Useful Windows diagnostic and troubleshooting utilities for house calls
August 6, 2004 8:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm compiling a disc of useful windows diagnostic and troubleshooting utilities for when I have to make house calls for friends and relatives. what are some maybe lesser known tools that you guys have found particularly useful? freeware would be nice, but not necessary.
posted by mcsweetie to Computers & Internet (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I always take Spyware Blaster, Ad Aware, Coolware Shredder, Spybod S&D, and CrapCleaner (classy name, I know, but it's a great tool,) whenever I go on family tech support visits. Eight times out of ten, whatever's screwed up on the machine is directly related to how much spyware and registry mess they have on their machine.
posted by headspace at 8:33 PM on August 6, 2004

NT password recovery/registry editor
posted by majick at 8:56 PM on August 6, 2004

I'm a big fan of Sysinternal's Process Explorer. It's like Windows Task Manager, but on steroids, so it's great for seeing what's running on the machine at the moment. The first thing I do when running it is add a couple of columns: Start Time and Image Path. Sorting by the path often makes it more obvious when something with an official-looking name is running from somewhere it shouldn't be. (E.g.: "wntupd.exe" sounds important, but "c:\program files\SomeAdwareCompany\wntupd.exe" doesn't sound so important anymore.) The program also shows you the software company name for each program, which I find really useful. (On our machines at work, it's a lot of Microsoft, Intel, and ATI. Anything else gets a lot of scrutiny from me. And the ones with NO company listed are almost always adware/spyware. Killing those before you run Spybot or AdAware often lets those tools do their cleanup without an otherwise-necessary reboot.)

Sysinternals has lots of other good little utilities, too. Filemon shows you in realtime exactly what files on the hard drive are being accessed by what programs. Regmon does the same for registry keys. Autoruns shows you what programs are set to run automatically at bootup.
posted by llamateur at 9:29 PM on August 6, 2004

You may also find (for those 5% situations where the usual connectivity rabbits won't come out of their fuzzy little handshake hats) these useful: Winsock fix utility and (from a commmand prompt) netsh int ip reset [logfilename.ext] for reinstalling tcp/ip on XP machines.

Of course, I second recommendations for AVG, Ad-Aware, Spybot, process explorers, et cetera. It's also good to be aware of several online scans (TrendMicro's Housecall, Panda's ActiveScan, RAV, and the like) because where one may fail to run because of viral/malware activity, another may succeed and fix the shits.

It's also rarely needed but nice to have boot disks for various operating systems and a Knoppix disk or the equivalent, plus a USB data key for moving files back and forth (such as manually updated profiles for scanners).
posted by littlegreenlights at 10:16 PM on August 6, 2004

I dunno if that would have helped, but I could have used Winsock fix utility links last week. My friend's computer would not connect to the cable modem. I couldn't diagnose it, nor could the Charter or Dell "experts" (though we did try netsh int ip reset to no avail. I think the domain mask address never showed up or something which couldn't be resolved). I was convinced there was some non-reformatting the HD solution, but we finally said screw it and reinstalled her OS finally fixing her problem.
posted by jmd82 at 12:03 AM on August 7, 2004

Get at least one of Startup Monitor or Startup Monitor Control Panel which lets you examine and switch off things being run at startup time.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 12:05 AM on August 7, 2004

Are those startup programs just a more complex version of msconfig? I mean, will they show startup programs that msconfig won't (even if I know that msconfig isn't perfect for not starting items you've told not to start up).
posted by jmd82 at 12:10 AM on August 7, 2004

A couple of good ones I've found: Handy Recovery for those emergency "undelete" crises, and Handy Backup. They're from (despite the name, unrelated: Handy is becoming a meta-brand for top-notch shareware) Russian software houses, but they're rock-solid and have superior UI.

Handy Recovery was able to pull back about 70% of the files in an XP profile that was accidentally deleted (wait a minute -- was that the one with the files in it? cancel! cancel! cancel!) from an NTFS volume, later that same day.

HWInfo is good for those cases where plug and play, er, doesn't -- such as a reinstall without the driver disks.
posted by dhartung at 12:18 AM on August 7, 2004

I would definitely bring the install programs for whatever Internet services they use.

Here (Rheingau area, Germany), most people use T-Online or AOL and even though whenever you do not need them the AOL disks abound, when you do, they don't.

So, I would definitely bring those install packages as well as any modem drivers.

In our family, we pretty much control all their software because they would shriek in dismay if they had a choice of "OK" or "Exit Setup" they would surely exit because they would be afraid, very afraid.

This is not normally a "good" thing, but for them, it's what keeps their computer running along nicely ;) until we can get over there to install updates and whatever else they need.
posted by erratic frog at 1:26 AM on August 7, 2004

BartPE, BartPE, BartPE.
posted by ed\26h at 1:29 AM on August 7, 2004

Ah shoot, well that wasn't really "diagnostic" was it?

Still, the missing drivers and install packages for their internet service is always the biggest pain for me so I figured it would be helpful to suggest it. Sorry for going a little off-topic there, people.

OK, Diagnostic: AntiVir. Definitely a freebie but goodie!
posted by erratic frog at 1:33 AM on August 7, 2004

This is also seriously OT, but for prevention, a simple LinkSys router or the equivalent + BigFix (consumer edition) + Firefox loaded/plugged to resemble IE + Ad-Aware set to run on every PC boot seems to = peace for the systems at work. And for my Momma. : )
posted by littlegreenlights at 2:54 AM on August 7, 2004

Well, for work, take out simple LinkSys and insert Cisco, NetScreen.
posted by littlegreenlights at 2:57 AM on August 7, 2004

You'll also need a decent editor, a programming language you know, a file of useful internet bookmarks, a port scanner, an FTP editor (smartFTP).
posted by seanyboy at 6:59 AM on August 7, 2004

This seems like a cool compilation.

Or, if you want to go down the not-very-legal-path, you could always keep an eye open for Hiren's Boot CD.
posted by mr.marx at 7:26 AM on August 7, 2004

Man, I don't even bother anymore. It's at the point where I don't have the time. I take an 160GB external hard drive to back up their important stuff and a copy of their preferred OS (usually XP Pro). Check important settings, slick it, reinstall, restore important stuff, and start from scratch. It gives them a fresh, faster system with all their important things still available. I usually get done quicker than I would actually fixing the damn thing. Sorry, I know that's probably not much help.
posted by tetsuo at 9:09 AM on August 7, 2004

skallas: aye, I figured that out with my w2k pro from some google action. I've always used the win98 version of msconfig, and though I do get those error messages, I've never had a problem with the end result. Though, w2k is annoying me now because sony doesn't offer drivers for my laptop (only winXP and it will NOT allow me to install XP drivers on w2k).
posted by jmd82 at 12:00 PM on August 7, 2004

memtest86. It comes with many Linux installation discs, or you can download an ISO from that site. You simply boot to the disc and you've got a thorough memory tester right there. This is absolutely essential, as many 'Windows' errors are actually just due to bad memory.. so start with the hardware, and not the software!

Also, these aren't diagnostics tools, but are things you are bound to need at some time or another when working on someone else's machine.. They are all free or open source.

FileZilla - free, open source, I couldn't find a commercial Windows FTP program that's better!
FireFox - browser, useful if IE has died
Putty - free SSH/telnet client
RealVNC - lets you control one machine from another, handy for 'remote' work
7-Zip - free and open source extractor/archiver.. does all the main formats.. you'd be surprised how often you need an extractor on someone else's machine
Acrobat Reader - many customers have modems, and this is a long download.. you'll often need it to read PDFs when hunting down obscure drivers and reference guides for your customer's antiquated hardware
SpaceMonger - I save the best to last.. SpaceMonger shows you a graphical representation of how space is used on any hard drive.. very handy for hunting out gigantic temporary files, or checking you've backed up EVERYTHING before doing that reboot ;-)
posted by wackybrit at 12:08 PM on August 7, 2004

I used Hijack This to get rid of a nasty browser hijack at a friend's house this past weekend. The best use is probably to scan your computer with Hijack This, which creates a log file. You can then search the forums for other people who had similar spyware, etc in their log files and get advice about possible solutions.

Thanks to everyone for your recommendations. These will be extremely useful in the future.
posted by brism at 1:12 PM on August 7, 2004

AIDA32, which now seems to be called Everest, is quite handy. If you're reinstalling the OS it can often be useful to have a list of installed harware before you begin and this does a good job of that.

I'd also recommend having boot disks to hand. My life has been saved on several occasions by a DOS boot disk with a generic CD-Rom driver on it. Another handy one is a quick boot diskette (NTLdr,, Boot.ini). If you want this on a CD you may want to make images of your favorite boot diskettes and also pack your favorite image writer.

Oh yeah, this might sound dumb but it always seems to be a good idea to have Winzip to hand (or similar).

By the way, what's on your disk so far?
posted by dodgygeezer at 2:33 PM on August 7, 2004

Inspired by this thread, I put together this, a compilation of a good number of the diagnostic and utils suggested here with snipets about each.
posted by jmd82 at 4:54 PM on August 7, 2004

Easy Recovery Pro
Spyware removers (haven't used one in a while so can't recommend one)
Just about everything by SysInternals, but especially autoruns
Good knowledge of Windows 2000/XP command-line built-ins, MMC snap-ins, and the Recovery Console (you can perform many tasks with these that people buy expensive utilities for)
A hex editor (there are millions, but I like UltraEdit)
If you're going to be interacting with the web and/or Unix machines:
The Cygwin suite
Firefox/Thunderbird (Windows XP SP2 allows you to completely replace IE and OE with these)
A Knoppix CD, or any Linux CD that boots BusyBox
posted by azazello at 10:03 PM on August 7, 2004

memtest86, ethereal, nmap etc. - These are best run from a Knoppix CD.
Also, a good client-side firewall. I like Tiny Firewall, but there are many acceptable ones.
If you are troubleshooting Windows XP, install Service Pack 2!
posted by azazello at 10:06 PM on August 7, 2004

Response by poster: thanks everyone for your awesome replies! my kit currently includes many of the suggestions here plus some new ones y'all came up with that I didn't think of (no acrobat? what was I thinking?), including: aspi drivers, avantbrowser, avast! antivirus, belarc advisor, editpad lite, freshui, isobuster, IZArc (opens pretty much any compressed file), snadboy revelation, windows ip config, windrivers backup, plus many of the things listed here and of course the latest version of knoppix.

although I suspect BartPE + AdAware is gonna be my panacea!
posted by mcsweetie at 9:22 AM on August 8, 2004

bookmark this thread!
posted by jacobsee at 11:48 PM on August 30, 2004

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