Sometimes You Have To Work On Christmas

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.


  1. Gottfried Liebnitz
    Posted December 8, 2005 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    How about leaving them a copy of Knoppix? I currently have two friends that seriously considering migrating because of that demo CD.

  2. Mike Hoye
    Posted December 8, 2005 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    I knew somebody would say that.

    I could talk about familiarity and learning curves and all kinds of other crap, but the short answer is: because Linux is not ready for the consumer desktop yet, and wishing will not make it so.

  3. Posted December 8, 2005 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Mike: You’re totally right about the buying a new computer thing. Because, yeesh, trying to fix people’s computers after they’ve made a hash of them is just a low percentage operation.

    Herr Liebnitz: I’d just like to point out that “seriously considered migrating” is worlds apart from “actually migrated”, which itself is even further from “migrated, and was totally happy about having done so, and used Linux forever and ever.

  4. Mike Hoye
    Posted December 8, 2005 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    There only reliable way that I’ve found of deboning other people’s WinXP boxes can never be done on site without a bunch of extra hardware. You have to pull the drive, run all your anti-virus, -spyware and -adware tools against it while it’s slaved to a known-clean system. Then you put it back in its home box and boot off a WinXP CD, and do a system restore. The real restore you get from a real XP CD (w/sp2 slipstreamed in, natch, and not the “restore to factory condition” bare-metal-format-and-reimage bullshit you get from major manufacturers).

    So these techniques exist, and work reliably, but they’re not terribly portable or easy to hand out as party favors.

  5. Guillaume
    Posted December 9, 2005 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    The number of times I’ve done just that is uncountable. Every week I get another phone call from someone who’s computer is going really slow or acting strangely. So what do I do? Pretty much exactly the same thing you mentioned here, except that I run SpySweeper and also run Diskeeper quickly on their machines. Usually the performance difference is astounding. But when their machine is so ladden with useless crap and games from cereal boxes, that’s when it’s time to format. I’ve actually had one computer that was so full of spyware that it would refuse to boot any portion of windows, even safe mode. Great tips though.

  6. Mike Hoye
    Posted December 9, 2005 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    I’ve heard good things about SpySweeper, but Spybot S&D is the one on my keyring. Diskeeper, though, no way. Defragmenting hard drives on modern operating systems is totally snake-oil. In 2005, being told you should defragment your hard drive is one of nature’s warning signs that you’re dealing with the wrong person.

  7. Guillaume
    Posted December 9, 2005 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    The thing is, I’m not always fixing computers running winxp. Sometimes it’s Win2k, there’s this one time I tried to fix WinME. Then of course there was the hideous Celeron 400 running windows 95. It had soo much crap on it that it took a full 1/2 hour too boot up.

    Just for kicks, here’s what they do at Futureshop when you pay them $80-120: SpySweeper, Norton, Windows Defrag, Windows Update. Straight from the mouth of a service tech I know.

  8. Posted December 9, 2005 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Guillaume – Windows Defrag before Windows Update? Even if defragging NTFS did anything productive, which it basically doesn’t (because, in passing, NTFS is a hell of a well-engineered piece of kit), there’d be no sense in doing so before downloading 50+ megs of patches that write over, delete and replace a bunch of system files. That’s just nonsensical.

    Liebnitz – Knoppix is a hell of a good distribution. I ran it myself for a few months. I migrated from it to Debian, and now don’t even have a bootable Win32 partition left. Haven’t looked back since. But for all that, and as much as I like my current system config, I’ve got to agree with Mike: Knoppix and Debian just aren’t ready for the non-geek desktop. I can’t speak for other distributions, since I haven’t spent a month or two testing them full-time, but I put this question to you: how would you answer the questions “why can’t I copy and paste from [program X] to [program Y]?”, “why doesn’t my multifunction printer scan when I push the scan button?”, “why doesn’t my [off-brand Radio Shack] camera show up when I plug it into the rectangle port?” and “how do I install [Photoshop, Quark Express, Cubasis…] so I can get some work done?”

  9. Posted December 9, 2005 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    Fixing pre-XP computers is pointless, because a) they won’t stay fixed, and b) they’re old enough that buying a new computer in frustration is actually a good idea. (Windows XP was released over four years ago now; even in today’s slower-paced world, that’s still plenty long enough to keep a computer.)

  10. Mike Hoye
    Posted December 10, 2005 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    I fully endorse the previous two comments.

    I’d like to add, while we’re getting our What’s Wrong With Linux on, that:

    • Userspace process prioritizing doesn’t happen, so when you’re doing a big FTP job or whatever, your music player skips. This virtually never happens on any other modern OS.
    • When you push the power button on the Linux machine, boom, you’re done. Other OSes ask if you’d maybe like to save that thing you were working on first.
    • You still, in 2005, cannot play more than one sound at the same time. Which hasn’t been a problem for anyone else since the late 90s. Couple that with the fact that browser plugins generally suck pretty hard, and you’ve got a situation where your music will sometimes just stop because a plugin you’re not using has a lock on the soundcard, and you can’t start playing your music again until you restart your browser. Remember not to go back to that page, ’cause it will happen again!
    • Yeah, the driver situation has improved a lot, but it’s still pretty miserable.
    • The proprietary-media-codec situation is a disaster.
    • Power management on laptops is a total crapshoot. Might work fine right out of the box, might never work right at all.
  11. Posted December 11, 2005 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    Mike, we should compare notes. I must be doing something differently from you, and I suspect that it may have to do with hardware choice, but..:

    • The only time I ever had my music skip on me because of system load is when I had so many Firefox tabs open – we’re talking 200+ – that rendering new pages was thrashing like crazy because I had allocated all of my free RAM and was paging like a cracked-out bionic librarian-Cuisinart
    • not only can I play more than one sound simultaneously, I’ve never not been able to. It’s been a total non-issue. I’ve never even given it a thought. It’s worked like that under every distribution I’ve used on every machine I’ve used. What the hell?

    Totally agreed on the other points, except this last: if neither mplayer nor vlc can play your media file, there’s something wrong with the damned format.

  12. Mike Richters
    Posted December 11, 2005 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    1. What’s wrong with nice()?

    2. ACPI doesn’t love you? The default scripts from acpid in Debian are a bit strange (if you press the power button while someone is logged on on X, it logs them out, otherwise it shuts down), but that’s not such an easy problem to solve when you could have various virtual consoles, mutiple X displays, and lots of remote users…

    3. In the last year, I’ve had a lot more driver problems from Windows than Linux. It all depends on which hardware you’re trying to use.

  13. Mike Hoye
    Posted December 11, 2005 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    1) Ha ha ha.

    2) ACPI hates me. My experience with ACPI has consisted of “might work with this kernel, might not work with that kernel, might work right, might never work at all. I might as well be rolling dice. Since the I in ACPI stands for “Interface”, and I’m led to believe that there’s a spec and stuff for this interface, I’m convinced that this should not be like shooting dice in a dark alley.

  14. Mike Bruce
    Posted December 13, 2005 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    With ACPI, apparently “the spec” and “the way it actually works” are somewhat different. Also, ACPI is vastly complicated.

    I haven’t had problems playing multiple sounds for many years. Largely this is thanks to using sound cards that can do the work. I avoid creepy, evil stuff like esd or artsd, although they do “work”. The real solution is, allegedly, alsa with dmix. Which does, reportedly, work and take care of everything behind the scenes. The big problem there is that alsa is an even bigger piece of shit than OSS. Sigh.

    Skipping: it probably isn’t the process scheduler, although in theory I suppose it might be. It’s probably related to the I/O scheduler, which is much thornier. Also, and this is just a hunch from personal experience, I suspect some shenanigans with the interactions between the schedulers and virtual memory management.

    Media codecs: mplayer and vlc reliably play more formats than Windows Media Player (since they can play Real and QT), excepting the DRM’d stuff, about which there isn’t much to be done. In the last year, I haven’t found any files that don’t play in Linux. Doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but still.

    Incidentally, Robert Love’s “Linux Kernel Development”, second edition, is a cracking good read.