Posted - February 11 2008 : 23:38:44
| Episode 11. In this installment, we discuss the two major causes of computer slowdown: Malware, and Hard Drive Fragmentation. We give our Top Ten ways to get malware under control, and then rant a bit about AOL Antispyware.
Help! My computer is running slowly!
Malware and/or Disk Fragmentation could be why
Posted 1/25/2008, Updated 2/5/2008
You may not know it, but we are in the midst of a malware epidemic. Malware is a shortened form of the term "malicious software", and can refer to many types of software. Viruses, trojans, downloaders, zombies, adware, spyware, and crimeware are all included here, and I would even consider phishing, pharming, vishing, and spearphishing malware, even though these attacks aren't typically software, because they can be an avenue through which you can get malware. Malware can be used for identity theft. Unscrupulous businesses can use malware to either increase their competitors' pay-per-click advertising expenses by showing the competitor's ad, then clicking the ad but not buying anything, or generate more revenues for themselves by putting their ad in front of you more often than you might otherwise see it. We are seeing a rising trend in this type of activity.
To help stem this tide, we offer the following advice:
- Get one reputable antivirus software package, like AVG, Trend Micro PC-Cillin, Norton Antivirus, McAfee, or Avast!.
(AVG has both a paid-for or free version if you qualify)
- Keep that antivirus software up to date. If your virus signatures are over two weeks old, your antivirus program is useless. That statement is fact, not hype. Most, if not all, have an automatic update process. Configure this update to occur at least daily.
- Get two reputable antispyware offerings, like Windows Defender, Ad-Aware, Spybot Search & Destroy(all available here),Webroot Spysweeper, or PCTools Spyware Doctor. While not free, these last two always get good reviews from PC Magazine.
- Keep that antispyware software up to date. Spyware tactics seem to change more slowly than viruses, but whatever update mechanism the software has, set it up and use it.
- Get an antispam solution. We like K9, even if it does take some setup to get working.
- Make sure that Windows Automatic Updates is turned on, and set up to at least automatically download the updates. Windows Automatic Updates can install themselves automatically if you're the type to leave your computer on all the time. If you'd rather be in control of what updates get installed on your computer, then just tell Automatic Updates to download, but not install the updates. But when the program tells you that updates are available, check them immediately and install them within a couple of days.
- Do not buy antispyware or antivirus software that's 1) Not on this list and 2) Is advertised in a pop-up ad. Such software is almost certainly malware itself, disguised to look legitimate. A wolf in sheep's clothing, if you will.
- Remove, or very closely monitor, Peer to Peer (P2P) network software like Kazaa, Limewire, certain BitTorrent clients, etc. The worst-infected systems I've seen have had these programs on them.
- Get two-way firewall software like ZoneAlarm. If you have malware on your computer, a two-way firewall will assist in its discovery. It can also prevent sending unauthorized information collected by crimeware. But... firewall software is easily mis-configured, especially in a small office network setting. If you suspect this has happened, temporarily disable the firewall program. If the problem you're having goes away, the firewall is mis-configured.
After you've done all this to protect and clean your computer, defragment your hard drive. All the scanning this security software does will take a toll on your computer's processing ability. Some are worse offenders than others in this regard. If your hard drive is fragmented, it'll only make things worse.
Just what is fragmentation, anyway?
The best way I've found to explain fragmentation is: Suppose you're reading an article in the newspaper or a magazine. You get to the bottom of the page and instead of continuing the article on the next page, a note says "See 'Fragmented' on page 7b." To read the rest of the article, you then have to find page 7b, then find the heading 'Fragmented' on the page. Then, if you're like me, you turn back to where you were, re-read the last line or two, then quickly flip over to where the article continues. I could have read much more efficiently if the article were all on one page, or at least on consecutive pages. The article took longer to read because of the overhead incurred in changing pages. The same thing happens with your hard drive. As files are created and deleted, gaps of empty space build up. Windows uses those gaps when making new files, but sometimes the file is longer than the gap. When that happens, another gap is located and filled. The process repeats until the entire file is saved, resulting in fragmented files.
Windows has a built-in defragmenting utility, but unless you are running Windows Server, defrags cannot be scheduled to happen automatically. A better solution would be not to fragment the drive's files in the first place. This is just what a freeware application called Buzzsaw does. Buzzsaw claims to detect fragmentation as it happens and then either prevents the fragmentation, or defragments the file immediately when you get finished with it. We use and recommend both this program and its companion, DirMS-S. You can find both at: http://www.dirms.com. We recommend installing and running both programs. Use DirMS-S to initially defragment your drive, then Buzzsaw to keep it that way.
AOL AntiSpyware Useless
Can we just admit it now?
Seriously, can't we just admit that America Online's AntiSpyware scanner is a joke? Now this is only my opinion, and it could be just me, but I have cleaned tons of spyware off computers that were "protected" with AOL's AntiSpyware offering. Why? Given AOL's propensity to force-feed updates to its subscribers, I can't imagine that they'd let anyone have outdated spyware signatures. If you are protected by AOL AntiSpyware and don't believe me, run the online scanners from XBlock and Grisoft (formerly Ewido). If I were a gambler, and not a computer guy, I'd give you 10-to-1 odds one or both of these will find something... or several somethings.