Here’s how to fix your computer when it only works in safe mode:
The trick is to figure out what part of your system that was disabled by safe mode is causing the problem.
Once you do, you can try to repair or remove the problematic software, and that will resolve the issue.
If you can’t find the culprit, you can always completely erase and restore your computer.
So if you want to learn all about what to do when your computer only works in safe mode, then this article is for you.
What Is Safe Mode?
Fixes for this problem will make a lot more sense when you understand what safe mode is and how it works.
There is safe mode on both PCs and Macs.
These safe modes are not identical, but they are built to serve the same general purpose.
By and large, the thing that makes this mode “safe” is that it automatically disables all third-party kernels.
I’ll explain more about kernels later, but here’s the short and easy version.
Third-party software is barred from automatically loading system-level commands when safe mode loads.
So, if you have Steam on your computer and you like for it to launch whenever you turn on the computer, safe mode will prevent that from happening.
Now, you can still use some third-party software, but it can’t self load.
You have to manually launch it, and even then, only some third-party programs will actually work.
You’ll understand why when we get into drivers a little later, but that’s not important quite yet.
Here’s the real point.
If you have malicious software on your computer, it’s probably not going to work correctly in safe mode because of how safe mode works.
Also, if you have broken third-party software that is messing up your computer, safe mode can help you deal with it.
With all of that covered, let’s look at some of the specifics of safe mode as they pertain to PCs and Macs.
#1 On a PC
All Windows machines are capable of safe mode.
It’s built into Windows functionality, so unless Windows itself is broken, you have safe mode.
To get into safe mode on Windows 10 or later, you can get into safe mode from your settings, from the sign-in screen, or even from a blank or black screen.
One of the defining features of safe mode in Windows is networking.
Basically, there are two versions of safe mode.
One does not load any networking drivers.
You can think of this as an extra-safe mode.
Since there are no network drivers, no software can connect to the internet, and malicious software can’t upload or download anything.
Also, safe mode without networking is an extra-reduced environment that really lets you narrow down your troubleshooting.
Windows also has safe mode with networking.
If you want to try to install updates or download tools to help fix the problem, you’ll want this version of safe mode.
#2 On a Mac
macOS also has safe mode capabilities by default.
For any version of macOS that is still in support, you can get there by turning on the computer and holding the shift key.
Keep holding the key until the login window appears.
At that point, you can let go and sign in.
You will be in safe mode.
Safe mode on a Mac is very similar to that of Windows, but there is only one version for your Mac.
Networking is enabled by default in this safe mode, so you can always try to download drivers or other tools if you think it is necessary.
Safe mode for a Mac is more focused on disabling startup items and third-party kernels.
The idea is that this mode is only running the essential systems of macOS.
So, if something works in safe mode and not otherwise, you know that one of the things disabled by safe mode is the culprit.
The rest of this article is going to explain how to find out which thing is the culprit and how to deal with it once it is identified.
Why Would a Computer Only Work in Safe Mode? (3 Possible Reasons)
As I have mentioned a few times now, the purpose of safe mode is to turn off as many extra things as possible while still enabling the computer to run.
Even though safe mode is a little bit different between Macs and PCs, the troubleshooting is very similar for both platforms.
So, I’ll be explaining everything in general, and I’ll point out specific differences for each system if and when it becomes necessary.
The gist of all of this is that you’re trying to figure out which turned-off item is messing up your system, and there are three specific places you can try to look.
#1 Third-Party Kernels
We’re going to start with third-party kernels.
Technically, any software that isn’t included with your operating system needs to load third-party kernels, but I want to focus on legitimate software in this section.
We’ll talk about malware next.
Let’s start by covering what a kernel actually is.
To keep it light, a kernel is the layer of code that allows software to tell hardware what to do.
It’s infrastructure-level code for software.
Now, your operating system has a ton of kernels in it, and many of these have to load even in safe mode.
But, your operating system should be able to work just fine without any third-party kernels.
So, using Steam as an example, that is software that has to load its own kernels in order to function.
For Steam to be able to connect online, draw images on your screen, and do all of its stuff, it needs to be able to send commands to your computer’s hardware.
The kernels are essential for this.
But, Windows and macOS don’t need Steam at all to do their own thing.
So, when you load safe mode, the operating system will work normally, but Steam won’t automatically launch, and it won’t be able function normally.
Keep in mind that Steam is just one example.
All third-party programs and apps will be treated the same way.
All of that said, you can still try to manually launch Steam once you are in safe mode, and when you do that, the computer will try to load necessary kernels in order for Steam to function.
Whether or not this works depends on drivers as well, and I’ll cover that soon.
First, I want to talk about malware.
Microsoft and Apple are not in the business of including malware in their operating systems.
So, if you do have a virus, adware, or any other malicious software, you can call it third-party software.
What this means is that safe mode prevents malicious software from being able to load essential systems that make them function.
Malware needs kernels too, and without them, it has to sit around not doing anything.
By and large, malware doesn’t work in safe mode.
Now, it is possible to design malware that works solely by using essential services and systems, but it’s extra hard to do and rather uncommon.
The point is that very rare malware might still work in safe mode, but most types won’t.
All of this is to say that you can use safe mode to get around the malicious software and then remove it.
Once you do, your computer should work normally again.
When I get into fixes a little later, I’ll specifically explain how you can remove malicious software while in safe mode.
#3 Driver Issues
The other big thing to look into with safe mode is drivers.
Safe mode does load some drivers, but most are left turned off.
There are a few reasons for this.
First, a lot of drivers are really third-party software, and that gets turned off by default.
Also, safe mode is trying to simplify the operating system to make it easier to find problems.
The more drivers you can leave off in safe mode, the better you are doing in this respect.
So, in safe mode, you might not have any sound.
Wi-Fi might not work.
You might not be able to control your graphics settings.
There are a lot of possibilities, and it depends on whether or not you need third-party drivers for these functions.
This is why some software will work ok in safe mode while other software won’t.
Kernels aside, software needs drivers to communicate with your computer’s hardware.
The kernels are the set of instructions that tell the computer’s hardware what to do.
Drivers are basically translators that ensure the hardware can actually understand those instructions.
So, if you have a third-party web browser on your computer, it might not need any third-party drivers in order to function.
It’s mostly just using the core visual and networking drivers, so as long as those are turned on (always on for Mac and sometimes on depending on which safe mode you use for PC), the browser will probably work just fine.
Other types of software need to include their own drivers, and that can prevent such software from functioning in safe mode.
If there’s one thing to take away from all of this, it’s that drivers can cause problems outside of safe mode.
But, if your computer works in safe mode and not normally, the inherent drivers (the ones made by Microsoft or Apple according to your type of computer) are not the problem.
How Do You Fix the Problem When a Computer Works Only in Safe Mode? (5 Steps)
We’ve covered a lot up to this point.
Since you know so much about safe mode now, the steps to fix problems should be easier to follow.
I’m going to take you through a process that will resolve virtually all instances of this problem.
Computers are complicated, so you might have the 1 in 10 million exception to the rule, but otherwise, you can fix your computer by going through this process in order.
Safe mode is an isolation tool.
The entire purpose is to help you narrow down possibilities.
The fact that your computer works in safe mode and not regular mode already tells you where the problem is.
One (or more) of the things that safe mode turned off is what’s messing up your computer.
So, you want to extend the idea of isolation.
You can try launching software one at a time in safe mode to see if any of them break the computer’s functionality.
If that happens, then you found your culprit.
If that doesn’t work, then the next thing you want to do is turn off all startup items.
Here are the instructions for Windows and macOS.
Turn off all of them, no matter how much you might like some of them.
Once you do, start up the computer normally, and see if the problem persists.
If things work normally, then you know that one of those startup items is the problem.
You can turn them on one at a time, rebooting the computer after each one, and see when things break.
You’ll have to go back to safe mode at this point, but you know what the culprit is.
Turn it off as a startup item, and then move on to the next steps.
If turning off all of the startup items doesn’t make the computer work in normal mode, then you have still ruled things out, and it’s time to move to the next section.
There are two components to this.
If you know specifically which bit of software is the problem, then try to run updates on it.
You can normally do that from safe mode with networking.
If the program won’t run in safe mode, then skip to the next step.
If you don’t know which program is the problem, then run as many updates in safe mode as you can.
There’s a good chance that you have a faulty driver or kernel in all of that third party software.
Since you can’t rule it out individually, mass updates are the answer.
This will fix a lot of potential problems.
For any software that you can’t successfully update, you’ll need to uninstall and reinstall the software.
You can uninstall the software in safe mode.
Then, reboot to normal mode.
If the computer works, you know for sure that you found the exact problem.
Once in normal mode, you can try to reinstall the software.
Make sure you download it from the source so that you get the most updated version.
If it still messes up your computer after a reinstall, then go back to safe mode and uninstall it one more time.
You can’t fix this with easy means.
You’ll want to contact the developers and get their help resolving the situation.
Or, if it’s not important to you, you can leave it off of your computer and move on with your life.
But, if at this point you still have no idea what is causing the problem, then you need to do a malware scan.
If you’re not reading this in order, technically, you can do a malware scan whenever you want.
All that matters is that you find a scanning tool that works in safe mode.
They do exist, but there’s no perfect master list.
You’ll have to do a little research for this part.
Also, you’ll want to make sure you go to safe mode with networking, as you’ll probably need to download your scanning tool (and possibly update it too).
Scan for malware.
If you find some, let the software remove it.
Then, reboot the computer and go to normal mode.
There’s a good chance that it will work.
#5 Clean Wipe
After all of that, if you still haven’t fixed the computer, then you’re out of simple options.
You can’t isolate the problem to fix it specifically, so the best option is to completely erase and reinstall your system.
Before you do this, go into safe mode and back up everything that is important to you.
You want to focus on backing up files that you care about but not programs and apps themselves.
You should be able to reinstall programs and apps after the wipe.
When you’re sure that everything is backed up, you can move on with the wipe and reinstall.
Remember, you’re trying to erase everything and reinstall.
That’s the best way to kill the rogue software that is plaguing your computer.