup. We'll take a closer look at each of these tabs in the following sections.

The General tab

The MSCONFIG General tab gives you some basic options for starting a computer. As shown in Figure A, the default setting for the utility is Normal Startup. The other two options for starting the computer are Diagnostic Startup and Selective Startup.

Diagnostic Startup allows you to start the computer with only the most basic devices and services that are needed for the computer to run. This startup gives you a clean environment for troubleshooting.

Selective Startup provides a variety of startup options that you can use for troubleshooting. By default, all the options under Selective Startup are chosen. However, deselecting one of these preselected options allows you to prevent one or more of the Selective Startup options from running.

For instance, if you think one of the programs that launch on startup is causing a problem, you can deselect the Load Startup Items option to prevent any startup program from launching. While this won't help you determine which program is causing the problem, it will help you isolate the problem to a certain area. Please note that you're unable to select the Use Modified BOOT.INI file unless you make a change on the BOOT.INI tab, which I'll discuss later.

Finally, the Launch System Restore button provides easy access to the System Restore function, and the Expand File button is a very useful feature if you encounter a corrupted file and want to restore it.


The SYSTEM.INI and WIN.INI tabs are included for legacy compatibility, and you may not need to use them very often. These tabs give you the ability to modify the SYSTEM.INI and WIN.INI files or prevent lines of code from executing when the computer is started.

In Figure B, each line of the SYSTEM.INI file is displayed in the window. Sections of the file, such as drivers, are expandable to allow you to work with the lines of code in those sections. You can also deselect a section to prevent the entire section from being executed.

Figure B

Deselect a section to prevent the entire section from being executed.

The Move Up and Move Down buttons allow you to move lines or sections to other locations in the file. The Find button is used to search the file; the New button lets you add new lines; and Edit lets you change the value of a line. The Enable All and Disable All buttons at the bottom of the window will select or deselect all the lines of the program. Using these buttons to alter these files is much easier and safer than using a text editor to perform the same tasks.

As you can see in Figure C, the WIN.INI tab provides the same functionality as the SYSTEM.INI tab.

Figure C

Same as before, select and deselect.

Boot options using the BOOT.INI tab

The BOOT.INI tab, shown in Figure D, gives you many options for starting the computer. The top portion of the window contains the BOOT.INI file that the computer is currently using. You cannot edit this file using MSCONFIG. You can change the timeout value for the boot menu. Even if you can't edit the file, it is easy to view the file when you use MSCONFIG.

Figure D

Microsoft recommends that you don't attempt to use MSCONFIG to edit BOOT.INI unless you're directed to do so by a Microsoft support professional.

Three of the four buttons provided in this window are for editing purposes and are grayed out by default. The Check All Boot Paths button is used to verify that the boot paths in the BOOT.INI file are correct. When you click this button, you'll receive either an error message you can use for troubleshooting or a window alerting you that the boot paths have been verified.

Boot option pane

The most valuable functions on the BOOT.INI tab are the boot options, which are explained below. You can use these choices for a variety of troubleshooting techniques:

  • /SAFEBOOT gives you suboptions for starting the computer.
    • /SAFEBOOT with MINIMAL starts the computer in Safe Mode.
    • /SAFEBOOT with NETWORK starts the computer in Safe Mode with networking support. Note: /SAFEBOOT with NETWORK does not load the normal network configuration; instead, it loads a generic TCP/IP network configuration.
    • /SAFEBOOT with DSREPAIR is used to repair Directory Services on Domain Controllers.
    • /SAFEBOOT with MINIMAL (ALTERNATESHELL) starts the computer in Safe Mode with Command Prompt.
  • /NOGUIBOOT starts the computer without the VGA video driver that displays graphics during the boot process and Blue Screen crash information.
  • /BOOTLOG enables boot logging to help you debug and troubleshoot startup problems.
  • /BASEVIDEO starts the computer using a standard VGA video driver, as opposed to the one installed for the graphics card.
  • /SOS causes the driver names to be displayed when they're loaded. You can use this switch to diagnose driver-related issues.
The BOOT.INI Advanced Options screen, shown in Figure E, offers you more options for starting your computer:
  • /MAXMEM limits the amount of memory that Windows XP can use. You can use this switch if you believe that your system has a bad memory chip.
  • /NUMPROC limits the number of processors used in a multiprocessor system.
  • /PCILOCK stops Windows XP from dynamically assigning system resources to PCI devices. The devices will use the BIOS configuration instead.
  • /DEBUG starts the computer in debugging mode. It allows you to configure the machine with three additional suboptions, as follows:
    • /DEBUG with /DEBUGPORT specifies the communications port to be used for debugging.
    • /DEBUG with /BAUDRATE specifies the baud rate to be used for debugging. The default baud rate is 9600 with a modem and 19200 with a null-modem cable.
    • /DEBUG with /CHANNEL specifies the 1394 communications channel for debugging.

Figure E

These are the advanced options.

Working with the Services tab

The MSCONFIG Services tab, shown in Figure F, allows you to prevent specific services from starting when the computer is started. This is extremely useful when you're troubleshooting service-related problems.

Figure F

Microsoft has designed the majority of services in Windows XP. To make it easier to find a non-Microsoft service, you can select the Hide All Microsoft Services option.

Troubleshooting using the Startup tab

The Startup tab lets you prevent items in your startup folder from starting when you log in. As you can see in Figure G, you can simply deselect the service to prevent it from starting. If you want to disable all the services, click the Disable All button. To enable all the services again, click the Enable All button.

Figure G

These are the startup choices.

My favorite feature

The System Configuration Utility is easy to use and will help you troubleshoot a wide variety of Windows XP boot problems. The ease with which you can temporarily modify the boot files, system services, and startup files makes MSCONFIG an extremely useful troubleshooting utility. The best troubleshooting features I have found are the boot options located within the BOOT.INI tab. Remember to use caution when manipulating boot option parameters and always write down any changes you make in case you get stuck.

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Mark Kaelin is a CBS Interactive Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He is the host for the Microsoft Windows and Office blog, the Google in the Enterprise blog, the Five Apps blog and the Big Data Analytics blog.

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