Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Occasionally software, particularly free software, will install a lot more than just itself. Cleaning up from such a mess can be quite the undertaking.

A few months ago I installed free software to convert audio/video files. Apart from the program not working very well, it hijacked Internet Explorer and Firefox by installing menu bars, home pages and other things I didn't know were going to be installed from ask.com. I am using Windows XP pro fully updated and used 'Remove programs' to uninstall the software and all the ask.com stuff.

It turned my desktop PC into a mess! It killed my network, printing and audio services. I think I have fixed the network and printing issues but not audio.

[... lengthy list of additional woes removed ...]

Many years ago I tried a so called reputable registry cleaner (on the same PC) which did more harm than good and I'm wondering if they are any better today? If you think it is worth a try I will but if not I can kind of live without audio as most of what I do is graphics related. If you know of something else I could try instead that would be great.

I know exactly what you need.

And you're not going to like it.

I'll review how you got here, what to avoid in the future, and a couple of straws you can grasp at.

I'll also tell you what I expect you really need to do.

Free Ain't Free

All too often, supposedly free software comes with a hidden cost. Often it's as simple as some advertising. Occasionally it's a somewhat obscure attempt to trick you into "requesting" additional software that you don't really want or need.

And sometimes there's no trick at all: the free software you want is the bait to lure you into installing it - as well as a bunch of other stuff you don't want or need, without even asking.

"As painful as a reinstall sounds, it's often much less work than a prolonged game of whack-a-mole ..."

And of course, in the worst case, free software's additional payload and cost is malware.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of good, reputable and safe free software out there.

You just need to be really, really careful when choosing what to use. Do some research before hitting "Install". Google the product name, or perhaps the product name and the word "sucks", view the support forums for the product to see what experiences people are having. (No support forum? That, in itself, may be a clue.)

You get the idea. Just because a package claims to do something you want don't just assume it's ok without doing a little research first.

Grasping at Straws

So, your machine's a mess after having installed and uninstalled this offending (and perhaps offensive) software.

Some things to try:

  • Run updated anti-malware scans - both virus and spyware. Some of what you're facing could indeed be malware related, and perhaps these tools will help.

  • Use Revo Uninstaller to locate and perhaps more completely uninstall the program, and anything you can see that it brought with it.

  • Run the System File Checker to see if Windows can repair missing or corrupt files itself.

  • Consider attempting a repair install of Windows (often an option from the Windows setup media).

You'll note that I don't recommend a registry cleaner - I don't recommend them in general, and I wouldn't recommend them for this type of repair operation.

In fact, my honest recommendation is much more severe.

Backup, Reformat, Reinstall

With a machine that's facing as many problems as you describe, and particularly because of the way the machine got to this point, I'm of the opinion that a reinstall from scratch is called for.

Backup the machine so as to preserve your data.

Reformat the hard disk to erase all the problems.

Reinstall Windows and all your applications from scratch.

Restore your data from your backup or wherever else is convenient.

As painful as a reinstall sounds, it's often much less work than a prolonged game of whack-a-mole trying to resolve individual problems one at a time.

Article C4459 - September 24, 2010 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

16 Comments
Mark
September 25, 2010 9:37 AM

This won't help you clean up the mess but for those who like freeware (who doesn't?) there websites that point you to safe freeware,the best I've found are http://www.komando.com/ and http://www.techsupportalert.com/ . There are may others but these not only point you to safe freeware but also point you to the best freeware.

Mark
September 25, 2010 9:44 AM

Another tip: if you want to keep your registry clean, use portable apps wherever possible (otherwise known as pen drive apps). They install by creating a folder with all the necessary files and don't create any entries in the registry or windows folders. http://www.techsupportalert.com/ has a sectionfor those also.

Dave Markley
September 28, 2010 9:59 AM

I agree with Leo's suggestions, but I personally would first use System Restore. Then I would run 'Disk Cleanup' and when the 'results' of what to clean come up look in 'More Options' and also clean out all System Restore files as well. (Makes sure nothing is hiding in the 'System Restore' folders) Then I would thoroughly scan my entire PC with everything I can find.

Sowri Rajan
September 28, 2010 10:14 AM

Restore point is something that can solve this problem. Leo, can you throw some light on it.
Thank you.

Occasionally, but System Restore is notoriously unreliable, particularly for really bad messes.
Leo
29-Sep-2010

Maarten
September 28, 2010 10:29 AM

In addittion to what Mark said, should you ever have a real need or want to install a real program to do something for you, it can be worth checking out http://www.majorgeeks.com , The software for download on that site is malware free although that does not mean that every program you install is guaranteed to work the way you want it to :)

Merlin E. Lafferty
September 28, 2010 11:19 AM

Wouldn't "System Restore" prior to the time when he installed the bad software take care of the problem?

Occasionally, but System Restore is notoriously unreliable.
Leo
29-Sep-2010

Frank Golden
September 28, 2010 12:35 PM

I agree with Leo that the backup\format\reinstall
route is the probable best way ti fix this mess.

Once done it would be a good idea to create an image
backup using a tool like Clonezilla Live (free) or Acronis (paid).
Clonezilla Live is free but is very powerful and will create an image of your system that can be restored in the event of disaster.
It's not as feature rich as the paid programs but it is free.

Vincent DeRisio
September 28, 2010 1:01 PM

How can you avoid including the problem (malware, etc) with the backup so that it won't reinstall?

If you find you have a virus, then you don't restore that entire image. You just use that image to restore individual (non infected) files.
Leo
29-Sep-2010

Me
September 28, 2010 1:43 PM

I think I ought to mention the time that my mom installed some optimizer or something that ended up trashing her OS by deleting some system files I think. (She has a bad habit of doing things she shouldnt, I think Ive mentioned the malware in comments on other articles). Luckily I fixed it so she didnt have to reinstall.

Since you were looking for a video/audio program Id recommend videohelp.com. ffmpeg is a good program but its command-line, however there are a few GUIs available for it.

The only registry cleaner I ever like to use nowadays is the one included in CCleaner.

gordintoronto
September 28, 2010 3:08 PM

I'm disappointed the "free software" was not named. If I'm setting up a new computer, I ensure that numerous free programs are installed: Adobe Reader and Flash Player, VLC media player, Winamp, Open Office, Firefox and Thunderbird for starters. I ensure that I get them from download.com or the author's web site.

Adrian
September 28, 2010 5:00 PM

I've fixed a few hosed systems with help from:
http://www.atribune.org/forums

It's a free service. They help you do for free what may cost you hundreds at a shop. All they ask is that you are polite.

You just need to read and follow the instructions on this page first: HijackThis and Malware Removal > BEFORE YOU POST !! READ THIS FIRST (follow the links from the forums page above).

I can recommend them, but I'm not in any way affiliated with them.

There are also a few other good sites around like atribune.org. The Malwarebytes Forum is another one.
http://forums.malwarebytes.org/index.php?showforum=7

Good luck with it.
HTH.

Tc
September 28, 2010 6:48 PM

Many free software are fake and malicious for the mentioned reason -ADVERTISING and only specifically malicious software experienced people would know to deter or if installed to eliminate.I definitely recommend spybot search and destroy from safer-networking . org only
(there are clones too!!)scan the drives after updating it.I've been using it many yrs that I trust.This will scan and match over 1,365,000
malicious spyware and trojan.

Bob_Bob
September 28, 2010 7:42 PM

A lot of good free software is supported by other companies. Some of these will install the "ASK" tool bar and if you allow, make "ASK" the default browser.

To accept the licence agreement on some of these you must also accept the installation of the "ASK" toolbar. As the soft ware is worth the trouble, I allow the installation and then later I disable the "ASK" toolbar then I go to "Add and remove programs" and delete it.

One main thing is to read the popup windows when you are installing new software, I always check "Custom" if available as you get more choices when installing.

With real estate it is Location, Location, Location, when installing something new on a machine, it is, Back up, Back up, Back up first.

Pierre, Ontario, Canada
September 28, 2010 8:58 PM

Leo:
You talk about re-formating and re-installing Windows a lot. A couple of queries have come up.
What if you are running XP? There have been 3 major updates, and hundreds of small ones. I hear the 1st 2 major updates are no longer available.
So what would one do? What about all those small updates? Will windows automatically fix itself? How long does it take?

Maybe somewhere you should give a simple detailed list on the process you would follow to re-install windows! Of course, you'll have to cover Vista and Seven also. ....

Still I sympathize with this person. I installed a free mp3 converter, and it made some small messes. When I un-installed, through some small miracle, all seems to have been restored. WHEW!

Al
September 29, 2010 2:12 PM

Leo:
I run Acronis and once a week I run clone disk to a separate HD. It only takes about 25 minutes and my entire drive is protected. I keep my cloned drive in a separate area. Several months ago I did get a bad virus and I simply cloned my backup drive back to the system drive.

Timothy
October 3, 2010 6:21 AM

Before searching for anything that's just "free", (because so many of those are malware that it's scary) I generally try to search it on SourceForge or just google it with "GNU" in front of the name. In the question writer's situation, I was able to find MediaCoder, a highly reputable audio/video converting software. It's completely open-source, and it's unlike the (literally) hundreds of fake audio/video converters out there.

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