Cleaning a Vista PC

It was one of those phone calls I hate the most, a friend with a Vista Home machine that was in trouble. Apparently, it had started to slow down, and was now barely grinding along. My initial reaction was a loud moan of despair, followed by an uplifting thought – hold on, I thought, this is Vista, it’s better at resisting attack. Surely, it must be something else. So I trundled around to visit the stricken machine and found a brand-new PC proudly installed onto the computing desk. It was still shiny, and the empty box it came in still lay in the corner of the room…

Cleaning a Vista PC

I wiggled the mouse to wake up the PC – it came round eventually, wheezing like a 40-a-day smoker. It was, indeed, running Vista Home Premium, and a quick check showed that it was fully patched up to date, but it was running at around quarter speed. At this point, armed with a fresh cup of tea and a biscuit, I made a rash decision: I concluded that since this was Vista, and a fresh purchase of a wholly new machine at that, it couldn’t be a virus. It had to be a hardware problem.

After all, Vista is supposed to be so much better armoured than that rusty old colander known as Windows XP. Vista wouldn’t just roll over and die like this, as it has all those new protection mechanisms in place. Senior Microsoft people had told me, with a straight face, that this time things would be different, it would be reliable and robust. So I started checking out the hardware, and the more I looked, the more it all seemed fine. Everything was good with the machine, except that it ran like a concrete mixer chewing bricks. I had to confront the inescapable truth that something smelly had got into this machine and was greedily chewing up most of its CPU cycles.

At this point, I should point out that the owner, my friend, is a typical home PC user: a do-a-bit-of-online-shopping type who browses a few websites like the BBC and some favourite shops. Had the user been a hormonally challenged 14-year-old then I’d have been taking folding fivers from him to keep his web browser log out of enemy hands (that is, his parents’). But no, this user was innocence personified.

I downloaded a few tools and started scrubbing the machine; most of them reported that the machine was clean, but I wasn’t yet convinced. It was still taking too long during that Starting Windows phase, and it just didn’t feel right. I tried rebooting the machine and applying all the tools yet again, but they all professed to be seeing a happy PC. Finally, I did what I should have done to start with: I applied two tools that I’d used before in such cases (actually on the PC of the aforementioned 14-year-old, whose folding fivers had been much appreciated at the pub later that evening).

The first is HijackThis, a tool that doesn’t actually do much – it just scans all the nasty areas and points out what it thinks it’s found, leaving it to you to decide what to do about it, although it can remove things for you. It found some nasties and I set it to work, which helped a lot, but I still wasn’t completely satisfied, so I fired up Spyware Doctor from PC Tools. Almost immediately, it found a pile of nasties, which it then deleted in short order. After one more reboot, the PC sprang back to action. A few more check scans and a further check with HijackThis, and I was convinced I had a clean machine. So it was a bunch of spyware that had gotten onto this machine.

Why am I telling you this? Because I’m frankly incandescent that this was possible on a brand-new PC in the summer of 2007, using the brand-new shiny Vista Home Premium edition, and for it to happen to a straightforward Joe Public home user. No spotty oiks had been rummaging around the world of smut on it, there was no peer-to-peer networking client present, no dodgy file downloads, and the Internet Explorer cache wasn’t full of nasties. The firewall was turned on and I presume Defender was running all the time throughout this debacle (although it isn’t possible to verify this). This bit of nastiness, which probably arrived as an attachment to an email, shouldn’t have been able to get into the machine, and that it was able to do so isn’t good enough – and it’s no use blaming the end user who might have accidentally said “Yes” to the wrong dialog at some point during the last month or two.

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