Why is my computer suddenly grumpy, slow, and generally uncooperative?
September 6, 2006 7:22 PM   Subscribe

Why is my computer suddenly grumpy, slow, and generally uncooperative?

In the past week or so, my 4 year old Dell Inspirion notebook has suddenly decided it doesn't much like me anymore and is doing it's best to get me to toss it in frustration.

It's been extremely well maintained (frequent spy/adware/virus scans, careful downloading, frequently cleaned out registry, etc), but the past few days have seen suddenly high loads on the processor, freezing, and a corrupted Firefox profile. The hard drive is just over a year old (though only has ~2GB free). Specifically, my Moz Firefox and Thunderbird have been especially sluggish, and both (with 5 loaded tabs doing nothing) are often using 100% of my 2GHz CPU (or combining with TB for 100%). Ad-Aware, Norton Anti-virus, CCleaner Registry Cleaner, and XP "scan disk" have all been run to no avail. Restarting helps, but only for a little while. Memory is 512MB, and has been enough -- system was working beatifully until recently.

Some ideas: Could CCleaner have deleted some needed Registry items by accident? I have been using uTorrent a little bit of late -- can viruses/spyware be embedded in .AVI files? Could the hard-drive be starting to fail, and are there any programs I can download that can tell me if this is inevitable? Could it be a FF/TB problem, or something with one of my many extensions?

> > > I guess what I am really asking for is suggestions for other tools to help diagnose the problem (or other suggestions). What programs out there might be able to help?

Thanks MeFi.
posted by chefscotticus to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Try "System Restore" to a point in time prior to the slowdown. If you have a registry problem, chances are you have no restore points available. This simple tool has really solved a lot of irritating problems similar to what you are experiencing.
posted by walleeguy at 7:28 PM on September 6, 2006

If it's only Firefox and Thunderbird that have gone stupid, the chances are that one of your extensions has auto-updated and is now not working properly any more. Since FF and TB are both affected, the chances are that the culprit is an extension you've loaded into both.

Try starting FF in safe mode (the safe mode startup shortcut should be in the Start->Programs->Mozilla Firefox menu) which makes FF start without loading any extensions.

If FF doesn't run clean with no extensions loaded, install the current version ( IIRC) and try again.

If you get to a state where FF runs well in safe mode but bogs down in normal mode, you'll need to build a new Firefox profile and migrate stuff over from your old profile one thing at a time until you find out what's killing it. Profile-manipulating instructions are here.
posted by flabdablet at 7:42 PM on September 6, 2006

Having only 2GB free on a large hard disk is generally not a good thing, because it stops the Windows defragmenter from working. It might be worth your while using SpaceMonger to find out which files are the worst hogs, cleaning some out until you have 15% free space, and doing a defrag.
posted by flabdablet at 7:46 PM on September 6, 2006

I think you are running out of memory and since your hard drive is so low on space also running out of room on HD (what OS uses when you run out of ram)

/reccomend buzzsaw + dirms for defragging, also PageDefrag. And drop some cash on another gig of ram, it will make a HUGE difference.
posted by sophist at 8:06 PM on September 6, 2006

Ok, this may seem really obvious, and apologies if it is. But have you recently downloaded/installed any new programs that might be running secretly in the background on your computer? You might want to try glancing at your processes to see if there are any surprising programs or programs with especially high cpu usage.

When I downloaded the latest version of Bittorrent I found that it was running in the background on my computer. My browser and other programs were running incredibly slow until I turned off the Always On function. (Other programs that have been known to do this are Norton Anti-Virus and Norton System Doctor and even stuff like Nero.)

That said, it can never hurt to have more memory and available space on an extra hard drive.
posted by ebeeb at 8:28 PM on September 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

I second the "free up some space on your hard-drive" suggestion. I also second Spacemonger as a great way to do it. In short, what flabdablet said.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:42 PM on September 6, 2006

Nuke and pave. Zero the drive and reinstall, bringing over just what you need to help free up space on your newly-cleaned drive.
posted by SciGuy at 9:45 PM on September 6, 2006

I agree with previous posters that lack of free hard disk space may be your principal problem, but if your older hard disk is a 20 or 30 GB drive, or smaller, 2 GB of free space may not seem as tight as it would if your drive is a 40 or 80 GB unit. Nevertheless, when disk space gets low enough, many Windows processes, including the background defragmenter, the indexing service, and dynamic swap file allocation can all be negatively affected.

Clearing space on your hard drive is probably the most important thing to do immediately, as others have said. You can use Windows SP own Disk Cleanup utility for a quick, safe start. From Windows Explorer, right click Properties on your My Computer --> C:\ drive, and hit the Disk Cleanup button on the General tab of the resultant dialog box. Your machine will examine your disk for temp files and other detritus it considers safe to delete, and will show you the amount of disk space it can free doing so. Click OK to delete these files when the list of deletion candidates is populated (may take awhile if you haven't done this lately).

If you've ever installed any of the popular Undelete utilities, however, Windows may not be able to actually clear disk space of files you think you have deleted, unless you explicitly go into the Recycle Bin, and do whatever that utility wants you to do to irrevocably "nuke" files. That's because most Undelete utilities work by tricking the file system into believing that the disk sectors storing the deleted files have been cleared, when they actually have not been, and in fact, additional space is taken for maintaining the list of sectors for the "deleted" files by the Undelete utility. So, Undelete can hold large amounts of disk space hostage, unless you clean out your protected files manually. For Norton, it's usually something like right click the Recycle Bin, and select "Delete" for the Norton Protected files.

Once you've freed enough disk space to get to something like 4 or 5 GB, or 15-20% of total disk space (if you can get that far), you'd have enough working room on the disk to run Disk Defragmenter manually, which could potentially free a bit more space, if you haven't had it running in the background continuously, or if it hasn't been able to run to completion in a while, due to lack of free space. Let that happen, without disturbing the machine (may take several hours on an older machine). At that point, going through your directory trees and clearing, compressing or archiving data files taking up major space is your next step.

If your disk is using NTFS file system, compressing older files is pretty safe, and can cut text file sizes by 30 to 40%, but will have little or no effect on file formats that are already heavily compressed, like .jpg image files, or mp3 audio files. You can configure Windows to automatically compress all older files in the file system from Windows Explorer, by right clicking your disk, selecting Properties, and checking the "Compress files to save space" option box at the bottom of the General tab. But there is a slight performance hit for doing this, and if you let the disk fill up completely again, it can be more difficult to clear space when you need to.
posted by paulsc at 2:09 AM on September 7, 2006

Best answer: I'm thinking that the problem may indeed have something to do with FF and/or an extension that I have installed. Is there anyway to determine what the additional RAM/CPU load of each extension is at any given time?
posted by chefscotticus at 5:38 AM on September 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've had the same problem as ebeeb with Bittorrent - I second making sure something isn't running in the background.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 7:40 AM on September 7, 2006

Marking your own follow-up question as best answer? Geez...

Looking over your question history gives me the impression that you've tweaked and customized things pretty heavily. Once you get to a certain level of complexity, it's impossible to determine what's interacting with what. I'd back your files up and do a re-install, this time installing as few applications and extensions to applications as possible.

If you don't want to do that, you can try turning off "On Access Scan" in McAfee or the analogous thing in Norton, you can try deleting unused files and applications(heeding paulsc's comments) then defrag-ing. You can mess with individual extensions by installing and uninstalling them, and looking at the average memory footprint, but you should expect a small, if any, return on your investment of time there.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 7:48 AM on September 7, 2006

If you suspect Firefox extensions, try creating a new profile to see if it helps.

Process Explorer will let you see CPU/memory usage for processes (no direct help with analyzing particular extensions.)

Leak Monitor is a Firefox extension that warns of a particular kind of memory leak.

Here's info about a more complicated tool to detect leaks in Firefox.

And MR Tech's Local Install makes manipulating extensions much easier if you're turning things on and off a lot.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:36 AM on September 7, 2006

Do a check disk on the drive. Do this first because if you have a bad drive you'll be wasting your time with tweaks and reinstalls.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:21 PM on September 7, 2006

Second the "your drive might be dying" vote.


Back up your important stuff before you go mucking about with things any further.

Did you make a back up yet? Yes? Good. Ok, now continue your mucking about. :)

I say this because just a couple weeks ago, the PC my girlfriend uses started to exhibit odd behaviour - just like yours is. We did the defrag, scan disk, etc. There was very very little installed on the computer other than the operating system, iTunes, Firefox, and Rollercoaster Tycoon and it had always worked just fine. Then suddenly it started doing many of the same things you described. One day it rebooted to a black screen. Finally after another reboot, "ntkrnl.exe" (or something like that) turned up corrupted or missing. That right there says "things are bad." A subsequent reboot with a Knoppix CD failed to even see the hard drive anymore.

I threw a newer drive into the box and reinstalled XP and life has been good ever since.
posted by drstein at 2:08 PM on September 7, 2006

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