How To Fix Your Relatives’ Terrible Computer

How To Fix Your Relatives’ Terrible Computer

Drop your bags, grab a drink, and grab the XP CD—it’s nearly time for the holiday ritual of fixing up your relatives’ computer. Here are some tips and downloads to keep handy while you’re cursing all the auto-starting crapware.

Photo by Justin Marty.

For this guide, we’re going to do a bit of assuming. We’re assuming the relative with the busted computer is running a Windows system, and has an internet connection that works when the computer does. We’re assuming all the physical pieces of the computer work—hard drive, memory, disc drives, and anything else that’s crucial. We’ll also assume the computer’s in one of two states: Failing to boot and needing an OS re-installation, laden with unnecessary system tray/startup applications and/or spy/mal/ad-ware, or just needing a little optimisation.

Computer won’t boot, needs a re-install

The problem: Turning on the computer results in a message that states Windows can’t boot because something is missing (a boot loader, an important file, etc.) or something is wrong. There are many variations on this message, but they all say basically the same thing: You will not be getting into Windows.

Quick-fix triage:

What you’ll need:

  • XP, Vista or Windows 7 installation CD/DVD: It may be from a computer manufacturer and not look like a Microsoft-obtained, holograph-packed disc, so look around a bit. If it’s a “System Restoration” disc, be sure that you can boot from it and install a full copy of Windows from it.
  • USB thumb drive: At least 1GB in size.
  • External USB drive or blank DVDs: For backing up important files.
  • Ubuntu Live CD or Knoppix Live CD: Both are Linux distributions, but we’re just using them because they run on most kinds of hardware without installing, and can transfer the files you need to your backup media. Ubuntu should work; if it doesn’t, give Knoppix a go. You can use the free tool UNetBootin to transfer the ISO you downloaded to a thumb drive, which is necessary if you’re backing up to DVDs, and recommended in any case to speed things up.
    If that doesn’t work, and you really feel this system can boot again except for some silly error, try creating an Ultimate Recovery CD, as detailed at the How-To Geek’s home away from Lifehacker.

    If that worked, hooray! If not, soldier on to the next step.

    Back up the files: Have your USB hard drive or blank DVDs handy, and remove the Windows CD/DVD from the computer if you tried to use that for a fix. Stick your thumb drive with the Ubuntu (or Knoppix) image into a USB slot, then boot up the computer. You may have to hit F12 or another key to boot from USB, or change a setting in the BIOS (which you can access by hitting a key—written in that fast-disappearing text—at boot-up). You’ll be asked to choose a language, then hit the option to “Try Ubuntu without any changes”. After some loading, you’ll arrive at an Ubuntu desktop.

    Move your cursor to the “Places” menu, and check to see that your USB drive (MyBook, in my case) or blank DVD is showing up. You should also see the hard drive Windows is running from. On an XP or Vista system, there’s usually just one, but on Windows 7, there are two—a “System Reserved” (fairly small) and a larger, main drive. Check to see that you can open and access those files as well.

    Ask your relatives which files and documents are important to them. When doing my own tech support work, I usually back up the entire “My Documents” folder (with “My Music” and “My Pictures” included), their Outlook or (yes, sometimes) Outlook Express email data (explained here), and their Firefox profile or, more likely, their “Favorites” folder for Internet Explorer (C:Documents and SettingsUsernameFavorites in XP, or C:UsersUsernameFavorites in Vista or 7). In any case, always ask, and make sure there isn’t any software they can’t locate a licence for.

    When you’re ready to back up, simply open your USB drive from the Places menu, then open your main Windows drive, and drag files to copy from your Windows system onto the backup medium.

    If you’re burning to DVD, head to the Applications menu in your temporary Ubuntu system, mouse over the Accessories sub-menu, and select “CD/DVD Creator” when it pops up. You’ll get a folder you can drag files you want to burn into, then hit “Write to Disc” to burn them.

    When you’re all done backing up files, head to the menu with the power icon next to it (labelled “Live user,” most likely) and select “Shut Down”. You’ll eventually be prompted to remove your live CD or USB stick—do so, and swap in the Windows installation CD or DVD. Turn off the system, then turn it back on. Follow the instructions to install Windows on the system, erasing whatever partitions or data exist on there at the moment (assuming you’re sure the important stuff is backed up).

    Clogged with crapware

    The problem: The computer boots up … eventually. Programs open very slowly, the hard drive seems to click and whir endlessly, and messages, reminders, and pop-up windows jump onto the screen every few minutes.

    Quick-fix triage: If you don’t suspect there’s anything actually malicious and infectious on the system—that is, you’re fairly sure they’ve been running and updating an anti-virus and anti-malware client—grab a copy of Revo Uninstaller Portable (direct ZIP file link), and run it off the USB stick you brought with you.

    Click the “Tools” button, choose the Autorun menu on the left, and look through the items on the right. Uncheck the stuff that’s really unnecessary—most of it, really, unless they constantly use a printer/scanner or run an antivirus app—and remind your host to un-check the toolbars and “helper” apps offered when installing things.

    If things are much better now, and you don’t imagine that malware is an issue, you’re all done. Otherwise …

    What you’ll need: Mostly a small batch of software, recommended by this author and the How-To Geek. You can run these once and remove them, or run them off a thumb drive, in some cases. The last download is one you’ll keep installed on the system.

    The fixing process? It’s nothing special, actually—just run the quick-fix triage in any case, removing the auto-run apps that bog down system resources, and then run these secondary apps, generally in the order they’re listed. Keep Security Essentials or Panda Cloud Antivirus installed (not both!), and, while you’re being helpful, back up this computer’s pictures, music, and important documents.

    Tuning up and bomb-proofing

    Maybe everything technically “works,” but watching your relatives open emails in Outlook Express and browse on Internet Explorer 6 is just, well, painful. Here are the steps we recommend to get things moving:

    • Run the basics of the “clogged with crapware” section: The one involving Revo Uninstaller and startup programs, under the “quick-fix triage” sub-section, and installing either Microsoft Security Essentials or Panda Cloud Antivirus.
    • Install Firefox and make it the default: Be sure to use the bookmark and setting import from Internet Explorer. You could even go with Google Chrome for even tighter security and speed, if your relatives wouldn’t mind the abrupt shift in look and feel.
    • Set up their email in Gmail: Gmail has made it much easier to import email accounts, whether they’re AOL, cable company, or other defaults that just stuck around. You can make a simple switch in the settings to keep your relatives receiving and sending email from their same address (or multiple addresses). Save their Gmail password in Firefox, but make sure they know it, and they’ll even get some new-fangled email portability.
    • Physically clean the beast: Stop by the local office store, grab a can of compressed air, and clean out the “dust bunnies”, especially if you can hear the exhaust fans over the mid-day football.
    • Replace cruddy programs with superior alternatives: Gina’s 2008 recommendations still hold up, but we updated them a bit, and made them super-easy to install in one shot, with our Lifehacker Pack 2009. Or use Ninite for a similar one-click awesomeware package.

    That is, at least, how one Lifehacker editor is fixing at least one relative’s computer over a holiday weekend. What’s your own 1-2-3 process for being the holiday software savior? Share your success stories in the comments.


  • Thanks for the advice. You lost me with the installing Firefox and making it the default. If they use IE, i don’t see a problem with change something they know. Sure, ensure IE6 is not their browser. Spare me any anti Microsoft drivel.

  • Install Firefox and the Ad-block Plus extension. Do this as it is probably safe to assume a slower internet connection and with ad-block plus enabled the relative will think you made their internet connection go faster. And if they are using IE6 then a change to Firefox will be less of a change then to IE8.

  • Another trick that a lot of Windows XP machines love is

    Start > Run > sfc /scannow

    You’ll need the installation media for this.

    (I actually recommend copying the i386 folder from the install CD to the C:\ and re-point the paths in HKLM\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Setup to C:\i386 first)

  • In most of my cases, anti-virus is the first stop. Almost every friends PC has either non-working or expired anti-virus software. I install Avast! by default as it’s free for home-users. Family members love it when you save them a few bucks a year on virus subscription renewal.

  • “Or just install ubuntu with that livecd you have!”

    Absolutely. Last time I offered to help someone I put in the Ubuntu disc to back up her files and she said “can’t I just use this” so I installed Ubuntu.


  • Just did Michael’s advice with 2 PC’s in a backpackers I was crashing at, scored some kudos points, he’s got a much more suitable system for backpackers needs (who now aren’t giving him a virus every second day).

    If they insist on vwindows (say it that way, it sounds better), then Robert’s Avast idea.

    Also a free firewall like Ashampoo are esential first steps.

  • I understand the process of fixing the “rellies” PC is oh so common – but if we are to really provide them with a fix and fresh update and something that is a step forward in time and functionality, why not let them try out a full Ubuntu installation for a while in preference to just going back to what they had?

    I mean you have the installation media there and ready to go. If they don’t like it and can’t do what they “need” then sure roll them back to WinXP, but if it is a case of doing something a different way in order to achieve the same goal and get an insight into another complete way of thinking (open source style) then at least let them see how the grass tastes on the other side of the fence,

    My two bobs worth and yes I am realistic, so would roll them back if that is what was needed.


  • @robert:

    Yeah, they advertise thru email, but I just set up my filters in gmail to avoid that stuff.


    Agreed it’s better (see earlier post), but you should setup dual-boot (they wont realise) in case they hate it and you’re having the time of your life treking around vietnam on cheap plain tickets.

  • Malwarebytes StartUpLite is a great tool for sorting out a bloated startup list. I prefer it for the way it actually tells you what each item is in plain English and if you can live without it at startup. No other tool tells you this and it’s only 199Kb.

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