Updated: May 27, 2013
This article begins with a question: How do you enter the Safe Mode in Windows 8? Well, the question is most interesting, and it seems to be bothering a lot of people out there, who find the lack of a distinctively simple way of entering the safe mode somewhat troubling.
All right, I will tell you all there is to know, and how you can manage your Windows 8 installation smartly, taking into account the new changes in the overall mechanism. First we discussed UEFI, then the new OEM Activation, and now we focus on the safe mode functionality. All that said, I still honestly think that you should avoid this operating system, but it's up to you.
Safe Mode - Why and when
In Linux, you get the so-called failsafe mode, in pretty much every distribution. It used to feature as a separate entry in the GRUB menu, and it usually meant loading your system with only a very basic set of drivers. Some of the more popular Linux editions started phasing out this particular entry from their menus. Not that this is any big problem, because you can always easily edit the bootloader menu, add your own stuff, and Bob's your uncle. Let us not forget the ability to restart the graphic session, switch runlevels, load old kernels, or boot into the rescue mode. A whole lot of freedom.
The same thing here, with Windows 8, except you get no ability to do any of the stuff mentioned. Windows 8, much like the recent Ubuntus and family, hides the maintenance mode from your eyes. In earlier versions, you could simply hit F8, and the menu for choosing alternative startup modes was available. You had the choice of booting into safe mode with or without networking, command prompt, and a few other lovely options. This is no longer available.
In theory, the F8 button still works, but the fraction of time you have to press the button before the system boots is so small that it becomes voodoo magic, and we definitely do not want to spent time rebooting and hammering on the keyboard like monkeys. Which brings us to the cardinal question: why and when do you need the safe mode?
Safe Mode use cases
There are only a few scenarios that I can think of, where one might want consider booting voluntarily into the Safe Mode: 1) malware cleaning 2) sorting out buggy drivers 3) performing uninstallation of a nasty, stubborn program, almost like the first option.
Other than that, I cannot think of another valid reason for booting into the Safe Mode. But now that the freedom to exercise this thing you never needed is gone, the geeks and nerds worldwide are clamoring. It's a paradox really. And I truly understand their non-existent pain. They want the option to be there, even if they will not be using any time soon or ever.
It's much like the Start button slash Start menu thingie in Windows 8. Had Microsoft left the option to disable the Tiled interface, fewer people would have been inclined to fight it. But the fact they forced the new crap on users made so many of them install the Classic Shell or ditch the operating system altogether right away, when they might have been more lenient or willing to test the new capability. Such is the way of the world.
How does Safe Mode in Windows 8 work?
It's simple. If your system is not bootable for some reason, you will have the option to boot into the Safe Mode. If the system is bootable, then you can force the Safe Mode on your own. So let's check these two scenarios, starting with the easier one.
How do you enter the Safe Mode on your own?
If the system boots properly, which means you can reach the desktop, then you can start the msconfig utility, switch to Boot tab, and then select the Safe boot checkbox. This will make Windows 8 boot directly into the Safe Mode, and will continue doing so until you uncheck the box.
The following will allow you to work around problematic problems and drivers, fix malware issues if you have them, and other woes. Another useful method for working around critical problem is by using the Driver Verifier tool, as I have elaborated in my Windows BSOD guide.
You might also be tempted to use System Restore, although I personally advise using full system imaging instead. Not only does this allow you to create sane, clean baselines for your setup, allowing you to roll back changes as you please, you do not rely on the system functionality to let you do that. I have written two tutorials on free imaging solutions for Windows, although CloneZilla seems to be the best one.
What won't work
Now, a friendly advice so you don't waste your time trying nonsense solutions. One, trying to chainload the Windows 8 Safe Mode from GRUB does not seem a viable option. Two, do not try to use the F8 button, it's unnecessary. Three, trying to force Windows to display the boot menu and recovery options when needed for a long period of time will only work if you have more than one operating systems recognized by the Windows bootloader. Again, this can be set in the Startup and Recovery menu.
Now comes the trickier part. For whatever reason, be it a forced cold boot, BSOD, buggy drivers, or anything of that sort, Windows may not perform its startup and shutdown cycle cleanly. When this happens, the system will present you with the recovery console on its own, without you having to play with your keyboard.
Then, you can plain reboot, turn off the machine, or troubleshoot. You can use the Refresh and reset options to wipe clean your system, as I have already explained in a separate tutorial.
Apart from the fancy blue colors and fonts, the Windows 8 recovery console is no different than the one present in Windows 7, if you recall my dual-boot article. You can perform system restore or system image recovery if you're using the built-in tools. You can try to automatically repair broken and missing system files. You can change the Windows startup behavior for misbehaving programs and services, or use the command line if you are savvy enough. In this regard, PowerShell and WMIC skills come extremely handy.
Here are several more screenshots showing the details of the options above:
When it comes to automatic repairs, there's no guarantee, so you'd better have a solid and proven backup strategy in place, and use imaging to restore the system to a pristine state. Otherwise, you might be disappointed by the new recovery functionality, blue colors notwithstanding.
Now, let's walk through the earlier-mentioned use cases and see what we can do to handle the problems, knowing that we do not have the ability to invoke the Safe Mode on whim unless we can boot into our system or the system refuses to boot.
Do not get infected. Simple. Do not download and install crap. You should consider utilizing smart security solutions, like limited account or perhaps EMET. Everything else is just for show. If your system is so crippled that it can't boot properly, you will want to reinstall or reimage anyhow, so the Safe Mode means nothing here.
If your system crashes, you will get your Safe Mode. If it's bootable, then, run the Driver Verifier or selectively boot into the Safe Mode using msconfig, and problem resolved. Well, sort of. You still have your buggy drivers to fix.
Awful software and whatnot
Not much different than what we have above.
And thus, we cover all the angles, the entire spectrum, plus infra-red. If you can boot into Windows, you can do anything you want, including stopping services, removing programs, reverting drivers to older versions, using system restore, data backups, and everything else that comes to mind. And if your box is truly bodged, then Windows will be smart enough to offer you the recovery console on its own.
And that's all you need to know.
There are two things at hand here - people being bothered by the change in how the Safe Mode is activated, and the actual functionality that is available once it is activated. From the system perspective, nothing has changed really. Windows remains as reliable as it ever was, for good or worse. The integrity of your data and system are entirely your responsibility, and you should not count on automatic tools.
When it comes to users and their chagrin, ask yourselves this: how many times in your life as a Windows user did you start the Safe Mode voluntarily? Not a lot. So why are you so bothered by the invocation change? It's not such a big deal. It's not a deal really. Everything remains as it was. We're done here. Bye, bye now.