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How Windows 11 Safe Mode works and when to use it

Windows 11 desktops can run into problems that don't have a clear cause. Safe Mode runs a pared-down version of the OS, making it easier to identify and solve system issues.

Safe Mode is a useful tool to help diagnose performance issues for enterprise desktops, and Windows 11 offers three versions of the operating environment to help the troubleshooting process.

Even the most stable operating system can run into problems, and Windows 11 is no exception. Windows desktops can freeze up, become unstable or fail to boot altogether, halting productivity for users. Fortunately, as an IT administrator, you have several tools that help track down issues with Windows 11 desktops. One of the most useful is Windows Safe Mode, a diagnostic and troubleshooting operating environment that runs a pared-down version of the OS to help isolate and identify system issues.

What is Windows 11 Safe Mode?

Safe Mode provides an operating environment for running Windows 11 in a basic state, where administrators can diagnose and resolve performance issues. For example, admins might use Safe Mode if a user's computer continuously crashes, freezes or displays error messages. These issues can have several causes, such as a malware infection or a recent hardware or software installation. By disabling some of the drivers or software that could cause a boot failure, system crash or other problem, Safe Mode helps admins see where the issue may be coming from.

When a Windows 11 computer is malfunctioning or the operating system is inaccessible, admins should consider using Safe Mode to help troubleshoot the issue. As with Windows 10, Windows 11 offers three versions of Safe Mode.

If the computer runs with no problem in Safe Mode, you can assume there is no issue with the basic system. Instead, the source may be a plugin, hardware driver, malicious file or third-party application.
  • Safe Mode includes a basic Windows UI, which runs only a minimal set of drivers and services and blocks all network connectivity. You can still access files, run applications and diagnose issues, but you're doing so within an isolated, bare-bones environment. This is the standard, most commonly used version of Safe Mode.
  • Safe Mode with Networking works much like basic Safe Mode while adding network connectivity so you can access the internet or other computers on your network. You must be careful when using this version because security protections are disabled in Safe Mode, making the system vulnerable to outside attacks. Be especially wary about using this version if you are investigating potential malware.
  • Safe Mode with Command Prompt takes you to a command prompt window rather than the usual GUI desktop. You can navigate the directory structure and run programs at the command prompt, similar to a command prompt in regular Windows 11. For example, to launch System Configuration, you can run the MSConfig command, or to perform an immediate restart, you can issue a shutdown /r command. This Safe Mode version is meant primarily for administrators or advanced users.

All three versions of Safe Mode operate with a limited set of files, drivers, services and features. If the computer runs with no problem in Safe Mode, you can assume there is no issue with the basic system. Instead, the source may be a plugin, hardware driver, malicious file or third-party application.

Once in Safe Mode, you can take steps to address a computer's problems. For example, you might update drivers, scan for malware, remove a new hardware component, uninstall a recently added application or use System Restore to revert the system to an earlier restore point. If all else fails, you can reinstall Windows 11, choosing whether to retain personal files or user-installed applications.

How to use Windows 11 Safe Mode

Safe Mode did not change significantly between Windows 10 and Windows 11, so anyone familiar with Safe Mode in Windows 10 should have no problem with Windows 11. The key to accessing Safe Mode is to restart the computer and boot into one of the Safe Mode versions. Then Safe Mode will load rather than the regular Windows 11 OS.

Windows 11 provides several options for launching Safe Mode. The main difference between them is how you restart the computer. They all end up at the same place: the Choose an option screen, where you begin the process of booting into Safe Mode. No matter which method you use to restart the computer, the goal is always to get to this screen.

The 'Choose an option' screen with a white selection box around the 'Troubleshoot' option
You can choose which Safe Mode version you want to boot into by selecting 'Troubleshoot' at the 'Choose an option' screen.

The easiest way to get to the Choose an option screen is through the Power button on the Windows sign-in screen or Start menu. In either case, you only need to click the Power button, hold the shift key and then click Restart. The computer will then restart and display the Choose an option screen. You can also get to this screen through the Settings app, System Configuration utility or command prompt, but these approaches require several extra steps, and you still end up at the same place.

If Windows doesn't start properly and you can't access the login screen, you must go through the Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE) to launch Safe Mode. The WinRE is a companion OS installed alongside Windows 11, but it's a little tricky to get to. You must turn the computer off and then on several times. Hold the Power button for 10 seconds each time you turn it off. After it's off, turn it back on, and as soon as Windows launches, turn it off again. After the third restart, the computer should display the WinRE Automatic Repair screen. From there, click Advanced options. This should take you to the Choose an option screen.

Once you've landed on the Choose an option screen, take the following steps:

  • Click Troubleshoot.
  • On the Troubleshoot screen, click Advanced Options.
  • On the Advanced options screen, click Startup settings.
  • On the Startup Settings screen, click Restart.
  • On the second Startup Settings screen, select one of the Safe Mode versions by pressing the appropriate number or function key.
    • 4 or F4: Enable Safe Mode
    • 5 or F5: Enable Safe Mode with Networking
    • 6 or F6: Enable Safe Mode with Command Prompt

After you select a Safe Mode option, the computer will start again and boot into Safe Mode. If you're using basic Safe Mode or Safe Mode with Networking, the screen will show a minimal Windows GUI that displays the words Safe Mode in several places, along with the Windows build number. If you're using Safe Mode with Command Prompt, you'll see only a command prompt window.

After you diagnose and resolve any issues with the computer, you can exit Safe Mode and return to the normal Windows 11 environment. Typically, you only need to restart the computer to get out of Safe Mode. From there, it should automatically return to the regular OS. If it doesn't, and the computer continues to reboot into Safe Mode, launch System Configuration and clear the Safe boot checkbox on the Boot tab beneath Boot options.

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