Learn about the fundamentals of Autoruns and how you can manage system permissions in this sample chapter from Troubleshooting with the Windows Sysinternals Tools, 2nd Edition.
A question I often hear is, “Why is all this stuff running on my computer?” That’s often followed with, “How do I get rid of it?” The Microsoft Windows operating system is a highly extensible platform. Not only can programmers write applications that users can choose to run, those programmers can “add value” by having their software run automatically without troubling the user to start it, by adding visible or nonvisible features to Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer, or by supplying device drivers that can interact with custom hardware or change the way existing hardware works. Sometimes the “value” to the user is doubtful at best; sometimes the value is for someone else entirely and the software acts to the detriment of the user (which is when the software is called malware).
Autostarts is the term I use to refer to software that runs automatically without being intentionally started by a user. This type of software includes drivers and services that start when the computer is booted; applications, utilities, and shell extensions that start when a user logs on; and browser extensions that load when Internet Explorer is started. Over 200 locations in the file system and registry allow autostarts to be configured on x64 versions of Windows. These locations are often referred to as Autostart Extensibility Points, or ASEPs.
ASEPs have legitimate and valuable purposes. For example, if you want your instant messaging contacts to know when you are online, having the messaging client start when you log on is a great help. Users enjoy search toolbars and PDF readers that become part of Internet Explorer. And much of Windows itself is implemented through ASEPs in the form of drivers, services, and Explorer extensions.
On the other hand, consider the plethora of “free” trial versions of programs that computer manufacturers install on new computers and that fill up the taskbar notification area. Consider also the semihidden processes that legitimate vendors run all the time so that their applications can appear to start more quickly. Do you really need all these processes constantly consuming resources? On top of that, malware almost always hooks one or more ASEPs, and virtually every ASEP in Windows has been used by malware at one point or another.