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

Extending the life of older computers can be a challenge, especially when current versions of important tools like anti-malware scanners fail to run.

I got an old computer from my office, with Intel P4 and just 128mb memory. I do not use it for the internet but just some personal work, load photos from camera and mp3 files. If i load some downloaded internet files or programs, I first scan them on another computer for virus/malware. Do I need an antivirus software for this computer? I loaded a free version from the internet and i slowed down my system considerably, so I removed it. How much risk is there in this case?

The scenario you're describing is very common as we try to extend the life of older machines.

The concerns are also very real - viruses and malware don't go away just because your machine is old, but current tools to keep you safe may require more power than your machine has.

This can be managed, in several different ways.

You didn't indicate which version of Windows you're running. Given the age and characteristics of the machine, I'm guessing it's also an old version, and is itself no longer getting regular security updates.

"If what you're attempting to do can be done with Linux and applications available for Linux, then that's a very lucrative approach."

That can be a problem. While "upgrade to XP" is the common solution, that's not going to work here. 128 megabytes of RAM just won't cut it.

Which bring me to perhaps by far the most common recommendation for older PCs.

Don't run Windows.

Install a version of Linux. Ubuntu, perhaps, but there are also several distributions of Linux that are tailored for smaller machines.

If what you're attempting to do can be done with Linux and applications available for Linux, then that's a very lucrative approach. Not only will your machine run much faster than any current version of Windows could allow, but you'll have sidestepped the vast majority of malware issues. Because of Windows' huge market share, almost all malware targets vulnerabilities in Windows. If you're not running Windows, most malware just isn't interested in you.

If for some reason Linux isn't feasible and you need to stick with the version of Windows you're running, all isn't lost. We just need to take extra care.

Update - as best you can, make sure that the software on the machine is as up-to-date as it can be. There's no reason in exposing yourself to issues that could be easily avoided by having the latest versions.

Get behind a firewall - an exceptionally large number of vulnerabilities that perhaps can't or won't be fixed in your old machine can be completely blocked simply by placing that machine behind a firewall. In this case, I strongly suggest a hardware firewall, like a router, just to avoid installing more things on your older machine.

Secure the rest of your network. You should be doing this already, of course, but this becomes doubly important as you now have a machine you know you can't completely secure. If another machine on your network becomes infected, that infection could easily jump to this older machine. Even if you clean up the original infection, the damage will have been done.

Scan downloads - you're already doing this, and it's a good & important step. Just be sure that the malware software and database you're using are up-to-date.

Consider a cross-network scan - not a strong recommendation, but something to consider. Some anti-malware tools will allow you to scan a drive that's been shared on a network. For example, you might temporarily share the root of the "C" drive, and then from another PC on your network running anti-malware software, connect to that share and run the scan. This could be slow, and not all anti-malware software will do it.

Be smart. I know you are, but I need this for completeness. Everything you know about internet safety goes double on this older machine, particularly things like paying attention to what you do, surf and run on this machine - making sure to never run anything even remotely suspicious.

Ultimately, the life of older machines can be extended much longer than most people seem to think. I know I have several that are well past their prime when compared to existing technology. I even have one that's a true workhorse for data storage on my home network.

And it's not running Windows.

Article C3768 - June 21, 2009 « »

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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.

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21 Comments
Rahul
June 22, 2009 5:54 PM

Install more memory. It will improve the overall performance; especially for the pictures and music files. It is not very expensive.

MikeG
June 23, 2009 8:22 AM

I added more memory to my 9 year old PC and it certainly helps. But beware that SIMM's for older machines are different and not compatible with new ones. I recommend to triple check - I only double checked. :(

JH
June 23, 2009 8:36 AM

P4 and only 128MB? My old computer has an AMD K6@368MHz and still has 128MB. It should at least be possible to upgrade it, except whilst scanning and loading most AV's do not have a big memory footprint, especially the free ones.

George Larson
June 23, 2009 8:49 AM

I haven't tried it yet but the first thing that came to my mind was Panda Cloud Antivirus.

http://www.cloudantivirus.com/

Dave
June 23, 2009 9:07 AM

1GB total RAM should be perfect for XP (512MB should be your minimum) .

Another thing, since a "free" antivirus program was installed I assume it is AVG. AVG's default setting is to scan the computer on every start which can drastically slow computer response for a long time (30 minutes or more). The scan can be disabled in the the settings and can still be initiated manually at any time.

Luis Gonzalez
June 23, 2009 9:27 AM

I'am in the same situation running an old (not that old) machine. I have an HP Pavillion P4 and I have added 1.5Gb of memory and still runs slow. I have been using this computer for around 5 years, where I have been installing and removing programs all along that time, I have never reformated the HD, I refuse because I have a few applications that I don't remember where I got them. The issue here is, I purchased a 40dlls software by UNIBLUE to speed up my computer and not improvement at all in my case (SpeedupmyPC and RegistriBooster at http://www.uniblue.com )What I have done is a have a free antivirus AVG, that can be downloaded from http://free.avg.com/ and setup the scanning time for a day and time you do not plan to have heavy work on your computer, because as JH said, while scanning your machine will be slower than a sleeping turttle. My suggestion would be, intall XP in case you are not running it, as Leo said, add more memory as possible and install AVG antivirus. That's what I have in my daughter's old laptop (10 years CompUsa laptop) with 384Mb RAM, Celeron 333Mhz, and runs acceptable for pictures, MP3 files, Web browsing and email reading. No heavy applications such as simulation or fast action video games, but it is still running.

Dave Markley
June 23, 2009 9:59 AM

I often build (rebuild) older machines to sell cheap and by far the easiest way to upgrade them is installing more RAM memory. I have customers who still prefer Windows 98, believe it or not. For anti-virus, AVG 7.5 version is still updated and will work fine (and it's free). Filehippo.com still has the 7.5 version to download, you just have to look through the list of old versions and pick the 'newest' 7,5 version. It won't slow down your computer either. Hope this helps.

howiem
June 23, 2009 10:14 AM

The questioner stated that "I do not use it for the internet " so it appears that he needs a light weight anti-virus program,, like Clamwin which is an on demand scanner, http://www.clamwin.com/ and should have little impact on performance except when actually scanning. If the OS is Win2000 or later (I doubt it also, Leo), He should consider getting Sandboxie, and running all his programs sandboxed, only recover files he is sure are safe to the hard disk, and clean the sandbox after each useIf some malware does get in the sandbox it will not affect the OS. For Spyware detection/removal he can use Spybot or Ad-Aware which still work with older systems, but run them on demand as well to keep the computer's performance up to par.

Glenn Meyer
June 23, 2009 11:02 AM

Great advice, all of you, especially Leo. I have Linux running on several old PCs. The problem now is, I hate getting rid of a machine when its running so well. When I say old, I mean Armada/PIII old. By the way, more memory is a great way to handle the performance problem. That's what I've done on a P4. I also run Avast anti-virus on that machine, which seems to be less intrusive than other AV programs that run in the background. Clamwin is great if you have users (i.e., family) who remember to run the scans, but they don't, so I found Avast to be the fastest one that runs in the background.

billkennedy
June 23, 2009 11:34 AM

I have XP with 512mb memory runs fast enough for
me should more memory be installed ?

If you're happy with the way things are working, I wouldn't. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
- Leo
24-Jun-2009

Glenn Meyer
June 23, 2009 1:09 PM

I have 512M also, upgraded from 256M. It made a big difference, so another 512 couldn't hurt. But why upgrade if you're happy with the performance when your antivirus program is running? If you do scans manually, or keep your computer on and can schedule scans to run in the middle of the night, it shouldn't matter anyway.

Ron
June 23, 2009 2:25 PM

AVG has stopped updating AVG Free (7.5) definitions and the application.

snail
June 23, 2009 5:24 PM

I like this idea: "

The questioner stated that "I do not use it for the internet " so it appears that he needs a light weight anti-virus program,, like Clamwin which is an on demand scanner, http://www.clamwin.com/ and should have little impact on performance except when actually scanning. If the OS is Win2000 or later (I doubt it also, Leo), He should consider getting Sandboxie, and running all his programs sandboxed, only recover files he is sure are safe to the hard disk, and clean the sandbox after each useIf some malware does get in the sandbox it will not affect the OS. For Spyware detection/removal he can use Spybot or Ad-Aware which still work with older systems, but run them on demand as well to keep the computer's performance up to par.
Posted by: howiem at June 23, 2009 10:14 AM "
Is there something like this...but the other way around?? clean up the OS after each "session" but don't affect the applications?
Is there a sandbox program for XP Pro? XP Home? Linux??
By the by, I've a 200Mhz comp running XP Pro. I don't connect it to other computers and as such just tinker with it by itself.

Chris
June 23, 2009 7:04 PM

Upgrading the RAM or even maxing it out might be the best solution to your slow machine. Antivirus might not run as if it were a dual-core machine, but there are some options. Avira is fairly light and using that with Windows Firewall and a router will give you more than enough protection to do as you wish. As for the Linux route, I would still suggest upgrading your RAM and maybe trying out Ubuntu or OpenSuse. You won't need an antivirus program with either, freeing up a lot of resources.

MARIA
June 23, 2009 9:14 PM

What abouT an MS-DOS? isn't realy old? well I love old programs!! Hate when they say "you can't still using this old version", like they did with the MSN... Is there any way that I can skip does upgreed ans stay with my old versions?

Özgür Çall?
June 23, 2009 11:13 PM

A Intel P4 with 128 ram is totally fine to work with winXP (ok the ram is low, but it still would work) and why need a anti-virus if the pc is not online?

one of the machines i have at home is P2 350 with 160 SD Ram, and even in that win XP works fine.
(i use it for playing mp3 or LAN gaming with old games like quake arena - Counter Strike vs.)

Once you finished installing win XP you start installing the programs you use and almost all of them add something to your start up items. Use a handy tool to disable all that garbage on startup and the machine will work smoothly.

Rob Turner
June 24, 2009 7:03 AM

I run an old Pentium 2 266MHz with 224MB of RAM using Windows 98. I use Avast Anti-virus, a NAT router, Spyware Blaster, Spybot S&D, Opera browser, a couple of tweaks from Steve Gibson and a few other tricks and I have never had a virus or malware problem of any description. Avast runs perfectly on this old setup and appears to be a very good program.

Robert Barla
June 25, 2009 3:35 AM

Thanks Leo and all of you guys with valuable advice and suggestions. I was little late to get back... I did not mention that the PC is 2003 make by Wipro and running XP Pro and the same has security updates until a year. The question of Anti Virus arose because, earlier the machine had corporate virsion of aniti virus and now it has none. As Özgür Çall? says "A Intel P4 with 128 ram is totally fine to work with winXP (ok the ram is low, but it still would work) and why need a anti-virus if the pc is not online?" I think its fine, I am also considering upgrading RAM to 512mb. Anyways, the feedback to my question has been very useful to me. Thanx.

Ramon
June 26, 2009 1:11 PM

Hello! Well, I have several years repairing old PCs in my country, and here's my 5 cents derived from my experience: Use PCTools Antivirus and PCTools Firewall altogether in an old PC. Both are lightweight and serve very well. Do NOT use AVG and Zone Alarm, unless they have a big amount of RAM installed, because these apps are memory hungry. For USB virus protection, use AutoRun Virus Remover 2.3 Full Version or later, plus any other antispyware of your choice. That's all. I hope this may be useful to you all.

Sr. Dorothy
August 2, 2009 10:36 AM

Ubuntu is a great version of Linux, but not for old low-resource machines. If it's truly old, i.e. one of those 6 GB hard drive computers, use something like PuppyLinux or Damn Small Linux (DSL)...I think Puppy is easier. For a moderately old computer, say with a 20 GB hard drive and 128+ MB RAM, SimplyMepis is perfect. We run 3 such machines with Mepis 6.5.02 because so far it is the most reliable version as far as keeping the multimedia stuff working; note that I always UNMARK the flashplugin-nonfree so it doesn't get updated when I do other updates...if I forget, I have to reinstall, which is easy--but back up all data! Note also that like Ubuntu, Mepis is a Debian derivative and has very nice software package repositories, which makes life easier for a Windows-to-Linux convert.

otinanai
May 25, 2011 2:42 PM

I am desperate. don't know what to run on my old laptop.. For a long time I used to have windows xp but any antivirus will slow it down; that's furstrating. consindering to switch to linux...

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