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Double Indemnity

To have one laptop expire is unfortunate but to have two collapse and die smacks of carelessness. I’m writing today’s column on a very old Macintosh Powerbook, which I should add, works, regardless of age and abuse.

You my remember that last month, Microsoft were very kindly rebuilding one of my two Hewlett Packard Laptops, post Service Pack (2) installation. It’s been a slow process because I wanted to know what the problem was in detail. Last week however, my second, more powerful machine suddenly dies with a system error; a corruption of the password file, which left it in a constant re-boot cycle until I pressed the reset button. Microsoft sent a courier for that one too and for a while, I was back in a world without the Internet, until I worked out how to connect my old Macintosh to my ADSL router.

To have two machines die on me in such a small period of time begs a number of important questions, least of all why? The second event seems quite straightforward, a corruption of ISASS.exe, which locks me out of the system at power-up and which is easily repaired by Microsoft technical support with one of their “secret” utilities. The original problem with laptop number one was, however, rather more interesting and apparently had very little to do with Windows and a lot to do with the problem of anti-virus software that I touched on in a column last month. In this case, the system was freezing, my network connection had ceased to exist and the AV vendor’s technical support had no idea what to do next.

I’ve used the same anti-virus product for years, let’s call it ‘N'. N is very effective at keeping the nastier side of the Internet out of my PC but I have observed over the last two years that several nasty system crashes appear to be a consequence of N’s use of the Windows Operating System. Microsoft have confirmed that N appears to be the source of problems but so does one of N’s rivals, ‘M’, and this appears to be a consequence of products like N and M spraying their many DLL files all over the Windows environment and busily investigating every file on the system. Once, for example N is installed, removing it can take longer than the viruses it’s there to prevent.

Microsoft ran a series of timed tests on my laptop with and without N and spent several hours on the phone with the vendor’s technical support team. In a nutshell, conclusion number one was that the laptop was running almost 40% more slowly on start-up with N installed. This was more pronounced because the system was three years old and the disk was relatively full. Conclusion number two was that the amount that N will degrade system performance is proportional to the speed of the processor and importantly the free space available on the hard disk.

All very technical I’m sure but here comes the surprise. Microsoft ‘Suggests’ – I have to make this clear – rather than recommends, that I remove N from my system completely and instead use the ‘free’ anti-virus software AVG instead. In fact they even installed this for me. Apparently AVG doesn’t cause the same chaos that N or even M might on some systems and although AVG doesn’t scan as ‘Deeply’ as its commercial rivals, it appears to work quite satisfactorily. Quite naturally, I’m quite happy to take Microsoft’s advice if I want a fully working system returned.

This type of ‘suggestion’ must surely come as a huge blow to the very lucrative anti-virus industry. If Microsoft technical support is really ‘suggesting’ that victims like me ditch their commercial anti-virus software in preference to a ‘Free’ alternative that works just as well and is less likely to interfere with the reliability of my system, then I can imagine this column is going to make waves in the boardroom. The anti virus software industry is a hugely lucrative business built on a regular subscription model and driven by a fear of infection and business interruption If one suggests that a free solution, such as AVG is just as good, if not equal to the handful of big players, then the industry is turned neatly on its head, if only because the word ‘Free’ and ‘Windows’ make uncomfortable bedfellows.

I even found AVG in the heart of Westminster last week. One prominent member of Parliament pointed to a dead laptop on his desk and said ‘I’d use a Macintosh if they would let me but it’s against the rules here. I’ve given up on N, I threw my last machine with it on back at PC World and now I’m using something called AVG.’

Now I suspect, that shortly after this column appears, there will be a flurry of ‘clarification’ from an industry, which rests upon a protection principle. Of course, one could not really suggest that one anti-virus solution is a better fit for Windows than any other but it does make you think.

Case Summary


After the removal of N due to a problem that caused XP SP2 to appear to hang, the LAN connection reported the following error:

"Limited or no connectivity"

Also, the machine was booting very slowly.


Once N was reinstalled, we were unable to reproduce the LAN problem or determine why the machine appeared to hang. The slow booting was determined to be caused by a combination of N, the amount of applications loading on boot and the slowness of the machine. We installed N without the Antivirus and used AVG as the antivirus solution instead. This significantly improved boot times and system performance. AVG does not scan at such a deep level as the N solution, which is why N can affect system performance on slower machines. AVG also does not scan boot sectors on boot, which explains the extra 30 seconds it took to get to the logon screen with N installed.


Dewdrop said…
Hmmmmm....rather annoying to find that AVG is seemingly (?) superior to N, isn't it!!! Plus AVG is free!!!

I'm only guessing here, but could the 'N' in question be the Norton Anti-Virus programme? It came with my PC and I installed it, but didn't bother to resubscribe. As there are a few free programmes (and scanners) you can use on the net, which is what I do, and I always keep up to date with Windows critical updates.
Unknown said…
I couldn't possibly say what package it might be. Regardless however, AV is a total pain and so is living in a world where people queue to kill your PC at any oppotunity!

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