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Fix your old computer with Free tools

OK, so I am a computer guy. I have a master's degree in Information Technology and I am getting a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology. As you can imagine, I am asked by a lot of people to tell me why their computer is running so slowly. So, I created a web page, just for them.

They typically think it is a virus (although, surprisingly, it rarely is). People also want to run a scan disk or defragment program to get rid of their sluggishness -- again, that might be OK to run, but it rarely solves the problem.

Normally, the problem is a combination of 2 things: Spyware that has hijacked your computer and too many programs automatically running in the background when you start your computer. One thing you can do at the start of this process is hitting alt control and delete and seeing how many processes your computer is running right now (listed at the bottom left of the windows task manager) and at the end of this process, look at the difference. If you have more than 40 at the start of this process, you are probably a candidate to follow these steps.

First step -- make sure you have an anti-virus program with current definitions. (I know, I know, I just said that it is rarely a virus - but if it is, you have to remove that first).

Second step. Create a restore point on your computer (Windows XP users only). This way, you can un-do everything I am telling you (just in case something goes wrong). Note: I put that as sort of a legal warning - i.e. whatever you do to your computer is your own doing and don't blame me if something doesn't work later, but in truth, I have never had any major problems (and all of the minor problems are reversible). If you don't know how to create a restore point, go to the control panel and type in "create a restore point" in the help section.

Third step. Spyware removal. There are a lot of good spyware programs out there. Some are expensive and some are free. I like the free ones. Go to http://www.spywareguide.com/onlinescan.php and click the link for a free scan. You might need to follow the directions on the screen to install the active X control. That tool at Spyware Guide is a very good spyware removal tool (it is not spyware prevention, only spyware removal). It works very quickly and I have been very pleased with the results. Another option (more comprehensive) is to either buy a spyware program (not really recommended, if you ask me) or download Microsoft's anti-spyware program.

Fourth step: Get rid of the programs that start up automatically when you start your computer. I have been very impressed with a free tool created by an MIT student named Mike Lin called Startup Control Panel. Open the program and go through each of the tabs.  You can look up all of the services listed on the web (by typing in a distinct part of the name), but I typically remove everything that doesn't have something to do with virus checking.  This will keep programs from starting in the background and slowing your computer. Unchecking will not remove it from your computer (it just keeps it from starting up when you start your computer). If something that worked before stops working, you can always come back to this program and re-check it.

The next step is getting a hijack remover program. When your browser gets hijacked, it is trying to do things you are not asking it to do (like provide the results of a search term in a different search engine than you specified.  If you ran the spyware guide scan, you might have already fixed some of these problems (but maybe not all). The best of these programs (also free) is hijackthis.  To get that go to this site and download it:  (it is on a bunch of sites, this one is as good as any). If that link gets broken, just go to Google and type in "Download HijackThis" and choose one of those.

Open the zip file and extract the program to a folder (I put it in a folder called hijackthis in my documents).  Open the program and do a system scan.  Now for the hard part: You will have a bunch of things that come up and 99% of them don't need to be there.  What I recommend is to look at the program names and if it doesn't have to do with virus checking (MacAfee, Norton or Symantec in the folder name), then check the box.  Count how many items you have (not including services).  When you get done, click the "fix checked" button.  You might get a warning saying that you are about to delete a plug-in or a BHO (browser help object), don't worry about those warnings - if you really need the plug-in, the next time you go to a site that requires it, you will be prompted to download it again).

Also, with that program, the first time you do it, you might not want to check any of the services (you will see them at the bottom of the list) - unless you recognize something in there that really doesn't look right. There are a lot of forums out there that will evaluate your HijackThis log and can provide some help in getting further optimizing your computer (if the problem is a hijacked browser).

That is normally where I am done. There are some other things you can do - like go to your control panel and go to add/remove programs and uninstall programs that you know you don't need anymore. You can also go through and defragment your hard drive (if it will make you fell better). And of course, there are programs you can buy to further optimize your computer - but I don't recommend any of them - stick to the free tools I have listed here first. If the problem persists, then maybe look at purchasing some software.

Oh yeah, if you got this far and did all of the steps, hit alt control delete again and see how many processes you are running now. If it is more than 30, you probably didn't do all of the steps (or have a bunch of windows open).

Good luck.

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