When your computer starts to slow down, the traditional response is to look for programs and processes that start automatically and bog the system down. One of my first clues about a computer comes from the number of icons down by the clock in the lower right hand corner.
Only a few of those programs are launched from the Startup folder on the Start menu (although that’s the first place to look). The registration reminders and printer status utilities and media player icons and oh-so-many-more are more often started from registry entries that are harder to get to.
The next step is readily available and well-known: click on Start / Run, type in MSCONFIG and hit Enter, then click the Startup tab. This is a much longer list of startup programs gathered from the menus and registry. You can uncheck any unnecessary items. You may see references to printers that you no longer own, or clearly unnecessary entries for programs you don’t use. Either the item name or the manufacturer may help you identify an entry.
Now please be careful! You’re looking at screens where a few poor choices can kill a perfectly nice computer. If you’re not sure, just leave things alone.
When you exit, the utility will prompt you to restart the computer, then appear after it restarts with a perfectly useless message that you can ignore.
If you are technically confident, then you’ll want to know about Autoruns, a program from Mark Russinovich at Sysinternals (now owned by Microsoft). It has a far more comprehensive list of startup programs and processes, with more details to help identify each item – even a built-in routine to search Google for information about each item in the list. It is also more complex; this is not recommended for the casual user!
Sysinternals has also recently released an update for Process Explorer, which displays a huge amount of information about which program has a file open, and which handles and DLLs have been opened or loaded by running processes.
I’ve also seen positive mentions of WhatsRunning.net, which displays startup programs, running processes, and quite a bit more – no experience with it myself, though.