18 simple, free fixes for your Vista or XP PC

Your ultimate PC repair kit

Despite years of refinement and the collective experience of millions of users, Windows remains as buggy, enigmatic and failure-prone as ever. Each new release of the operating system (OS) adds a little glitz and a handful of new features — and just as many headaches.

Sometimes Vista's new features and improved functions seem to be more trouble than they're worth, and older sibling XP certainly isn't getting any easier to live with as it ages.

Fortunately, you don't have to spend hours researching the cures for Windows' ills. We've distilled the most important fixes and slick improvements into steps that you can implement in mere minutes.

These tips will accelerate your startups and shut downs, automate system maintenance and get you browsing at full throttle.

Spyware and adware

A wobbly Windows machine that judders along, sometimes smooth, the next minute stuttering, may be just that: a wobbly Windows machine. Poorly written software is as likely to be to blame for erratic computing performance as it is to be symptomatic of a poorly PC. It's not without cause that Windows is derided for its bugs and glitches — it's a hefty and complex OS even before you start installing programs and filling up disk space.

However, another common reason for PCs acting sluggishly is that there's some sort of malware running behind the scenes. Even if you suspect you've simply laden down your PC with far too much gunk, it's worth checking there's nothing malignant at play.

Malware takes many forms — hence the catch-all phrase for anything designed to do harm to your system. Keyloggers and spyware can be used as part of an identity theft attempt, while adware is more of a bane as it hobbles your system with its continuous attempts to attract your attention.

Adware can often hide malware, while an extreme version, sometimes termed ransomware, prevents you from using your PC until you pay to release it from the attacker's grip.

Fighting back

In all cases, the advice is the same: run a scan of your system using a recognised tool, then follow its instructions about deleting and quarantining any suspicious files. Having cleaned your machine, prevent future attacks by investing in or downloading an effective arsenal of security tools.

Norton Internet Security Suite 2008 won our most recent group test of all-in-one security software, but you'll find other tools on our DVD that you can use with immediate effect and for free.

For example, you could combine Comodo's firewall with AVG's free antivirus program and Spyware Blaster to create a sturdy defence team. But it's worth researching the security applications you decide to use.

As well as some worthwhile and effective disinfection tools, a number of less well-intentioned products are available over the Internet that open up your PC to attack rather than defend it. Post queries on respected forums — such as those at the PC World Helpscreen forum — just to be sure.

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Scott Dunn

PC World (US online)
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