Spyware Horror Story: Debugging for newbies

For extreme computer novices like Chookkii, deciding which tools are harmful or helpful to the system isn't always entirely clear.

Got your own spyware horror story?

Submitted by Chookkii; Willaston, Australia

After reading all the stories and blogs, I'm starting to think that maybe all the problems I'm having all of a sudden could be caused by the Norton Internet Suite I purchased this year. My computer is running slowly, programs are constantly "not responding," I'm getting error reports about programs that I didn't even know were running, let alone that they existed, and to make it worse, I am very basic on the computer. We did not have them when I went to school, so all I know is only what I have taught myself. When something goes wrong, I have a hard time trying to fix it and if I do manage to fix it, you can bet I don't know (or remember) what I did to fix it!

Everyone talks about having enough memory, but I've no idea what I should have. My laptop has a speed of 1,729 MHz, RAM 512 MB, total capacity is 111.78 GB, and free disk space is 80.04--all of which means nothing to me. Also, everyone talks about cache memory, but no one tells you how much you should set your cache memory to. Anyway, if my problems are with Norton, what do you do? Do you put up with it since it cost over $100.00 for a year's subscription, or cut my losses and disable it?

Editor's response

As liberating as computers are, it's terrifying when things go wrong. You're left abandoned, even mocked!, by the tools on which you've come so heavily to rely. It's like having your trusty accountant wipe a stack of forms to the floor, storm out of the office, and leave you to sort out your own taxes.

That's why this Spyware Horror Story (see all) goes back to basics. Without a good foundation, novice users will perform tasks without understanding what they're doing or why. Not that this quick response will solve all problems, but it's a start.

Memory. The two kinds of memory Chookkii mentions are RAM (random access memory) and cache memory, the latter of which can mean different things in various contexts. In layman's terms, RAM is a sizable data reservoir that makes much of your data quicker to access, faster than pulling data from the hard disk. I've heard it described with a library book analogy, and here's another--getting data from RAM is a bit like getting a cold drink from the kitchen refrigerator, instead of from the garage. Cache memory works similarly, but is a reservoir to make getting select data even quicker than getting it from RAM, like fetching that drink from the mini fridge at your feet instead of traipsing to the kitchen.

If you're not a gamer or running a ton of heavy, full-featured programs, a 512 MB RAM is usually adequate. You can add more RAM, let's say a gigabyte (GB) more, by buying it from any retail or online electronics store (compare prices here.) That will generally speed your computer's performance, and is a good choice if you plan to store large multimedia files, like music, photos, and videos.

I'm no cache memory expert, but from what I understand, the limit is tied to the CPU chip that comes with your computer. Replacing that means messing with the guts of your computer. Don't take my word for it, though. There's a lot of good information on the Web, and plenty of forums to help, including CNET's.

Problems with Norton. While antivirus apps have been known to compete with each other and spontaneously combust when you've got too many going at once, I suspect Chookkii's problems are more of a malware nature. This was the tip-off: "I'm getting error reports about programs that I didn't even know were running, let alone that they existed." Ding, ding, ding! Ah, the sweet warning bells of corruption. There are a few things I'd do in this case.

First, make sure Norton is completely updated. You can do this by opening the program interface and finding the "Updates" button. The next step is to get a second opinion whether the software in question is unwanted malware or some greater system wreckage. I suggest scanning the computer with a different third party antivirus app. There are plenty of good choices out there, but I might start with one like SUPERAntiSpyware Free Edition.

If that doesn't turn up anything, you can easily escalate the hunt by running a diagnostic scan with Trend Micro Hijack This, a free, invaluable tool, and send the log to a dedicated spyware forum for analysis. Read our help manual for more details.

My final piece of advice is also the most drastic, and should be followed only if you're at your wit's end. Back up your photos, MP3s, and important documents (you could do this with an external hard drive or with software) and reinstall Windows with your original installation disks. This is time consuming and you'll lose all your extra programs and data, taking you back to the extreme basics. Known as a "clean install," this method also usually rids the system of what ails it and is a straightforward enough concept for even extreme novices to find success. Best of luck.

Find you also have suggestions for Chookkii? Leave them in the comments below.

Got your own spyware horror story?

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.