Help speeding up a WinXP machine?
November 25, 2005 1:03 PM   Subscribe

Please help a Mac Guy diagnose and correct a problem with a Windows XP machine!

So I'm at my mother's place for Thanksgiving, and EVERYthing on this machine (a Dell somethingorother running Win XP) is slow: downloads, uploads, word processing, even Solitaire. If this were a Mac, I could maybe figure it out, but I don't know anything about Windows XP.

I've tried the built-in diagnostics, like Defragmenter and Disk Cleanup - they did nothing. I searched online (very slooooowly) for discussion forums with similar queries, and downloaded both Spybot and Ad-Aware, neither of which have done much of anything. (I was convinced it was going to be a spyware problem, but Spybot found no problems.)

One thing I do know is that this machine has on it McAfee VirusScan, v.7.03.6000, and the last update of virus definitions was about a year and a half ago(!!). I realize I can download these definitions from McAfee, but I'd have to pay. Which is fine, and I'll do that if I have to. But, before I do, my questions are:

- What are some tactics/programs (prefrably free downloads, or something built-in to XP) I can use to speed this thing up?
- Is this likely a virus issue? If it is, is downloading the long-overdue updates from McAfee the way to go? Or should I get the newest version of Norton and start from scratch? Are there other virus-removal programs that do not require expensive downloads?

I realize I may not be giving all the information necessary to fix the problem, but I'll monitor this question and answer any follow-ups. Again, I may need a little help, because XP is fairly foreign to me.

Thanks in advance!
posted by Dr. Wu to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You should have the ability to rollback. Start -> Programs -> Accessories -> System Tools -> System Restore --- see if you can restore it to a state as close as possible to the purchase date of the computer. My feeling is she probably has a virus or trojan (Netsky) that's weighing the computer down. McAfee is notoriously slow also, if it's not using up to date virus definition at least uninstall it.

I've been running WinXP Pro for about 3 years now without any problems. My experience tells me it has to be a worm/trojan or some kind of spyware. For some reason these are incredibly difficult to get rid of, so a reformat or system restore may be needed if you can't solve it.
posted by geoff. at 1:09 PM on November 25, 2005

You don't need to pay for updates. Instead install AVG which is free for home use.

If this machine is directly connected to an always on internet connection it's probably owned 16 ways from Sunday. Disconnect from internet, buy firewall/router (I like the WRT54G from linksys) before reconnecting, and do full virus scan of fixed disks. Also uninstall any programs your mother doesn't recognise using Start-> Settings -> Control Panel -> Add remove programs.
posted by Mitheral at 1:14 PM on November 25, 2005

Response by poster: geoff. - thanks for responding so quickly! System Restore sounds ... permanent. It's safe and OK to use, like, right now?

Also, I should tack this on the original question:
What measures can I take to prevent this computer from getting so bogged down in the future?
posted by Dr. Wu at 1:14 PM on November 25, 2005

Try downloading and running LavaSoft's Ad-Aware (free). This is a great program to target any spyware problems.
posted by deafweatherman at 1:16 PM on November 25, 2005

Response by poster: Mitheral: it is, yes, always connected, to a cable modem, I believe. So, yeah, it's probably full of nasties.

As part of the McAfee suite of programs she has on this box, there's a firewall, which does seem to be running. Is this not as effective as the hardware you suggest?
And I will try the uninstall thing when she gets back from, uh, having her nails done.
posted by Dr. Wu at 1:17 PM on November 25, 2005

Spybot will pick up stuff that Ad-aware won't and vice versa. Also free.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 1:19 PM on November 25, 2005

Also go to Windows update and install all recommended updates. Microsoft also has a malware detection tool and Spyware removal beta that you can run to help get rid of this stuff.

AdAware is free for personal use as is Spybot Search and Destroy. Rrun both to identify many unwanted programs.
posted by Mitheral at 1:22 PM on November 25, 2005

Doh, uh, second PurplePorpise and deafweatherman.

Dr. Wu writes "Is this not as effective as the hardware you suggest?"

Once the OS is compromised the firewall software is also compromised. Personally I wouldn't trust a software firewall running on the machine I'm trying to protect any farther than I could spit but I'm old school when it comes to stuff like that.

One of the failings is the software firewall is constantly asking you "Do you want to let this program run/access the net?". Say yes incorrectly even once and you are compromised.

Dr. Wu writes "What measures can I take to prevent this computer from getting so bogged down in the future?"

Once you have a firewall and updated antivirus the next step is education. Basically council your mother to not install stuff suggested by web sites and email. Make sure the antivirus program is updating every day and that it is set to scan every file on access. Scheduling a full virus scan every week couldn't hurt either. Running a defragment on the hard drive (Start -> All programs -> Administrative Tools -> Computer management -> Storage -> Disk Defragmenter) could help, especially if the hard drive has ever got to less than 10% full or so.

Honestly though if a couple hours poking around with the tools that have been suggested doesn't help the best thing to do is reload windows from scratch. Window's registry is so crufty that a nice fresh install is often the best way to go. Half a day setting up windows and installing apps leaves you with a better unit than twice that time spent attempting to clean things up.
posted by Mitheral at 1:46 PM on November 25, 2005

Mitheral's advice is good. I would add two other preventative measures:
  1. Replace Internet Explorer with Firefox as the default browser, and turn on the software update feature in Firefox.
  2. Configure Windows Update to download updates automatically.

posted by mbrubeck at 2:23 PM on November 25, 2005

The problem with system restore is that, yes, it is permanent. You shouldn't lose any data but I've had software become unusable after selecting a restore point. This might be a problem for you/them.

There is a very nice anti-virus program at which I have used for years.

Also, if you are feeling a bit brave, you can go to Start>Run and type "msconfig" into the command line. This will bring up a utility with a bunch of tabs, you are interested in the "startup" tab. This is a list of all of the software that is running at, duh, startup. You can unselect anything that looks like it is unnecessary (a lot of legitimate programs like quicktime and acrobat launch at startup). Turning these off will increase performance quite a bit. To be safe, don't unselect more than 2-3 at a time and make sure you use the computer in between removing selections. This way if something you need is disabled you'll know it right away and can re-enable it. (you don't really have to feel brave, editing msconfig is not that hard and you are unlikely to do any permanent damage if you go 1-2 files at a time and use safe mode)

Finally, you can always press "f8" at startup to go into "safe mode." (The timing can be tricky you may have to sit there repeatedly pressing f8.) This will have the computer running with the bare minimum files. Often trouble shooting is easier in Safe Mode since you are less likely to run into the problems your are trying to debug.

Here is a neat trick that puts this all together. Startup in safemode then hit ctrl-alt-del. Take a look at the running processes, write them down. Now you have a list of the programs that windows absolutely needs in order to work. You can now use msconfig with a bit more confidence (don't unselect anything from that list). Even with this little trick you still want to only unselect 1-2 things form msconfig at a time. It is a bit of a tedious but, better safe then sorry.

Good luck.
posted by oddman at 2:39 PM on November 25, 2005

msconfig is OK, but it's not robust enough and doesn't report many of the more ellusive spyware. Download Hijack This (direct download link). Run a system scan and paste the results here. Hijack This probes every feature of XP that can be used to auto-launch programs and hook things unto the browser. I do tech support part-time at my university and this has become my swiss army knife.
posted by ori at 2:48 PM on November 25, 2005

Found this over on Metafilter today and it looks like a great starting point for swapping out some bulky software for some free, fast, easy to use ones. Ad-Aware, firewalls, anti-virus, browsers, etc.
posted by willmize at 3:01 PM on November 25, 2005

It seems to me that the first step would be to hit ctrl-alt-del and bring up the task manager. Then click on the processes tab and see if something is sucking up CPU and memory. If something looks weird or suspicious, google the process name.

Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if it's McAfee itself -- I find it a real piece of resource-hogging shit whose primary role is to cause mild-but-annoying delays every time you do anything and to turn your machine into a glacier once a day or once a week. My machine at work -- an old p3/800 -- routinely hits 50-99% CPU usage by McAfee.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:30 PM on November 25, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions, everyone. Sorry for the extended absence: the computer was doing weird things again, and I couldn't load any webpages. (Though active downloads continued unimpeded, which I found odd.)

You've given me many good ideas, and I'm going to run through them this evening, when I have a bit more time.

Please, if anyone has any further thoughts, let me know! This 'puter is a mess.

Muchisimas gracias!
posted by Dr. Wu at 3:33 PM on November 25, 2005

How much free RAM in the Task Manager (Performance Tab->"Available")? If less than, say, 70MB or so then there will be lots and lots of paging. XP seems happiest with at least 100MB "Available" RAM. If the machine has become RAM-starved, then this could negatively affect performance.

After installs, software companies often 'helpfully' activate run-on-startup programs or program stubs that stay resident in memory. Many of these are visible as icons in the little bar down on the bottom right of the screen, but not all. After a year or two, a machine can easily have ~100MB of these vampires installed. Unless you are overly concerned with instant startup for some programs, or auto updates, or similar, then you can deactivate many of them and instead use run-on-demand.

You can use the 'msconfig' program to disable many startup programs and services. Too little RAM could be causing too much disk access, which coupled with the following possibility can lead to a system that feels straight out of 1995 or something...

One final thing is to check that the disk DMA is still working on full speed. Activate the computer management application (usually in a folder called something like '"Administrative Tools" or similar). Go to the Device Manager. Click on the "IDE ATA/ATAPI COntrollers" twisty. Get "Properties" for the Primary IDE channel - this is probably the channel that the system disk uses. Go to the "Advanced Settings" tab. The "Transfer Mode" should be some variation of "DMA if available". If it says anything like "PIO" then WIndows has dropped back to a much slower, CPU intensive method of disk access. You can switch it back to the faster one by right-clicking the "Primary IDE Channel" icon and Uninstalling it. Restarting the PC will cause Windows to reinstall it with the fastest setting.

I had one PC that did this constantly, after a few weeks its performance would crawl and it had dropped back to PIO Mode. This happens because Windows detects a time out on a disk several times in a row and interprets it to mean that it should throttle back on disk access. In my case this was unwarranted, and the time outs resulted from the disk employing a rather aggressive power saving mode.

There's more details here, and a fix:
IDE ATA and ATAPI disks use PIO mode after multiple time-out or CRC errors occur

I used the registry fix and the PC has been fine ever since.
posted by meehawl at 3:56 PM on November 25, 2005

Instead of running all the various spy/malware programs separately, I would suggest using Hitman Pro. It's basically a shell that runs several different anti-spyware apps one after another, downloading what you need, updating definitions, checking all the appropriate boxes, running the programs, etc.

The download page is in Dutch, but there is an English-language help file included, and you can choose to have the program menus in English by default.

This program has become the starting point for me when troubleshoothing, as it gets rid of pretty much anything I don't want on the computer in one fell swoop.
posted by gemmy at 4:18 PM on November 25, 2005

oddman's suggestion for MSConfig is a good one. However, don't change any of the services using it. You can royally bork WinXP that way. Also, things like extra functionality for the mouse/video card can be lost by indiscriminately turning off processes.

I'd recommend googling the process that you want to kill - some processes are actually useful.

Additional speed-up-ness;

Setting the virtual memory (when RAM gets filled up or as stuff in RAM hasn't been accessed recently, it spills into a cordoned-off part of the HD to free up RAM) - right click My Computer --> properties --> advanced --> advanced tab --> virtual memory/change.

If there are two HDs on two different IDE channels, set it up on the HD on the non-primary IDE channel, otherwise, it doesn't really matter. Generally, set the minimum and maximumit to be twice the amount of RAM.

This way, the computer doesn't spend time changing the size of virtual memory.

Generally, I also disable system restore. It's also an intermitend resource hog.

Also, yeah, McAfee is a huge resource hog.

If you feel like being a keener about this whole thing, Black Viper's service configuration guide is great. Unfortunately the original site is now down. Fortunately, MajorGeeks hosts a copy.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 4:58 PM on November 25, 2005

Okay, there is some good advice here, there is some bad advice here, but mostly there is a lot of advice here that I'm afraid is over your head, Dr Wu. If you're a Mac person and really never use XP (or any Windows) then msconfig, DMA setting, etc etc are too much for you to try. You'll waste your time and may end up with a worse problem. Give gemmy's Hitman Pro a shot - it's pretty to install and run and may get you pretty well fixed up. If that doesn't do enough for you, call in a pro. A wipe and reload may well be in order - it's not uncommon for that measure to take less time than a full cleanup. Ditto the hardware firewall (a simple router will do it), and the Offensive Unit's hate of McAfee is pretty well justified. (As mentioned, switch to AVG Free.)

If it does come to a wipe and reload and you're feeling adventurous, try it yourself - most of it is not actually that hard. You might get some help with the final configuration, but a lot of it is just clicking OK for the default settings. You might learn some stuff while you're at it.

Also, depending on the age of the machine, whether or not you end up needing to pay someone else to do it, and how much that will cost, seriously consider a new machine. That may sound drastic, but I've had several clients that opted to replace their PCs (anywhere from a couple years old and up) when given an estimate on repair - between troubleshooting, scans, malware removal, then the possibility on top of that of needing data backup, format, reinstall OS, reinstall aplications, configure everything, and restore data. New PCs are cheap. I don't give blanket recommendations for any particular brand, but with Dell for instance you can get a new CPU for probably $300. You shouldn't need monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc.
posted by attercoppe at 5:10 PM on November 25, 2005

Running Crap Cleaner is also a good idea and is sometimes a fast fix for machine slowdowns.
posted by whatisish at 5:39 PM on November 25, 2005

Backup. Reformat. Reinstall from scratch. Install SP2 and every single update on windows update. Install a good firewall and AVG. Make sure automatic updates are on. Disable IE and install opera or Firefox.

It sounds drastic, but if you do not do this then it will just be back to the same old "slow as shit, 0wnz0red twenty ways to sunday" state if you do not. Cleaning it up just fixes it once, think preventative measures. The fact that it was running a virus scanner with year-and-a-half outdated signatures tells you that the owner is not someone that knows or cares about security, so just cleaning the stuff off means it will all come right back.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:06 PM on November 25, 2005

Re:msconfig: you don't really need anything in the startup tab, except for your antivirus. You really really don't need the quicktime loader, or the adobe and office accelerator.
posted by signal at 7:20 PM on November 25, 2005

I second the "backup, re-install windows" solution. Dell PCs come pre-loaded with all sorts of utter crap -- trial versions, etc. -- that just slow them down from day one. McAfee is also a useless, invasive hog -- AVG is light, effective and free. Do all the XP updates, lock it down with a firewall, and my guess is that it'll be better than new.
posted by words1 at 7:31 PM on November 25, 2005

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