Think of Safe mode in Windows 8 as generic “vanilla” Windows 8. If a hardware device conflict is locking up your PC, or if a driver that you recently installed or updated is causing Windows to crash, you can use Safe mode to run Windows 8 in a stripped-down mode.

In Safe mode, external devices can’t be used, and much of the functionality that’s available with your internal hardware is also disabled. For example, you immediately notice that your fancy video card is using the lowest resolution possible (typically 800 x 600 or 1024 x 768) — but at least you can move or delete files and use File Explorer.

To use Safe mode, reboot your PC and hold down the Shift key and press the F8 key right after you see text on the screen. (This is before the Windows banner screen appears, so you have only a second or two.) Click See Advanced Repair Options from the Recovery screen and then click the Troubleshoot button.

If you can still display the Charms bar within Windows, here’s an easier method of reaching the Troubleshoot button: Click the Settings icon and then you can hold down the Shift key while choosing Power→Restart. Click the Troubleshoot button on the screen that appears and then continue with the rest of the steps.

On the Troubleshoot screen, click Advanced Options and then click Startup Settings on the Advanced Options screen. Finally, you’ve reached the end of the Yellow Brick Road, and you can simply click Restart to reboot your PC and display the Startup Settings screen.

Press 4 for standard Safe mode. Besides the lower screen resolution, you’ll note that Windows 8 displays Safe Mode at all four corners of the screen, and opens the Help window with a description of Safe mode and how you can use it. You won’t be able to use any external peripherals or the advanced features of your PC, but at least you can manage files and troubleshoot what’s wrong with your system.

You also notice two other specialized forms of Safe mode on the Startup Settings screen:

  • Safe mode with networking: Press 5, and Windows 8 loads network drivers and services so that you can log on to your network. If you need to copy files from a network server or copy your latest documents to a network drive for safekeeping (just in case), this Safe mode is the one to use. (Networking is disabled altogether in standard Safe mode.)

  • Safe mode with command prompt: Press 6, and Windows 8 loads in Safe mode but reverts to that cryptic DOS-like command prompt. This option should be used only at the request of a tech support person — unless, of course, you’re an ancient DOS-using dinosaur.