This blog is a free resource for those looking to fix their computers. As such, I cannot be held liable for anything you do to screw up your computer. As always, ASK ME or consult a professional if you’re at all unsure of what you’re doing. Meanwhile I’ll try to make this as easy as humanly possible. It’s a good idea to BACK UP any critical data such as photos or documents before doing anything, too.
The Big Guns
So let’s say your computer is really fried. You can’t even make it to your normal Desktop without hitting a brick wall, such as a Blue Screen of Death, or one of those continuous, infinite startup/restart loops. No big deal. Just give me a ring. I’ll dig in there, rescue your files, then wipe it clean and start over. Good as new in two hours or so! Sure beats buying a new computer, too.
Otherwise, this guide will show you how to make your barely-functioning computer usable again.
So, where were we? Oh yes, how to RID YOURSELF of pesky termites that infest Windows XP…
Here’s a quick overview of what we’re going to remove:
- Useless Desktop Icons (clutter)
- Intrusive and encumbering programs
- Tray Icons that slow you down
After removing all this, chances are your computer won’t only run as fast as it did out of the factory, but FASTER. Many computer companies, such as Sony, HP, and Compaq absolutely LOVE putting garbage all over your computer before you even open the box!
So let’s start off with something really simple. Let’s say AOL, HP, and eBay got into your computer and splashed icons all over your desktop. (Unfortunately it happens all the time.) All you do is right-click on the offending icon, and go down to delete. Do this for any icons you don’t need. Any icon with a little arrow at its bottom-left is simply a shortcut to a program – if you don’t use that shortcut, you can remove that icon without removing its application.
One classic piece of clutter is the “New Folder” – open it up to verify that it’s empty, then delete it. For some reason, many people unknowingly right-click on their desktop and create new folders for no reason. These get spewed all over the place and are perfectly safe to delete. If you’re unsure of what to delete, feel free to ask me or someone you trust, but most of the time it’ll be obvious what’s useless. My favorite are the “FREE MUSIC, “FREE GAMES” or “FREE AOL AND UNLIMITED INTERNET!” (Note that oftentimes your computer will ask for confirmation before throwing those icons in the trash.) Go to town!
If you find something you’d like to keep, but not leave “out in the open,” you can always drag it to My Documents, Unused Desktop Icons, or any folder you choose.
Finally, right-click on any unused area on your desktop, then click Arrange Icons By, then Auto Arrange. It’ll keep them nice and orderly from then on.
Fun fact: Termites don’t leave obvious holes in wood – they just hollow it out. And so it is with many awful programs, such as Norton Internet Security. They come in promising some benefit, but end up grinding it to a halt in many cases, all without revealing their culpability. So now I’m going to teach you how to uninstall programs that actively ruin your computing experience. Then I’ll give you a list of programs I recommend you remove.
- Be sure you’re logged in to your computer as an Administrator (as opposed to a guest or limited account)
- Click Start
- Click Settings, then Control Panel (sometimes you can click Control Panel straight away)
- Click Add/Remove Programs
Now take a look at some of the programs here. If there’s anything you know you don’t need anymore, uninstall it. (If any of these programs asks you to restart, politely decline. We’ll restart when we’re all done cleaning.)
Next, check for any really tiny programs. I have no idea what they purport to accomplish, but they’re little “stowaways” that enter your computer through some larger piece of malware.
Shown above is Search Settings, a tiny program that’s only 2 Megabytes. Nothing that small could accomplish anything useful (unless it’s a classic game that you intentionally installed, of course).
Next, here’s my somewhat-current list of nasties that should be removed IMMEDIATELY:
- All Toolbars – Yahoo! Toolbar, eBay Toolbar, etc. More often than not, they’re put on your computer thanks to some nasty program, and you’re stuck with them… until now.
- Norton Internet Security/Norton 360, and while we’re at it, Anything Internet Security – these pretend to protect every aspect of your “computor” but really cut your speed in HALF. Later on we’ll install an unintrusive Anti-Virus program.
- Software Firewalls (BlackIce, ZoneAlarm, Panda) – I hate these with a passion. While these programs have their place in diagnostics, anyone who has a router at home doesn’t need this. Anyone who doesn’t have a router should go out and buy one immediately. Nobody should have to be bothered every 30 seconds to personally grant Internet access to every single program running on his computer.
- Google Desktop/Toolbar – Unless you actually use this (I’ve never met ANYBODY who does), get rid of it. It scans your computer 24/7, hoping to help you search for something you already knew you had.
- Viewpoint Media Player – Another one nobody’s ever used, ever.
- AOL – If you don’t use it, get rid of it. If you do, go back to the 1990s where you belong.
- LimeWire, Morpheus, Kazaa – ANY software used to pirate music should be removed IMMEDIATELY! (Your kid might have installed one of these. Beware!) Not only is it terribly illegal, but most of the time these babies bring LOADS of spyware onto your computer.
- “Coupon/Savings/Shopping” – Look out for these words – they may indicate spyware.
- Kodak EasyShare – I tell a TON of people (even Kodak employees) to TAKE THIS OFF their computers IMMEDIATELY! Not only does it commandeer EVERY picture on your computer, but it take tons of time to start up, crashes the entire computer whenever it feels like it, and it lurks in the background ANYTIME your computer is on. It’s completely unnecessary for viewing and importing photos from your camera. (Note that you need to locate the folder where Kodak is hiding all your photos and move it elsewhere during the uninstall process!!!)
- Intel PROSet Wireless – In my opinion, Intel manufactures the best wireless cards for laptops. Their software, not so much. There’s a way to remove JUST the confusing “wireless profiles” program without removing the driver (Click Modify instead of Completely Remove) – but be careful – if done wrong, this could remove support for wireless entirely. Even I’ve messed that up.
- Others? – I’ll add more to this list as I discover new losers in the software world.
Again, when in doubt, ask somebody.
Some of them might put up a fight. Don’t take no for an answer; click Completely Remove and move on to the next victim.
Some will even blow an error! Just hit OK and move on.
When you’re done, close the Add/Remove Programs, then close Control Panel and restart your computer. You should already see signs of improvement!
Let’s now apply a few tweaks to Windows. First, if you ever see a balloon coming out of the Tray, screaming that the digital sky is falling, click on it and tell it who’s boss:
Yeah, yeah, I know I haven’t done everything you want me to. Guess what, I don’t care. Click “Change the way Security Center Alerts Me,” and uncheck all three scenarios. (Everything discussed in this section is going to work slightly differently in Windows Vista/7, but I’ll write another article about them in the future.)
Hit OK, then close Paranoia Center. Next, we’re going to turn off System Restore. Now, if you use System Restore, go ahead and keep it on. However, nobody has ever used it before ever, and nobody ever should, so here’s how to get rid of it. Right-click on My Computer, then go to Properties.
When the Properties window comes up, click the System Restore tab. Then check Turn Off System Restore, and hit OK. After a brief pause, your computer will regain ~10% of its hard drive space and ~10% of its speed!
System Restore was meant to allow you to go “back in time” should a virus wreck your rig. However, it basically makes your computer write a diary entry every few seconds: Dear Diary, I just had my OK button pressed. It was fun. Dear Diary, I just went to a website. It was fun. Dear Diary, I’m opening a bunch of pictures. I hope they’re fun. Dear Diary… That takes a lot of resources. It also doesn’t work much of the time.
Finally, and this is really an optional one, you can turn the fancy XP blue & green color scheme off and save some speed that way. Simply right click on any open Desktop area, and go to Properties.
Then, click on Appearance.
Select Windows Classic Style, and hit OK. It will now make things look like they did in Windows 98, but guess what? Faster. (This can also be achieved in the Themes tab, but that resets your wallpaper.)
“There’s a New Sheriff in Town”
Unlike many computer service professionals, I’m not going to come over, install a bunch of spyware scanners, and then charge you $150. My goal is fixing your system once and for all, and manually rooting out problems. (While I wouldn’t mind a new Porsche this year, I’d rather be fair on the pricing so you recommend me to your friends. It’s all about the long-term. 🙂 )
There’s a nice little piece of software out there called AVG. It’s an anti-virus product that’s not only unintrusive, but it’s FREE! (That’s right, folks, call Norton and/or McAfee and tell them they can stop billing you for their hostageware.) Simply follow this link:
and be sure to click the FREE version anytime it tries to sell you on the Premium or Internet Security versions.
It will then download a setup file to your computer (check the Desktop or the Downloads folder). Double-click that file to run it, and begin the setup process. It will again try to force the “RECOMMENDED” full-blown Internet Security program; just click Basic. It will then download a bunch of files from AVG. Be SURE to click CUSTOM (not Standard) installation.
Click Yes when it asks you to create a directory. A few pages later, it’ll bring up a Component Selection window. BE SURE to leave ONLY the first item checked. The rest of the items are garbage that will make your computer explode immediately. Capisce?
Go on to the next page and let it work its magic. Tada! Clean, simple AntiVirus. That’s all you need, really.
Other Alternative Programs
As you may have discovered, AIM for Windows comes with a fistful of spyware. Feel free to uninstall it and any minions that hitched a ride alongside it. AIM has become a complicated mess. Instead, check out Pidgin here:
Alternatively, while on the go, you can just visit:
and enjoy instant messaging from within a web page. No software installation to worry about, so it’s great for IMming at work!
Can’t stomach the multi-hundred-dollar price tag for Microsoft Office? Don’t want to upgrade to Office 2007 just for the ability to deal with DOCX files? Mozy on over to:
and grab a copy of OpenOffice. It’s a near-exact clone of Microsoft Office, with a few exceptions. 1: It’s FREE. 2: Much less annoying. It was basically a practical joke that Sun Microsystems played on Microsoft. Hey guys, think you can get away with charging $200 per computer for a stupid word processor? We’ll make our own and give it away for free! It includes word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, you name it.
Once you install it, go to Tools, then Options, then Load/Save, then General. Tell it to save all Text Documents by default as “Word 97/2000/XP” Documents (NOT Template) instead of ODF. This way your friends can read anything you create in OpenOffice with no problem. You should do the same for Spreadsheets and Presentations.
Beavis & Butthead
You know what I’m talking about. Every high school has a pair of dummies who try to act cool but end up bumping their heads into everything they walk by. The computer world has its own: Internet Explorer and Outlook Express. NOBODY SHOULD EVER USE THESE PROGRAMS UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES WHATSOEVER. (If your school or office requires you to use Internet Explorer for some reason such as ActiveX, quit there immediately. Then burn the building down so nobody else has to use it either.) IE and OE are vacuums for viruses. Hey, nice website. Have any viruses for me? Ooh thanks! Whoa nice joke-forward email. Oh thanks, a worm! Have at it; help yourself to anything on this computer!
While neither of these detriments can be fully removed from XP, fortunately they can be replaced with better products. Go on over to: http://www.mozilla.org/ and download/install both Firefox and Thunderbird. They replace Internet Explorer and Outlook Express, respectively. (If you check your email through some other method than Outlook Express, such as Hotmail or Yahoo, then you needn’t bother with Thunderbird.) When you run them for the first time, each of them will ask to import settings/bookmarks/messages/etc. from their Microsoft counterparts. Doing so will make the transition seamless. The differences with Firefox/Thunderbird are very few aesthetically, but vastly improved under the hood. (Let’s put it this way, instead of having 10 Internet Security programs scanning your computer endlessly, these products simply allow less viruses in to begin with. Genius eh?) They’re also Open Source, meaning they’re made by volunteers instead of a company. I’ll write more about Open Source and its magical goodness in future articles.
One more thing: In Firefox, go to Tools, then Options, then Security. Tell it not to save passwords. It’s just not safe. This also prevents a nagging window coming up any time you put in a password ever.
“But Marc, my computer’s become so sllloooww!” Computer hardware never slows down. What happens is, after months or years of use, installs, re-installs, and malware, the software on your computer literally eats itself alive. Lazy programmers forget to instruct their creations to clean up after themselves, or nastier ones instruct their malware to invite their friends on over for a party, and voila, a slow computer. No big deal. What we’re doing to your computer is the equivalent of an oil change!
Have you ever gone to a party, made someone’s acquaintance, and been called their “new best friend?” Then they call you every day for the rest of the year looking to hang out? Yeap, you guessed it. Computers get those all the time too. They’re called Startup Items, and very few are actually necessary. Startup Items are programs that have been installed on your computer, and run every single time you turn your computer on, the entire time, whether you like it or not. Yes, they slow you down. BIG TIME. Some of them manifest their existence in the form of Tray Icons near your clock. Others (like Real Scheduler) lurk in the darkness, unknown to all but the experts. Still others create a tray icon ONLY when they demand something such as an update, such as Java or Flash. (Both Java and Flash are necessary for a rich Web experience, but the amount of updates they demand is out of control.) As I mentioned earlier, one source of these could be your computer manufacturer. Some of them LOVE putting “HP Update” or “Dell Support” items all over the place. So let’s get rid of them.
How do we do this? A wonderful little tool built-in to Windows called MSCONFIG. (Yep, no relying on bogus “System Scanner” tune-up programs. We’re doing this ourselves.) Simply click Start, then Run, then type msconfig and press Enter. Tada!
Note that unchecking a Startup Item doesn’t actually remove a program. Most of them are useful programs; we just don’t want them running ALL THE TIME, especially those we only use on occasion. Unchecking a Startup Item simply tells it “Hey you can be my friend but don’t freaking run ALL THE TIME.” If something wonky happens with your computer (i.e. wireless card or printer no longer works), you can ALWAYS go back into msconfig and try to re-enable the essential item.
So now that msconfig has loaded, click the Startup tab, and voila. These are all the programs that start up EVERY TIME you power up your computer. Now do you see why your computer is so slow??? If the Command column is too narrow, click on its right border and drag it toward the right, so that you can see the entire Command Path better.
This helps reveal the origin of some of these items. Ready? Here are some items I suggest you uncheck:
- Anything with your manufacturer’s name in it. – HP Update, Dell Support, HP Shopping Advisor, Sony Support, Toshiba anything, Acer anything. These things phone home all the time, asking the manufacturer for updates for no good reason. Very rarely will these actually help with certain hardware devices.
- Realsched – Back in the 90s, RealPlayer allowed you to watch videos on your computer! Amazing huh? Nowadays they just put ads and updates all over your computer. If you use RealPlayer, that’s perfectly fine, but don’t allow this bad boy to schedule ads to download themselves all over YOUR computer.
- Jusched – Anytime a Java update is available, this program sends endless popups to bully you into downloading it. Again, nothing wrong with using Java on your computer, but their Windows variant isn’t as well-behaved as Java for Mac.
- Jsxktrlxklejrsf – Anything this suspicious is probably a trojan or virus. Sometimes the name column is even left blank! Seeya.
- EPSON, HP, Lexmark Printer Directors– You don’t need a program trying to sell you ink cartridges 24/7 if you just want to print something once a week. Bye, guys.
- Qttask, AOL, OpenOffice Quick Starter, MSOffice – These are all good programs that you may use, but having them slow down your computer’s startup process is quite pointless.
- Anything with Search or Shopping – Dealio, Gator, Coupons, Shopping, etc. These all have the capacity to monitor your online shopping habits and try to sell you things. Nasty little buggers.
- Synaptic – Removing this will not disable your laptop’s touchpad mouse. It just removes that ANNOYING little icon on the bottom right that tells you you’re touching the touchpad.
- MSmsgs – If you don’t use MSN/Windows Messenger often, get rid of it.
- More? – I’ll add more here as I think of them.
Some items you can LEAVE CHECKED:
- ATI, nVidia – Your video card might come with software to help it run. These aren’t so bad.
- AVG – AVG (or whatever AntiVirus you choose to use) needs to run all the time in order to be effective. McAfee might call its Startup Item VSCI, etc. Check the Command field for names like Norton if you use that.
- Anything you recognize and want to run all the time.
If you have any doubt, there are a few good resources on the Web that have lists of startup items and describe each one’s function and importance.
When you’re finished, restart your computer. When it comes back up, you should be all set! A window will pop up, telling you you just did something and that the computer isn’t quite sure it liked it. Just tell it not to notify you again.
The End Result
The end result should be a nice, clean, fresh desktop and a very fast, responsive, and non-annoying computer. Good as new? NOPE. Better than new. Enjoy!
Grains of Salt
Urban legend holds that some feminists believe “All sex is rape.” In the same light, I’ve been known to say “All Windows computers should be melted for scrap metal.” What I mean is this: There’s an unknown number of people out there suffering with computers that actively try to intimidate them, tell them what to do, ask them to download updates, and throw security errors left and right. No matter who makes that software, it’s unacceptable. You own your computer, not the other way around. (Likewise, if there’s a program I’ve condemned that you really enjoy, go ahead and keep on enjoying it. It’s your computer, and this document is meant help those who don’t know remove superfluous programs.)
The next time you install a program, I hope you’re able to look at it in a new light. If it tries to install a Toolbar or Tray Icon, show it who’s boss. Click No, no matter how many times it fights back. The next time you visit a website that wants to “SECURITY/SPEED SCAN” your computer, I hope you realize it’s a huge scam.
Additionally, THROW AWAY any CDs that come with wireless routers, as well as ones that come from your Internet Service Provider. They’re utterly useless and inflict unspeakable horrors on computers (Cisco/Linksys, this means you). If you get sick of all this vigilance, throw your computer out and buy a Mac. 🙂 Also keep your eyes peeled for my next tutorial: “How to Install Ubuntu on Most Any PC!”
I feel most fulfilled in life when I help people use their computers to pursue their dreams, no longer falling victim to advertisements and tricks. I hope I’ve helped you help yourself with this guide. Even if you still hire someone, at least you now know the reasons behind computer issues and know in general how to deal with them. Thanks for reading!
All screenshots featured here are property of their respective software makers.
NOTE: My buddy Garrett says it’s OK to leave the extra AVG items checked. My response to that would be, leave them checked if your computer has a lot of horsepower…
ALSO: Right-click on the taskbar (bottom) and go to Properties. Uncheck “Hide Inactive Tray Icons” so that the icons aren’t able to hide themselves from you.
ALSO ALSO: Right-click on My Computer, go to Automatic Updates, and completely disable them. This prevents your computer from getting bogged down, calling home, installing update after update after update after update after band-aid after update… all for no real reason (except for the occasional breaking of a program or two!).