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What software do I need to troubleshoot Grandma's PC?
March 13, 2007 4:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to visit my grandparents, who want me to look at their slow-running PC. What software should I bring with me?

Here's what I know about the PC: It's a low-end Dell from 2003, running Windows XP, and they're complaining that it "moves slowly." They can't give me many further details, like how much RAM it has. They're on dial-up, but since they've never had cable/DSL with which to compare it, I don't think they're complaining about the Internet speed. I also know that they run Norton, and I've heard horror stories about those products grinding RAM to a halt. However, I can't imagine what else would be that memory-intensive. All they do with the PC is type emails and letters.

I'm bringing my 6 gb USB drive and my XP laptop. I'm no tech wizard, but I can feel my way around. I'd like to know what programs I should run to help diagnose their problem, and since they're on dial-up, I'd like to download them before my trip. Any additional insight would be appreciated.
posted by desjardins to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
StartupList is great for checking out everything that gets loaded at boot.

The other tools on that page are also useful. Honestly, though, Norton is a serious problem.
posted by odinsdream at 4:54 PM on March 13, 2007


I'd bring an external harddrive (or equivalent) to backup their important documents and settings. Then reformat and reinstall (ie. nuke from space... just to be sure). This will most likely be much faster than trying to diagnose whatever virus or spyware they're likely infested with.

Then install avast AVG (or NAV, but I personally hate Norton with a fiery passion), Spybot S&D (& Ad-Aware), and Firefox. And teach them to run regular virus and spyware checks.

I've done this multiple times for family and friends.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 4:57 PM on March 13, 2007


I'd take Portable Apps loaded on a memory stick.

Loads of diagnostic/scan tools on their, and easy as anything to use :)
posted by chrispy108 at 4:57 PM on March 13, 2007


Second Spybot.

X-Setup Pro is my favorite utility for poking around in unhelpfully hidden user settings like startup items. (It's not free, but there's a fully usable trial version.)
posted by Armitage Shanks at 5:06 PM on March 13, 2007


ObUbuntuInstallCD
posted by DU at 5:06 PM on March 13, 2007


you might want to have them fire up taskmanager/processexplorer/msconfig and give you a list of processes/services/startup applications so you can go ahead and google them ahead of time if need be. (no need for them to copy everything down, just tell them how to take a screencap and attach it to an email).

dial up. *shudder*
posted by juv3nal at 5:14 PM on March 13, 2007


The startup list is definitely the first thing I'd check. They've probably installed eleventy gazillion apps and let them all load at startup. Pare them back to just what they need and explain that they can start the other programs if and when they need them.

Also normal spyware and virus checks. Yes, Norton is a hog, turf it out and install AVG. Windows Defender and Spyware S & D will do nicely for getting rid of and keeping out spyware. Yeah and Firefox if you can get them to use it. Hell, any other browser besides IE would be better. You also want to make sure they have automatic updates (for Windows and all anti virus/anti spyware programs) turned on. I notice that a lot of people that have dial up tend to turn automatic updates off, but try to get across to them that they'll continue to have problems if they do that. Tell them to upgrade to a DSL/Cable connection if they hate the slow down so much. Also make sure they have Windows firewall on, or another firewall installed.

I'd actually like to caution against the reformat/reinstall option that i_am_a_Jedi recommends. If you're dealing with a low end Dell, chances are your grandparents don't even have an actual Windows XP disk, even an OEM version, probably just a crummy Repair/Restore disk. This makes reformatting and reinstalling a much trickier procedure. I've fixed dozens of family and friend's computers and never found the "Nuclear" option necessary. Since they are on dial-up though, expect it to take a bit. Yes you can bring installers for the above mentioned programs with you, but you'll still have to get definitions for all such programs, and get all the Windows updates your grandparents may have missed. Honestly, I now consider a dial-up connection one of the worst obstacles to security that can be present on a computer. If they're not on a fixed/limited income, try to get them to upgrade. They might not be aware of how the price of broadband connections has dropped in the last few years.
posted by katyggls at 5:30 PM on March 13, 2007


Additionally: Install and run Crap Cleaner. Run the Windows defrag program.
posted by yclipse at 5:30 PM on March 13, 2007


you might want to have them fire up taskmanager/processexplorer/msconfig and give you a list of processes/services/startup applications

They might not be up to that. The vast majority of computer users wouldn't understand what you were talking about.
posted by watsondog at 5:37 PM on March 13, 2007


I'd switch to avast antivirus instead of AVG, since avast is still free. You might want to try Lavasoft's adaware to fight malware.

If it were me, I'd bring a new hard drive and get the original discs and start over. I'd mount the old drive as the second drive and transfer the data they want. You might be faced with some malware, much of which is nigh-impossible to remove these days, so starting over is the only real guarantee.

Just make sure you have the original CDs and/or the original license keys. Some Dells don't have license keys but the original discs somehow ID the hardware. Well, that's what my local Dell crazy co-worker tells me.
posted by chairface at 5:39 PM on March 13, 2007


How about Autopatcher, in case the Windows updates aren't up to date (since they are on dial-up).
posted by pibeandres at 5:43 PM on March 13, 2007


Firefox if you can get them to use it. Hell, any other browser besides IE would be better.

i personally use and like FF. And it's less vulnerable to spyware, if you insist on going to those kind of sites. But really, if RAM is an issue, Firefox is a big memory hog compared to IE. I know no one wants to admit it has any faults, but both browsers have plusses and minuses.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:52 PM on March 13, 2007


and keep in mind Windows XP needs around 512MB of RAM at a minimum just to run the OS effectively. try it with 256 (which some Dells, amazingly, still come with), and you will struggle to do just about anything.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:54 PM on March 13, 2007


chairface: "I'd switch to avast antivirus instead of AVG, since avast is still free."

Erm, AVG is also still free.
posted by katyggls at 6:42 PM on March 13, 2007


I seriously recommend getting rid of Norton, since it can be responsible for "fatal computer slowdown" all by its lonesome. So, the Norton uninstaller should be one of the things you bring with you (yes, it entrenches its self so deeply that it requires a special uninstaller to get rid of).

Avast would be my recommendation, not that I've had problems with AVG, just Avast is what I use, notably the updates are usually light, which is good for dial-up.

Besides recovery tools, you might want to bring the latest Acrobat installer (make sure you get a real installer, not the "downloader") since you may need it to view things while you're trying to figure out what's wrong.
posted by anaelith at 7:16 PM on March 13, 2007


I second the Ubuntu suggestion. And a Knoppix cd, and an Ultimate Boot CD. Bring a few floppies, too. You probably won't need 'em, but, if you do (BIOS updates, for example), it will be very hard to find a workaround, especially if their computer doesn't have a CD burner in it.

Besides all that stuff, and a bunch of things already mentioned (AVG, Adaware, Spybot S&D, HijackThis, Firefox, Thunderbird, Opera), since they're on dial-up, you might poke around the Microsoft site and see if you can find downloadable versions of the more recent XP Service Packs.
posted by box at 7:19 PM on March 13, 2007


You could always just nuke and pave the drive and put crappy old Windoze back on. I think that this is more efficient than trying to put all of the malware off. Also, make sure they are behind a correctly-configured router. This will help shield them from crap. No one should be directly plugged in.
posted by SciGuy at 8:20 PM on March 13, 2007


lifehacker.com has this article ("How to Idiot-Proof Your Parents’ Computer") recently posted.
posted by niles at 8:27 PM on March 13, 2007


Snag the latest autopatcher for their O/S.
posted by iamabot at 8:52 PM on March 13, 2007



They might not be up to that. The vast majority of computer users wouldn't understand what you were talking about.


Well the assumption was that desjardins would take them through it step by step over the phone. Should be pretty straightforward if you're able to run a copy on your own computer locally & can tell them exactly what to press & when.
posted by juv3nal at 10:35 PM on March 13, 2007


Besides recovery tools, you might want to bring the latest Acrobat installer (make sure you get a real installer, not the "downloader") since you may need it to view things while you're trying to figure out what's wrong.

I'd go a step further and ditch Acrobat altogether - it's a slow and boated piece of software that seems to be forever wanting to download huge updates for no good reason. The tiny free Foxit PDF reader beats it hands down, in my opinion.

There's a fair chance that they've ended up with Real Player installed, which is another piece of bloated, invasive crap-ware that infests the system tray. If so, you might want to strip it out and replace it with Real Alternative and Quicktime Alternative, which both run off the very lightweight Media Player Classic.
posted by boosh at 3:58 AM on March 14, 2007


Definitely ditto on Crap Cleaner. It also has a startup-control utility that works better than msconfig (which somehow lets Quicktime creep back in!).
posted by radioamy at 6:20 AM on March 14, 2007


There are a few extra utilities i use on a regular basis to clean up computers
#1) Tuneup Utilities 2007 - Absolutely fantastic as it lets you remove invalid registry keys, and has a memory optimizing program among others. It also lets you remove a lot of the eye candy (shadows, animated menu's) that windows comes with by default, speeding up your computer noticeably

#2) Microsoft Bootvis - This is essentially a fragmentation program for your boot sector. It sequences all of your boot files (drivers etc. )

Combined the two programs above took my laptop down from a 5 minute boot to about 31 seconds or so. it is also noticeably faster in general.

#3) Avast Antivirus - Free, Fast, Efficient. Best Anti-virus software I have ever used, regardless of the price. It being free is just all that much better

#4) your choice from a huge selection of anti spyware programs, including spy-sweeper and ad-aware. Both are acceptable, although ad-aware is a little bit of a ram-hog.
posted by mrw at 3:58 AM on March 15, 2007


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