Microsoft Windows popularised the concept of booting to safe mode, which in Windows' case is a stripped-down version of the operating system where only the essentials are loaded upon booting.

Although it’s not used anywhere near as much, OS X also has a safe mode, and it does – or should we say, doesn’t do – the following:

  • Only essential kernel extensions are loaded (a.k.a. ketxs, or hardware and software drivers)
  • Startup apps and login apps/services are not loaded
  • Fonts you’ve manually installed are not loaded

Additionally, system and font caches are automatically cleaned, and as part of the boot procedure the hard disk is verified and attempts made to repair issues with directories -- a little like Windows’ FDISK command-line app, although what happens is identical to what would happen if you click the Repair Disk button found in of OS X’s Disk Utility.

Read: 10 steps to take when your Mac won't start up and How do I restore my Mac with Time Machine and Five most common Mac problems and how to fix them

Booting into safe mode on Mac OS X

Sound useful? All you need do to boot to OS X safe mode is hold down the Shift key just before the Apple logo appears when you reboot or start-up your Mac. When the progress bar appears you can lift your finger. Unlike with Windows there’s no text on the desktop once Safe Mode starts to show you’re booted into it, and you won’t be limited to a tell-tale low screen resolution either. However, clues will be present in the fact the system might seem slow to respond, and animations might appear jerky.

You can boot into safe mode on a Mac by holding down Shift just before the Apple logo appears, and then watching the progress display

So, what can you do in safe mode? Not much! Aside from the repairs mentioned above, safe mode is designed to let you test your Mac. If a problem you’ve been having doesn’t occur when you boot to safe mode then it’s a safe bet it’s related to a problematic kernel extension (perhaps faulty hardware that kernel extension accesses), or – and this is more likely – it’s related to a third-party app or service configured to start with OS X.

To prune your startup app list, open System Preferences, click the Users & Groups icon, select your username at the left, and click the Login Items tab. Select an item then click the minus button beneath to remove it. Some apps and services hide away in system folders, however, and pruning them is only for advanced users. Removing kernel modules is again only for experts, although on modern releases of OS X it’s pretty hard for developers and hardware vendors to install third-party modules thanks to the requirement for them to be digitally signed, so this is much less likely to be the cause of any issues.

Read next: How to maximise, minimise, open, close and zoom windows in Mac OS X

Things to do in safe mode on Mac OS X

Within the power user community there’s a certain mythology attached to booting into safe mode on OS X. For instance, some people recommend it as a first step should your Mac encounter absolutely any kind of problem. This is probably effective because the caches are cleared by safe mode, and these can become corrupted, although you can clean caches on demand in normal mode using apps like Onyx.

Do bear in mind that cleaning the caches using either method may make for a slower Mac in the first few reboots after it’s undertaken -- after all, the whole purpose of caches is to make your Mac faster.

Some people use safe mode to uninstall apps that otherwise prove “sticky” -- that is to say, they’re impossible to get rid of in normal operating mode because they’re tied to a system service that won’t terminate. In safe mode all non-essential services aren’t loaded, overcoming this hurdle.

Things not to do in safe mode on OS X

Don’t try and do actual work in safe mode. Some apps simply won’t work and the whole system will be slow and unresponsive. However, for problem solving there’s little doubt that safe mode has its uses.

Read next:

Manage Macs on a Windows-based network

How to access your Mac remotely

Mac tricks: 10 Things You Didn't Know Your Mac Could Do

Best bootable backups for Mac

How to backup the data on your Mac, and the horror of SSD data loss