Sysinternals Autoruns is one of those tools that, once you've used it, you'll use from then on. It really is that handy. Not only can it manage startup applications, it can help with a host of other issues that plague Windows-based systems. What Autoruns does is simple: It combines the power of the Task Manager and the Services Manager (with a few extra features to boot) into one, easy-to-use package.
Unfortunately, many users either don't know about Autoruns or they're so new to it, they have no idea what it can be used for. So if you're new to Autoruns — or you just want a refresher course — these tips will help you get up to speed.
1: Don't let Autoruns be your only protection
Yes, Autoruns can prevent malware, spyware, and some viruses from starting up, but that doesn't mean you should depend it as your sole protection from these issues. In fact, don't think of Autoruns as protection at all. Although it's a powerful tool that can temporarily aid in the protection from viruses, malware, and the like, it is not a preventative measure. The best way to make use of Autoruns, with regard to viruses, malware, and spyware, is to temporarily disable a suspected malicious application so it can be removed.
2: Let Autoruns handle your startup apps
Forget adding and removing applications to and from the Startup folder. Autoruns does a much better job handling those startup applications. From within the Autoruns window, you can view a list of every application running and then, one by one, disable or enable each them. When an application is disabled, it does not disappear from the list. So those possible startup applications will always be there for you to re-enable later. This saves from having to search for the executable and create a shortcut in the Startup folder. And with Autoruns, you can easily manage applications that might otherwise be hidden from view.
3: Manage Internet Explorer add-ins
Some Internet Explorer add-ins can wreak havoc on a machine. I've seen it a number of times. Whether it's a toolbar or a plug-in, the easiest way to enable/disable these is through Autoruns. This is especially true when the add-in is preventing IE from starting. For this, just open up Autoruns, click on the Internet Explorer tab, and disable the suspect toolbar or plug-in. If it's unclear which is causing the problem, disable all of them but one and open Internet Explorer. If IE doesn't open with that one toolbar or plug-in enabled, the guilty party has been found. Disable it, enable the non-guilty parties, and restart Internet Explorer. Once you've identified the culprit, uninstall it (and reinstall it, if the tool is needed).
4: If unsure, search online
Autoruns has a great built-in feature that lets you select an entry and then automatically Googles the correct text string for that entry. This is the perfect way to get information about an Autoruns entry that is unclear. Before taking any action on an entry that has no description (maybe only a registry key listing), right-click it and select Search Online. This search will bring up the results for the precise string to help you understand exactly what the entry does. For example, if I click on the Everything tab, I see an entry for pku2u.dll. If I right-click on it and select Search Online, a number of hits come up that indicate this .dll file is a necessary component of the Windows 7 operating system. I know not to disable or delete this .dll.
5: Save configurations
One Autoruns feature I use a lot is the ability to save, load, and export Autoruns configuration files. This allows for multiple autostart configurations on one machine. To make use of this feature, configure Autoruns for a specific purpose and then save the configuration file (click File | save). The file will be saved as an .arn file type. To load a specific configuration, click File | Open and then locate the configuration file. Be sure you keep a known working configuration as a clean .arn file. A saved, clean .arn file can also be compared to the currently running .arn file by clicking File | Compare. Locate the file to be compared and click Open. Any new entries will be highlighted in green. This is a great way of ensuring a machine run smoothly because you can quickly remove unnecessary entries after comparing them to the clean version.
A go-to tool
The Sysinternals Autoruns application should be in every administrator's toolkit. Not only does it help in the removal of malware and viruses, it allows for fine-grain control of startup applications on your Windows-based PC. If used wisely, Autoruns can keep your machine running smoothly and reliably.
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Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.