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What is Safe Mode?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Safe mode is a function mode available in many operating systems, electronics, and software programs in which the device or program has limited functionality to allow the user to focus on performing diagnostic tests. The stripped-down nature of this operating mode is also designed to be safer for the user, as the term “safe mode” implies, since problems and conflicts which can cause errors are generally not loaded when a program is started in this mode.

One of the most classic reasons to start a device or program in safe mode is if the device is not working properly. By restarting in this mode, the user can look for the cause of the problem. For example, a user might have installed a new add-on to a software program which conflicts with the program's normal operations, causing errors. By opening the software in a safe mode, the user ensures that the new add-on doesn't automatically load, which means that the errors will not occur while the user diagnoses the problem.

Operating systems can be started in safe mode to allow people to get rid of malware and viruses which load automatically at startup, or to deal with conflicts caused by the installation of new devices or programs. Many operating systems and electronics are also designed to boot into a safe or limited mode if there is a fundamental system error.

Safe mode has limited functionality, because the system usually turns on a minimum of devices and programs. However, it can take longer to start up, because the device usually tests itself in the process of booting to look for compromises in the system. Users should be aware that sometimes an operating system, software program, or electronic device can look like it is “hanging” while starting up in this mode.

Software programs have a variety of ways to access safe mode, and it's useful to know how to start in a safe or diagnostic mode in case of a problem. In the case of operating systems, Windows systems enter safe mode when the user taps the F8 key during startup, which allows the user to enter a menu which can be used to direct the computer to boot in safe mode. Apple users can hold down the shift key during startup to get into safe mode. It is also possible to boot into this mode with the use of rescue discs, many of which are provided with new computers.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Jun 24, 2011

I actually find it quite annoying on the laptop I have at the moment, that it seems to go into safe mode at the drop of a hat. Or at least, into the starting screen where it asks me if I want to restart in safe mode.

I think it just does that whenever my laptop is shut down without being properly shut down. I still remember when you could just turn off a computer without having to worry about it acting like you committed a crime by not going through the shut down procedure.

I know the procedure is probably important, but sometimes you just have to close it down quickly.

By lluviaporos — On Jun 24, 2011

It's good to remember that it is F8 you have to tap while windows is booting up if you want to know how to boot in safe mode.

Because it does tell you while the computer is loading, but often the screen goes by so fast it can be difficult to find the right key before you are already into the start up screen.

I've only had to use safe mode a few times over the years, but I have found it quite useful when I'm not sure what is wrong with my laptop.

I'm always terrified I'll remove the wrong thing, or change the wrong setting and damage it beyond repair, but in reality I think it would be quite difficult (though not impossible!) to do that.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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