Does Your PC Need a “Pitstop”?
by Beverly Rosenbaum
For all those readers who have written to me about their PC performance issues, I’ve found a virtual mechanic that can recommend tune-up options.
This is a great way to introduce a new column for HAL-PC Magazine, and I call it “Window to the Web.” In it, I’ll give you links to outstanding web sites that can help you, educate you, or entertain you. It will be an interactive column, so if you’re inspired to share your questions, ideas, or experiences to help other readers, I’ll include them in future issues.
I visited www.pcpitstop.com when my computer had gotten so slow that I could hardly function. Before finding this web site, I thought that either my modem was failing, or my Internet connection was to blame. What I learned will surprise you.
The cause of my PC’s terrible performance was that the processor utilization was extremely high, often reaching above 90%. That would make anyone think that their PC had frozen and was no longer responding, their downloads would never complete, browsers may crash, and often their Internet connections were terminated because there appeared to be no response from their PC at the other end of the connection.
One issue affecting performance is disk fragmentation, something that occurs in the normal use of any computer. But when your hard drive becomes very full, the fragmentation occurs even more quickly. So every day that you use your computer, the fragmentation of your hard drive and the performance of your PC gets a little worse. Compounded over months or years, a highly fragmented disk could be the greatest cause of degraded system performance. If you do find that your hard drive is too full, you should remove unneeded files and defragment your disk to see if it improves performance. Remove unnecessary software programs using the Control Panel, don’t just delete them. There is a defragmenting utility built into Windows at Start | Programs | Accessories | System Tools, although it may not work thoroughly in older versions of Windows like Windows 98. You should defragment your drive monthly, in addition to running a complete scan of your system for viruses.
By far the most insidious new problem, however, is spyware. Let me tell you that any and all software running in the background consumes processor time and impacts the performance of your computer. These can even be useful little free utilities that you intentionally added. What you may not know is that many of these programs are bundled with spyware or adware that you didn’t even realize had also been installed on your system. I’ve often recommended that you run Spybot Search and Destroy and AdAware on your computers monthly. Links to these and other good programs can be found at www.hal-pc.org/support/safety.html (HAL-PC User Support). If you use the Windows Task Manager to look at the processes that are running on your PC, many names may be unfamiliar. At www.pchell.com, you can learn which of them really belong there, and PC Pitstop will tell you some of the same information.
According to data posted at www.adwarereport.com, there are over 345 anti-spyware programs on the market. Most of these are considered rogue products, because they only claim to remove spyware while actually installing it (and sometimes charging you to do that), or they’ve stolen code from other vendors.
Software can be categorized into six general types: Freeware (truly free, with no strings attached), Shareware (usually try-before-you-buy, available on-line), Commercial Software (for which you must buy a license), Adware (usually available on-line, and offered to the user at no charge), Spyware (more dangerous than adware because it can record your keystrokes and passwords without your knowledge), and Malware (malicious programs deliberately designed to disrupt a computer system, like a worm, a virus or a Trojan horse). Some adware that reinstalls itself after removal can be considered malware. The author of free adware may give away their program but still wants to get paid, so he incorporates advertising technology into the software. As a result, you may get the software for free, but you have to view banner ads while using it. The biggest problem with many of these programs is that, in order to deliver the advertising to you, additional tracking software is also installed without your knowledge. This tracking software constantly runs in the background, monitoring your surfing habits and sending this data when you’re online, again without your knowledge. That’s when the adware becomes “spyware.” A few common examples are Gator, NetZip’s Download Demon, Netscape/AOL's SmartDownload, and Real Network's RealDownload. These (and many others) keep track of every file you download and assign you a unique ID number, enabling them to keep a detailed record of any files you download off the Internet. Aureate/Radiate secretly installs itself, tracks information, installs additional software without your knowledge, hides itself, and is responsible for browser crashes. Peer-to-peer file sharing software like Kazaa, Grokster, and Limewire have been known to secretly install spyware on users’ machines to collect and send personal data to another web address. Other programs in this category are CometCursor, BonziBuddy, Alexa, and RealJukebox.
In short, spyware bombards you with annoying pop-up ads and flashing banners, wastes bandwidth and disk space, and can cause crashes and stability problems. Some of the programs create a serious security risk by opening a backdoor on your system, providing the capability to secretly install software. Some spyware can be removed via the Add/Remove Programs applet in the Windows Control Panel, and some of it can be removed manually. But most are difficult to remove because there are hidden files and registry keys that allow reinstallation even after you think you’ve removed them.
The top spyware programs detected in scans at PC Pitstop include:
The tricks these programs use to take over your resources include hiding inside another program’s installer, asking you repeatedly in a flurry of pop-up windows to accept installation until you say “Yes,” creating a false pretense for needing the software (“you need this viewer to see your greeting card”), and failing to really uninstall even when asked. Some of them even require that you link to the web site to answer questions about why you’re removing their software. Their official-sounding names don’t appear to be out of place when you look at the processes that are running on your system, so you need additional help to remove them.
The creators of PC Pitstop are PC industry veterans Rob Cheng (former senior vice president of Gateway Inc.’s consumer PC division, responsible for customer technical support), David Methvin (former executive editor at Windows Magazine, and co-author of Networking Windows NT), and Martin Heller (author of articles at www.byte.com and several PC books, including Advanced Windows Programming). They launched the site as a technology showcase for the latest in PC auto-diagnostic and auto-detecting technologies, and the company is primarily in the business of licensing these unique technologies to other companies and web sites.
Their free check-up process uses a small utility that you load before starting the tests. Downloading the utility takes less than a minute, and all the tests can run in 5 minutes, even on a dial-up connection.
The remote diagnostics can do all of the following through your browser:
Just running this analysis won’t change any settings on your PC, and you can review the suggestions before making any changes. In fact, I suggest that you visit the web site and test your PC several times before changing anything. In addition, I strongly recommend that you back up your files and read as much as you can in order to make an informed decision about the proposed changes. There’s an on-line forum where you can read about the kinds of problems other people are having and how they resolved them.
You can use the site anonymously, but in order to save your reports and compare them later you should create a free account (you can use a nickname if you prefer). Your report will include comparisons to other models similar to yours, and specific recommendations. The data collected from your computer is not personal in nature, and you can use a link to that information to ask for help in their forums.
PCPitstop does use banner advertising on their web site, but you’re not required to accept cookies from those advertisers. You’re able to benefit from the help this site provides even if you refuse the third party cookies. Be careful not to confuse the products in the ads with the free help on the site.
About PC Pitstop Tests
Here’s how to set a system restore point: Select Start | Help and Support | Undo changes to your computer with System Restore. In the System Restore window select Create a restore point and click Next. Type in a restore name that is meaningful and click Create.
To back up your registry, launch Windows registry editor by clicking on Start | Run. Click in the Open dropdown box and type in regedit.exe then click OK. Back up your registry by selecting File | Export, and type in a meaningful file name, in the export range section select All and save to your hard drive. To restore your old registry you can simply import this file.
By far, the most common causes of a high CPU load are background applications, and they may also interfere with PC Pitstop’s testing. In that case, you should review the Windows details in the report of your scan for a list of what programs were running when PC Pitstop testing was performed, so that you can disable them. Even some poorly written popup stoppers or ad blockers that probably poll too often can also contribute to a slow system. See general instructions on how to disable programs in the section of the Pitstop called “How to Disable.” You should rerun the tests with any firewall software or other background utilities turned off. Don’t touch the keyboard or mouse during the testing, and be sure that your screen saver isn’t active. The screen saver will take up CPU time and cause a false load. To disable your screen saver, right click the desktop, click Properties, and click the Screen Saver tab to set it to “None.”
You’ll be able to increase your score by clicking on each tip and following the instructions you receive to eliminate each problem. Try to remove as many background programs as possible that are interfering with CPU, memory, and disk performance; you’ll see a color-coded list of them on the Test Details page of your results.
XP readiness test
Another test available on this web site is the Windows XP Readiness Test, which also uses PC Pitstop's ActiveX technology to collect information about your PC and compares it with the requirements for running Windows XP. Popular applications with known or possible incompatibilities with the new OS are checked. But in this case, the XP Readiness Test is administered by a utility that runs only on your PC, and none of the data is saved or sent over the Internet. This differs from the full tests at PC Pitstop, which save your data on PC Pitstop servers so you can compare and review previous results.
If you’d prefer to test individual items on your computer, you can use the following referrals from PC Pitstop:
Beverly Rosenbaum, a HAL-PC member, is a 1999 and 2000 Houston Press Club “Excellence in Journalism” award winner. Send her your comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beverly Rosenbaum, a HAL-PC member, is a 1999 and 2000 Houston Press Club “Excellence in Journalism” award winner. She can be reached at email@example.com.