People seem to think that I'm that guy who "knows computers". They're probably right, considering the unholy amount of time I spend building, fixing, programming, cursing at and occasionally using such devices. Maybe you, too, are "that guy", in which case the rest of this article will be face-palmingly familiar.
Or maybe you're looking for such a character, a Wizard of the Order of X86-64 who can help you with "a few little problems" your favourite laptop has developed. The answer is yes, we can (probably) put your hopelessly borked, slower-than-a-tortoise-on-Nyquil, late Paleolithic era Windows machine into a somewhat more usable state. But there are caveats, and you should know that:
Dishonesty will return to bite you
It always starts with the same question: "My computer started acting all weird and slow-like all of a sudden, can you fix it?"
The techie will almost invariably respond with "What were you doing before it started doing that?"
Such a conversation may take one of two paths:
- Client: "I was flipping through the adult section on \$eastern_european_piracy_site and downloaded hot_midwest_coeds_4.avi, but when I opened it, it tried to install something and I may have clicked through a UAC prompt."
- Techie: "OK, show me where you put that file and we'll see if we can isolate the malicious code and trace the damage it did to your system."
Or, far more often:
- Client: "I wasn't doing anything! These porn pop-ups just started and I tried to close them and then it said I had a virus and I could buy a tool here to clean it but it's still there and I think my hotmail has hackers and...."
- Techie: "Sigh." (Angry glare.) "I'll see what I can do but it's probably toast."
It is difficult to shock a techie, and it is nearly impossible to successfully lie to one. The computer is a cold, emotionless beast with no particular loyalty to its owner; when asked, it will reveal exactly what happened, pleas of innocence be darned. If you ask for computer help, your techie WILL know what you did.
The difference is that if you tell your techie the truth, he'll nod, get on with the repair, and teach you how to be a little more careful next time. There's no shame in making a mistake if you fess up to it- plus, knowing what was installed and where it came from is information that makes the difference between being able to repair it and declaring it a hopeless cause. If you play dumb, though, the techie will treat you accordingly, and will likely just wipe everything and let you start from scratch.
"Wipe everything" really does mean everything
"It doesn't look good", the techie says. "There's a lot of aggressive junk on here- it'll take quite a while to fix, with no guarantees we'll be able to get it all."
"Can you just wipe it clean, then?" asks the hapless client.
Well, yes. The best solution to many bad infections on Windows is, indeed, to wipe it clean and start from scratch.
If the term "wipe it clean" conjures images of Molly Maid with a spray bottle, polishing the grime off your kitchen tiles, think again. "Wipe it" in the computer sense is more akin to "wipe it" in the Strategic Air Command sense; i.e. total nuclear annihilation from orbit.
Left: Client's idea of "wipe it". Right: Techie's idea of "wipe it".
The first step in "wiping" a Windows computer is to attack it with something called DBAN- standing for Darik's Boot And Nuke, an apt description of what the tool does. Every single bit of short- and long-term memory in the computer is permanently, irrevocably erased. The machine's operating system is then reinstalled from an original Microsoft disk, a basic suite of day-to-day software is installed, and your files are copied from your backup disks to the freshly cleaned hard drive.
What, you don't have backup disks? Then you, my friend, are screwed. If, before the Great Wipe begins, you tell your techie that you don't have recent backups, there is a slim chance that he'll be able to save most of your non-virus-laden files. Once the order "eh, wipe it" has been given, there is no turning back.
Your private collection is safe...
When a computer goes in for repair, there is usually an element of fear: "What if the techie finds my collection of.....?"
My advice: Don't worry about it.
Techies grew up with the Web. As I mentioned earlier, they are hard to shock. Whether your secret photo stash consists of women, men, ambiguous quantum mechanical combinations thereof, or that tentacle-based stuff the Americans made the Japanese create, your techie- if he's at all experienced- won't even look at it. Cheerleader videos? Naked hotel pics from your last vacation? Cellphone shots of you and that cute guy from Accounts Receivable in the copy room at the office party? They'll get a quick automated sweep from the virus scanner and are otherwise ignored.
You see, when you've been on the Internet as much as the average competent techie has, you already know where to find as much of that stuff as you could ever want, for free, without risking your clients' privacy. And you've seen enough computers to know that many, if not most, people have something hidden somewhere. Everyone is entitled to their secrets and their privacy; finding NSFW material on a client's computer is something that all competent techies expect and quietly ignore.
(You do, on very rare occasions, hear about an exception to this rule. Almost without fail, the techies in question are the untrained, low-wage minions at a big chain store. Reputable techies wouldn't even think about exposing their clients' personal matters. Right, techies?)
...but your illegal kiddie porn is not
There are, of course, limits to what can be ignored. If your Recent Files list says that you've been luring fifth-graders into your unmarked van for a bit of video play time, then something called "duty to report" kicks in. What that means is that I have to call this guy:
And when you come to pick up the computer, Constable Do-Right will be waiting at the repair desk with a warrant to ensure that your ass is grass.
If you find yourself doing things that you know are illegal and wrong, but you can't stop, don't call your techie. Close the laptop lid, pick up the phone, dial your local health agency, and ask for the on-call psychiatrist. Do it now, please. They can help you work through this.
You might have to buy some hardware
Even if you're one of those lucky few who can convince a friend or relative to look at your machine for free, you'd better have the credit card handy.
There's an old saying: "What Intel giveth, Microsoft taketh away". As computers get more and more powerful, programmers take advantage of that power to do more fancy stuff that they couldn't do before. (And, in many cases, they just get lazy and stop caring about optimization.) The result? MS Office in 2012 is larger and uses more resources than Windows itself did in 2002. Software is written with the assumption that computers will be either upgraded or replaced every three years or so.
If you planned your equipment's life cycle properly, it'll still be in the Sweet Valley of Cheap when it's time for a mid-life upgrade. \$20 for extra RAM, or \$80 for a nice fat hard drive, might buy your little silicon friend another two or three years. If your techie advises such a purchase, it's not because she's trying to milk money out of you- it's because she's found an easy and relatively painless way for you to be a cheapskate for a little while longer.
If your machine has hit the Wall of Obsolescence, though, you're in trouble. Outdated parts become very hard to find- and very expensive when you do find them. There may be a choice between spending \$300 to buy your old Pentium 4 another year of life support, or spending \$400 to replace it with something modern that has six years of happiness ahead of it. Unless it's a business-critical system that absolutely must be fixed today, your techie is not going to fix that Pentium 4.
This work is not free...
If you take your computer to a professional, expect to pay standard shop rates for her services. Don't be surprised when, in response to pleas of "it's a business critical system, I really need it by 8 AM", your techie puts business consultant overtime rates on the invoice. That's just how the free market works, and we all know you do the same for your own services, Dr. Dentist.
If you're begging tech favours from friends or family, the lack of a cash transaction does not mean this is a free service. Own a van? You just volunteered to help move apartments. Good with a frying pan? You're on grocery and kitchen duty for the next dinner party. Not good with a frying pan? You're on dishes and vacuum duty for the next dinner party.
The ability to recover critical equipment from the brink of death is not a trivial skill. Value it appropriately, and everything will balance out in the end. Undervalue it, and you risk anger and resentment.
...but you will probably get some free stuff.
You can show up with original install disks and valid licence keys for all that fancy commercial software, and yes, I'll install it for you (at the usual shop rate, of course).
What most people mean when they say "I want Photoshop", though, is "Can you pirate the newest Photoshop for me?" Well, yes I can, but I won't. There's a legal, free alternative that does everything you're likely to need; failing that, there is (at the moment) an apparently legal way to get outdated Photoshop CS2 for free. If you want pirate software, you can do it yourself.
There are also excellent free and legal choices for security software. In 2012, paying for antivirus on a home computer marks you as a sucker. The machine will be faster and safer with one of the many free alternatives. Frankly, the only reason why antivirus isn't built into Windows itself is because Microsoft is forced to ship that module separately to avoid abuse-of-monopoly accusations from Norton and McAfee.
The same goes for Web browsers. If you never leave the corporate intranet, then sure, Internet Explorer is OK. Out in the wild, you need something more robust, and you'll be given a choice of Firefox, Chrome or Opera. If you like to hang out in sketchier parts of the Web, I'll harden your browser accordingly. That means you'll get HTTPS-Everywhere, Adblock+ and Noscript at a minimum, and for the next few weeks, you'll have to pay attention to the junk that Websites try to force on you and manually white-list the domains you know are OK. You will quickly get used to it, and it will save you the many days of headache that would ensue if your poor little machine caught another bug from that big nasty Net.
And be warned: If you keep bringing a Windows machine back with the same problems over and over, don't be surprised if your techie eventually returns it as a Linux Mint machine. He's not trying to push a radical libertarian agenda; he's just trying to save you a lot of trouble. Learning your way around a more secure operating system is much easier than repairing the inevitable banking and identity compromises that will occur if you keep installing dangerous stuff in Windows.
Today's post is CC BY-NC, with selected images from Wikimedia Commons.