I knew it was going to be bad the moment I walked through the front door. In one hand she was holding a gin and tonic in a pint glass; in the other she held her Dell laptop. The pleading look told me everything I needed to know: her laptop was running even slower than usual, and could I do something about it. The things one does for friends.
Clearing up this mess was a nightmare journey through the dark underbelly of my friend’s laptop, and if you expect a medium-spec Dell laptop from a decade ago to represent the sort of skipware I love to hate, then you’d be right. However, these old machines simply refuse to die; they go on, and on, and on – and clearly this one had no intention of keeling over any time soon, which was more than could be said of its incumbent Windows XP installation.
So here were the ingredients for the task at hand: an ancient Dell 6400 that motored along with an Intel T2060process or at a stunning 1.6GHz. More of a worry was the skimpy 1GB of RAM and slow hard disk, but even with these it should have been possible to boot Windows XP in less than the lifetime of a three-toed sloth. XP used to run fine on such hardware, so something was amiss here.
My first clue came with the discovery that this wasn’t actually XP SP3 but SP2. Alarm bells were ringing at the implication that no updating and patching had been carried out for months (actually, make that years). At a guess this OS was some six years out of date and, worse still, my friend had purchased it from a friend of hers and it was an ex-work laptop stuffed with a range of software, the provenance of which was as dodgy as the apparent one-hour battery life of the main battery. So why am I about to regale you with the tale of what happened to this wretched machine? Well, because it’s clear that there are plenty of similar PCs out there. They continue to battle on, refusing to succumb to a colossal burden of spyware, malware and other unhelpful tools.
This Dell was certainly loaded down. Not only was there a typical “hot” install of Office 2007 Enterprise but a full Adobe graphics suite as well, and at some point in the past it was home to Visual Studio too. All sorts of applications had been installed in the past, with few of them mentioned in Add/Remove Programs. My first task was to get a trustworthy installation of antivirus software onto it to see how much of the content was malware and needed to be ripped out.
To my extreme annoyance Microsoft Security Essentials wouldn’t install, telling me I needed a hotfix. Pulling down that hotfix windows xpkb914882-x86-enu.exe (KB914882– “install a Filter Manager rolluppackage”) followed by yet another painfully slow reboot, it was possible to get it started. It was time to roll up my sleeves. To my surprise there wasn’t a whole heap of malware on the machine, so that wasn’t the cause of its glacial boot time.
Microsoft Security Essentials did find Adware/ClickPotato, which lets you “Watch FREE movies and TV shows online”, which was definitely dodgy, and that wasn’t all. Browser highjacker Win32/Zwangi and trojan: Win32/Meredrop were found too, along with Adware:Win32/ShopperReports. After some cleaning up and yet another very slow reboot, many people would have thought the job was done. Despite the removal of this malware, however, it was clear there was still a whole heap of problems. I know this old Dell isn’t exactly a Formula One racing car, but it should have been quicker than this. Time to start killing off apps and services.
The inventory of stuff on this machine’s hard drive was mind boggling. How’s this for only a small sample of the contents, much of which puts components into the startup sequence: Glary, McAfee Security ScanPlus, Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, Revo Uninstaller, StumbleUpon IE Toolbar, SupportSoft Assisted Service, Spybot, Veoh Web Player beta, DirectVobSub, Driver Checker 2.7.4, FileZilla Server, FileZilla Client, GirdacPDF to Word Converter, Google Toolbarfor IE, IIS6 Manager, MediaPlayer CodecPack, ParetoLogic FileCure, Quickset,Search Assist, Skype toolbars, Iomatic, two versions of Adobe Reader, twoversions of Flash, iTunes, SMPlayer, Office 2007 Enterprise, a completeinstall of Adobe’s web development tools and, finally, a host of partially uninstalled applications, such as Nero, and at least two antivirus tools.
Do you get the feeling someone had tried to clean up this machine in the past, but failed, and merely compounded the problem? Not all this stuff is malware– far from it – but when you have a laptop that’s on life support it’s best to clarify and simplify.
A mass uninstall session followed, fuelled by another G&T and some food. Shall I just say that six hours elapsed and I was still far from finished. Windows is a real pain once the Add/Remove Programs applet has become screwed up, because there’s almost no way to sort out the mess. At this point I resorted to extreme violence. I fired up the Registry Editor and started manually removing things from the Current Control area, especially configuration details for dozens more applications. This is a risky strategy because it’s easy to end up with a completely dead computer, but careful picking through the debris helped. Next I moved into the Program Files section of the C drive to try to delete anything that was left over. Most allowed themselves to be deleted without any problem, but a few application stacks wouldn’t delete because their files were locked open – because they were still running.
Aha, what could be causing this, since there was nothing in the Registry to run them automatically when you logged in? The answer was simple: time to look at Services. I went to Control Panel | Administrative Tools | Services. There I found a bunch of services that were still installed and running, even though someone had tried to uninstall their apps. Ripping these out is quite simple: go into each service and change its Startup Type to “Disabled”, which will stop the service running when you next boot up.
Then under Service Status, hit the Stop button, which should kill off the service immediately .If it doesn’t you’ll need to reboot and hope that the Startup Type set to Disabled will prevent it from starting. After rebooting and checking that these services hadn’t in fact started, it was possible to go into Program Files and delete the directories of the offending applications. It might have been strictly cleaner to unregister the services, too, but it isn’t necessary.
Now we come to a somewhat contentious topic. I have no faith in Registry cleaners because of the way the Registry works. There is normally no benefit in removing dead wood from the Registry because dead keys affect nothing – but I’m open to persuasion that it’s a good idea when dealing with a computer as polluted as this one, purely from a space point of view.
So I downloaded Tweak Now Reg Cleaner 2011 – which appears to be free – and ran it. It found a huge number of problems with the Registry and a thorough clear out made me feel better, even if it did little to help the computer. Progress was definitely being made, and it was obvious that I’d managed to rid most of the nasties. But there was still more tweaking to be done, because this Dell still wasn’t running as crisply as I’d have liked. The next tool I applied was Soluto, an excellent boot optimisation tool that I’ve mentioned here before. This reveals all the objects that are loaded throughout the entire boot sequence, including all the rubbish that loads after you’ve logged in. For this alone the tool is invaluable, but a pleasant and unexpected surprise was to discover that it now peers deep into browser configurations too. It became quite clear that IE8 was stuffed full of all sorts of nasty add-ons and unnecessary rubbish, and Soluto was a great help in identifying what was going on and showing what else was loading during the boot process.
We were almost there now, but things still weren’t quite right. And then I saw the real problem. Most of the file system on C showed up in Windows Explorer in blue rather than black text. That meant all those folders were being compressed using NTFS compression. Now there’s nothing wrong with NTFS compression per se, but it’s totally unnecessary to use it when you still have spare disk space. Compressing and decompressing all those files every time you access a folder eats up millions of CPU cycles. So I headed to the Properties pane for the C drive and unchecked the box that set compression for that drive. Another hour and a half later, the machine was really starting to feel responsive.
The only thing left to do now was to apply all the updates. That required downloading XP SP3, followed by a mind-boggling number of hot-fixe sand patches, so another couple of hours vanished. After almost 12 hours of surgery, the laptop was back to a clean state. It booted in a fraction of the previous time and displayed a crisp responsiveness that was a revelation to its owner.
So why did I do all this rather than wipe and reinstall Windows? Well, this laptop might have had a COA (certificate of authenticity) for XP sticker on its base, but there was no DVD installation disk for it – and, in any case, the DVD drive was broken. Plus Ionly had my iPad with me, so no means of downloading an ISO image from Microsoft and burning a new DVD. And it was a Friday evening, with no computershop within miles. And did I mention there was no data backup either?
Now her machine has been transformed: it has Dropbox installed on it and all her important data files are replicated in the cloud for backup. It has good AV protection in the shape of the excellent Microsoft Security Essentials, which is free, and only software that’s properly licensed. It has IE8 and Skype, and can Tweet to its heart’s content. And given this laptop is built like a tank, it will probably keep doing this for another half-dozen years at least. The very definition of cheap computing methinks. I’ve never really been in favour of “skipware” computing, preferring to sit in front of a bleeding-edge box, but it’s difficult to argue against the functionality of this old war horse to its owner.