I’ve been running Windows 7 for about a year and a half now. I have never been a Windows fan but Windows 7 definitely seems the least annoying — and most reliable — version of Windows I’ve seen.

One of the remaining annoyances though is that even though I’ve been pretty careful about what I install on my PC, a certain amount of crapware has crept onto the machine. Crapware is stuff you, the computer user (or “owner” as I like to call myself) never asked for, don’t care about, and don’t want to use, but none the less is installed “for” you when you install something you did want, like a driver for a new piece of hardware. I am not talking about malware here; crapware is harmless but it’s annoying because it slows down the machine. I also have concerns that it’s spying on me a bit, sending “market research” data back to the mother ship. Besides, since I think of myself as the owner of my computer, anything I didn’t explicitly decide I want on my machine has no right to be there.

The particular piece of crapware that is on my nerves today is the help program that came with my Logitech webcam. I am not really opposed to having the webcam help program installed on my machine. What bothers me is that Logitech has decided that the help program needs to start every time I log into my computer. This post documents my quest to make it stop.

Auto-Run Programs

In Windows 7, programs can be configured to start automatically when the computer starts or when a user logs in. Loosely speaking, programs that start automatically when the computer boots are called services and those that starts when a user logs in are called, in the degraded patois that passes for technical English these days, autoruns. “Autorun” is, apparently, considered a noun. I hate that. How do we get from the verb “run” and the adverb “auto(matically)” to a noun? By means of a failing public education system, that’s how! The end result sounds like a particularly virulent form of gastro-intestinal distress: “I’ve got the autoruns.”

I will use the word “auto-run” as an adjective because I just can’t stomach using it as a noun.

Vendors have a penchant for installing their crapware as auto-run programs, either because they fervently believe that their crapware is central to the user’s computing experience and life without it would hardly be worth living, or, more likely, they want their brand name in the user’s face as often as possible for as long as possible. It’s a bit like the “free” advertising-supported PC of the late 1990’s, only without the free equipment.

Auto-run programs used to be called “startup programs” (in days when gramatical standards were a bit higher) and they were controlled via the Start Menu. This seems no longer to be the case.

Good and Bad Auto-run Program

I would first point out that there are some programs that I definitely want to run every time I log in. Norton Internet Security falls into that category. I can see people might want to always start an e-mail program or even Skype or a chat program.

However, every program that starts automatically takes some time to start. If you have too many of them it makes the log-in process slow. If you have way too many, it hogs memory and CPU power, slowing down your ability to run other programs. What I find disturbing is that increasingly, software vendors foist their crapware on us as auto-run programs for whatever reasons — and I doubt that out benefit figures prominently among those reasons.

My point is that you, the owner, should solely make the decision of what programs do and do not run automatically.

Getting Started on Controlling Auto-Run Programs

To start my quest, I typed “disable startup program” into Windows Help. Did I mention that Windows 7 Help is pretty cool? It allows you to type strings and then returns results whose relevance ranges from approximate to comically off-target. It’s like a search engine, but for help. The reason I used “startup program” as a search term is that is what auto-run programs used to be called in past version of windows.

Interestingly, Windows 7’s reply to my query was:

You can improve your computer’s performance by preventing unnecessary programs from running automatically when Windows starts. For information about tools that you can use to do this, go to the Microsoft website.

That page is actually pretty interesting: it wants me to download and install a special program that promises to help me get rid of unwanted autoruns. This sounds a lot like fighting crapware with crapware. I was skeptical, but decided play along. And it turns out the name of this “good” crapware is Autoruns. That’s right: I am going to be giving myself the autoruns!

What Autoruns Reveals

So I downloaded and unzipped the autoruns program. Just to make things confusing, “autoruns” is itself not and auto-run program: it’s a regular program you run in the usual way (by clicking), that tells you about auto-run programs.

If you are following along, you can unzip that file to any destination you want; I just stuck it in my Downloads folder for the time being. Then open the destination folder, right-click on autoruns.exe, and choose “Run as administrator.” You can run it as a regular user, but to actually remove auto-run programs (I still can’t bring myself to say it like they want me to) you’ll need administrator privileges so you might as well start out that way.

The "Logon" tab of the Autoruns program, displaying a disturbingly large list of programs that run automatically when I log in

This is the list of auto-run programs that Autoruns revealed. I feel dirty.

Here’s a screenshot of what autoruns showed running on my machine. There are a lot of auto-run programs! If you try this on your machine and you see a lot of stuff you can’t identify, don’t worry: I don’t understand it either. Windows, in any version, is a big, complicated beast, and even professional Windows technicians don’t understand all of it.

Safely Removing Auto-Run Programs

Autoruns makes is pretty easy to remove auto-run programs in a way that you’ll be able to undo later. There is a check box next to each entry. Just uncheck that, without removing the entry. Danger: it does not look like autoruns has the ability to add auto-run programs, only remove them, so if you actually delete an item from the list you will not be easily able to get it back! You’d have to guess whatever software package included the deleted program(s) and re-install that.

Chances are, if you are going through this exercise you already you have in mind one or two auto-run programs of which you’d like to rid yourself. Another good cue is to look at the “Publisher” column in the autoruns display: generally things published by hardware vendors (such as the maker of your sound card or webcam) are good candidates for disablement. It is unlikely you will accidentally disable the driver because drivers aren’t auto-run programs: they need to start when the computer boots, not when a user logs in. The worst that could happen is you might accidentally turn off some automatic feature that you really do want, like the ability to play a music CD automatically when it is inserted. I am inclined to believe that most of that type of functionality is handled by Windows itself, and most auto-run programs provided by the vendor are superfluous and perhaps redundant.

Disabling a program in autoruns doesn’t stop it from running, it only stops it from starting the next time you log in. To actually stop an auto-run program that is currently running, you have two options:

  1. Hit Ctrl-Alt-Delete and remove the program from the Task Manager. This may seem a bit daunting at first but you can’t mess anything up permanently; the worst that will happen is that your computer will be out of whack until you restart it.
  2. Wait till you’re done editing in autoruns, log out, and log back in (or just restart your computer)

Check that everything is working normally and if it’s not, re-run autoruns and re-enable some of those programs you unchecked.