The Gunk in Windows and How to Deal With It

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2004-03-15 Print this article Print

Over time, Windows systems get like my desk: piled up with miscellaneous nonsense I worked on, but may no longer care about. A new book addresses the task of "Degunking Windows." It's a worthy topic, but the book doesn't do a good job.

Like a lot of you, friends and relatives are always asking me to fix something on their computers. Inevitably, when I get to the thing and start working on it, I do a little bit of cleaning up before I get to the actual problem. Windows is like this. If you dont make a point of keeping it neat and tidy, users and applications will dump all over it. The result can often be security problems or, more likely, something that appears to unsophisticated users as a security problem. After all the worm news these days, when something goes wrong, users will often jump to the not-necessarily accurate conclusion that they have a virus or something like that. Maybe they do, but its not usually the only problem they have.

Joli Ballew and Jeff Duntemann have beaten me to a great idea for a book on this: Degunking Windows from Paraglyph Press. I really wish Id thought of it first. I was also pleased to see that Duntemann, whose programming books and columns I enjoyed back in the 80s, was involved.

I wish I could say I was happy with the book. Experts will disagree with me on some of my criticisms, but I have to say, a lot of the book has less to do with actual degunking than with good habits that should prevent gunk from collecting in the first place. I suppose this is helpful, but its also very ordinary for a Windows book, and some of the advice is not always the best. Much of the book has little or nothing to do with degunking at all.

Heres one example of what I would have liked to see more of. When I clean up a system, the main thing I do is to look carefully at what programs load when Windows starts up. This, to me, is the most important source of information when searching for Windows problems, be they genuine security issues or just plain badly screwed-up systems. The easiest way to do this is to use the System Configuration Utility (Start->Run->MSCONFIG) on the Startup tab. There you will find a list of programs and checkboxes to turn them off.

Its not an easy job. First, the System Configuration Utility itself is badly in need of some enhancement. It presents a lot of information, but the stupid window is not resizable! You end up scrolling left and right a lot and resizing its three columns, which show program name, actual command executed and the location from which it was run.

The information can be difficult to read. Often its impossible to tell from the name of a program or the directory it comes from just what exactly that program does. Is it a virus or part of your antivirus software? There are things you can do to find out, like find the executable itself and examine the attributes, or Google the file name, but doing this correctly requires experience. And a really nasty, malicious program could monitor changes like this, reinserting itself whenever you attempt to remove it.

Incredibly, this subject is basically glossed over in the book. I expected at least one chapter on this, and I was disappointed. Theres also a section on removing spyware thats less than two pages long. Spyware is a large subset of the task of degunking, and as such it should have had extensive coverage with lots of step-by-step instructions. Instead, the book basically says, "We tried these spyware-removal tools, and they worked well."

Instead, the book devotes space to picking new hardware, using Windows Update, tweaking the start menu and some cool free tools. Great and useful stuff, but off the point and available in about 500 other Windows books. The registry chapter explains what the registry is, but when it comes to actually degunking it, the book just recommends some third-party programs that do so. Maybe this is all you should recommend to average users, but you dont need a book to say so.

On the plus side, theres a chapter on avoiding spam that has a very good level of detail for the average user. Given that the definition of "gunk" is probably a fluid one, Id say that this is on the borderline of appropriateness, but I wonder if its what people think theyre getting when they buy the book.

I dont begrudge the authors spending a lot of space telling people to pick up after themselves. After all, its hard to fill up 300 pages with useful and on-point stuff. But the book would have been more useful if it had included the actual, important aspects of degunking.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Check out eWEEK.coms Security Center at for security news, views and analysis.
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Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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