If you’re anything like me you’re a sociopath, but you’re also lazy, so you’re largely harmless but fun at parties. If you’re not like that, well, why the hell would I care?
But if you’re also the family computer repair guy, your friends and/or family will turn to you over the holidays for help getting their computers working right. This is cool with me, I hope it’s cool with you too, and as it turns out I’m here to help.
I’m convinced, lately, that spyware and adware saturation is the only thing driving the personal computing market these days. Scrubbing a PC takes hours; PC service costs $80 to $120 an hour and new computers cost a few hundred bucks, so it’s easy to see how that works. Also, that it’s usually totally unnecessary.
We can’t, as a matter of policy, work on people’s home computers here at the office. There’s just too much that can go wrong, that I want precisely no part of. But we’ve put together some handout CDs for people, so that they can have at least a running shot at getting their PCs back in working order. They’re popular at the office, and I plan to have a few copies in the bag come the holidays. Sometimes these machines are too far gone to save and a clean reformat/reinstall is the only way to go, but most of the time the software on our handout CD seems to do the trick. Let me tell you about it, so when you’re home for the holidays and your grandparents ask you to fix their ailing PC you’ve got a decent chance of having the right tools on hand.
This is mainly focused on WinXP, but the non-SP2 stuff is probably useful to people on Win98-era stuff too. (But if they’re that far back of the curve, it’s probably time to suck it up and upgrade.)
- First of all: Service Pack 2 for Windows XP. This is the 262 megabyte elephant in the room, an absolute no-debate must-have for anyone using a Windows XP machine with a network connection. I cannot emphasize how important this is: there are no automated, remote exploits for XP/SP2 machines. It provides the Windows Firewall, and automatic-update functionality, both of which that you hould turn on. You should not have the computer’s network cable plugged in while you are installing this, and you should do this part last, after you’ve installed everything else on this list. After it’s installed, you’ll have to plug the network cable back in and walk through the Windows Update process a few times, until it tells you there are no more urgent updates to install. Tedious, yes. But if you are using Windows XP, you need this.
- Safer Networking’s Spybot Search & Destroy, the preeminent spyware removal and immunization tool on the net. If your aunt tells you that their computer is “acting funny”, this is the place to start.
- Grisoft’s AVG Free, an antivirus program. A good antivirus is also a must-have, and this one is both excellent and free.
- Lavasoft’s AdAware Personal Edition, the second line after Spybot S&D for stripping down the junk that advertisers use to make your life miserable. Do not try and discriminate when you are using AdAware, Spybot S&D or AVG – if they ask you if you want to delete something, it is virtually certain that you do.
- Firefox 1.5 and Thunderbird 1.0.7. There’s a legion of email clients out there, everyone has a preference and webmail users aren’t going to need one anyway, but if Grandma is using Outlook Express then Thunderbird is the thing to set her up with. Firefox is simply the best tool available for looking at da pages of da intarweeb.
- The latest version of Macromedia Flash, sadly, is also an important update to have. I hate Flash, and I don’t use it on any of my machines, but I’m also a zealot and a pariah, so I’m willing to put up with that sort of thing, and furthermore screw the lot of you, seriously. But you need it to see an awful lot of the web and pre-8.0.22 versions contain a documented security vulnerability. So, shrug, there it is.
This can take five or six hours, altogether, it’s most likely an hour of actual work carefully interwoven with five hours of doing other things, and the gratitude you get out of it is pretty spiffy.
There are a few other things you can do to perk people’s computers up and make them a little bit safer, like shredding all their Celine Dion CDs, but two things I’ve found that make a big difference (again, in XP) are:
- In the control panel, under Display Properties and then the Appearance tab, click the “Effects” button. Uncheck all the options there, except for the “Use the following method…” option, and choose “ClearType” from the menu below it.
- Again in the control panel, under “System” and then the Advanced tab, click the settings button in the “Performance” bubble. In the “Visual Effects” tab in the next window, choose “Adjust for best performance”, then scroll down to the bottom of the list below it; check off “Smooth edges of screen fonts” and “Use visual styles…”, the last element. Click OK, OK, and close out the control panel.
If you’re running on a slightly older system, or one without a beefy graphics card, those last two changes make a huge, screaming difference in how reactive your machine feels.
There you go. It all fits on one CD, with plenty of room left over. If you have anything else you think should be in there, I’m all ears. Merry Christmas, don’t say I never do anything nice for you.