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.
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.
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 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.
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.
- Revo Uninstaller Portable: Completely, utterly removes the programs, toolbars, and other junk apps that aren’t needed.
- SuperAntiSpyware: For cleaning (you guessed it) spyware.
- Malwarebytes (or its portable version): For the clingy cookies, add-ons, and apps that try and do unauthorized stuff.
- CCleaner Portable: For freeing up hard drive space and clearing out temp/cache files that bog down the system index.
- Microsoft Security Essentials or Panda Cloud Antivirus: The former for a system that’s got enough horsepower to be adequate, the latter for a system that’s light on resources.
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.
- 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.