Formatting Is Not A Cure For PC Woes

I wrote this not because of something that happened at work, but because I heard something that happened at the company I previously worked at. Over 1.5 years of absolutely zero OS and/or application issues, but just over one week of my resignation, I’ve heard of two boxes which have gotten unnecessarily reformatted. Worse still, the HQ has reverted to using stupid IE as the default browser… but what the heck, the boss’ daughter is “in charge” of IT stuff there, so I’ll just smile from a distance 🙂 All the best! But anyway, this writeup will just stick to the topic of formatting, or should I say, unnecessary formatting to solve common (Windows-centric) computing problems.

Being in the frontline of tech support and implementation over years (roughly 6 years of real work, plus around 10 more as an “advanced” user), there’s nothing that pisses me off more when perfectly recoverable PCs (generally, I’m talking about Windows machines here) are formatted because the person in charge of IT or whatever the department that handles them boxes are just incompetent at doing systematic troubleshooting and recovery.

To make it worse, in more than 80% of the case, a format is absolutely unnecessary. It’s not that there won’t be occassions when formatting is required. However, many noob, wait, strike that… incompetent, lazy sysadmins view formatting as an easy way out of typical Windows problems like spyware and/or trojan infections. The thing is, it’s really not that hard to solve these problems. Here’s a brief guide:

  1. Disconnect the affected PC from the network and/or internet access.
  2. Go through the list of startup items using msconfig.
  3. Note any “strange” entries in there. If you have to ask what’s strange and what’s not, you’re most probably new to this. But the fact that you are still reading this shows that you’re interested to improve yourself. The answer is to look it up, Google is a good place to start.
  4. While Googling for those items, you’d most likely find out which are trojans or spyware files.
  5. For trojans or viruses, you would also find removal tools for said trojans or viruses. Usually from the good folks at AVG, Symantec and Trend Micro, among others.
  6. For spyware and/or other malware, you have tools like Spybot or Ad-Aware to handle such problems. Also remember to download their latest definition files or detection rules, or whatever your chosen anti-spyware app calls those thingies.

If you can’t figure out how to do all the necessary searches or updates; here’s some tips:

  • Use another machine to do it.
  • If you don’t have a spare machine, use a Live CD Linux distro like Slax or Knoppix to do the job.

As an asides, you do know that you should run virus/spyware removal tools under safe mode for best effect, right? If you are not equipped, either physically or technically to do the steps above, then probably systems administration is not really something you’re destined to do. I’d seriously consider a change of career path if I was in your shoes. You really need to have the passion and patience to scientifically dissect a problematic box and identify the symptoms of its “disease”.

Formatting a PC merely because of a spyware and/or virus problem is like burning a house with the occupants inside, just because somebody there has a fever and you’re afraid that the disease might spread throughout the country. It’s overkill and it’s ridiculous.

So, the next time you’re considering formatting a PC just because it has a spyware and/or virus problem, please think about the data that you might lose in the process. Sure, you might think you have backed up every single file of considerable importance, but somehow, someway, you’re bound to forget something. Furthermore, if the PC you’re using is shared with someone else, eg. your spouse, kids, co-workers or friends, they might have valuable data that you will destroy through the formatting process.

Think of the data!

11 responses to “Formatting Is Not A Cure For PC Woes”.

  1. pandaboy Says:

    You’re right, formatting is very troublesome actually (having to reinstall softwares all over again, plus all other settings). About the data/files in the harddisk, we can actually partition the hdd to 2 and then format one at a time, cant we? That’s what I’ve been doing… Sometimes, reformatting is good though.

  2. mwt Says:

    I beg to differ. When faced with a virus like or spy ware recurring problem slowly down the operation, the ONLY solution is to format the C: drive. In this way, you can be assured of a clean slate and start installing back the operating system, the service packs and the security updates and an essential antivirus software.

    It is a bloody waste of time to try those free anti spy ware and Trojans removal tools. You just do not have the luxury of a 2nd PC and time to google and download those stuff and there is nothing in this world that is “free” without any hidden agenda. Many anti spy wares are themselves spying on your system

    And “think of those data” – what data? The essential data files in any well configured system are always in another drive. Perhaps, if it is of sentimental value, the Mail Inbox data in drive C: can be copied out for reference, otherwise nothing in C is indispensable.

  3. boringest Says:

    System Restore? – it actually does work you know! provided you didn’t switch them off in the 1st place.

  4. Emmanuel Says:

    Sometimes formatting only adds to the headaches- data loss, settings going back to default,drivers gone etc.The idea of format-for-all was propagated primarily by incompetent, piracy-perpetuating,overpriced,smart alec small time IT businesses that either had little or no prior experience.Sometimes they just refuse to spend time going through the registries or troubleshoot faulty hardware.People buy the bullshit coz more often than not if you’re smart enough to know the problem, you would be smart enough to find the solution.And the people who send in their PCs in the first place haven’t a clue whats wrong, all they want is to ‘make their PC better’.

  5. CH Says:

    “The idea of format-for-all was propagated primarily by incompetent, piracy-perpetuating,overpriced,smart alec small ”

    And here I thought formatting was propagated by the Microsoft corporation due to bloated features and inelegantly-structured coding. 😉

    When someone used your computer and you suspect spyware, adware, trojans or viruses – how can you be sure you can detect everything? Usually you are only counting on the expediency of virus/malware detector’s updates.

    Also, the registry always gets cluttered when endusers install/uninstall. Unnecessary program files are everywhere hogging space.

    As for data loss, don’t tell me no one heard of partitions.

  6. Site Admin Azmeen Says:

    mwt, I respect your opinion, and I absolutely agree that data should be kept on a different partition, separate from the one which the OS is running from. However, Windows, by design, does not promote this idea. To prove this point, when installing Windows, do we have an option on where to place the user profile directories (which holds the Desktop and My Documents directories, among others) or even the Program Files directories?

    The other obvious point that I adamantly disagree with you is that, in my opinion, there are absolutely no spyware or virus related problem that will require a reformat. My take on this is simple, if I were to be a malware or virus author, it’s not in my best interest to absolutely cripple the infected machine. Because then (in case of a spyware infection) I wouldn’t be able to profit from information obtained from the host or (in case of a virus infection) it would hinder my virus from spreading.

    I also find your usage of blanket statements of free stuff being free probably because of some (unexplained) hidden agenda to be a little bit on the paranoid school of thought. Sometimes, reputation and/or the challenge to prove that there’s no computing problem that couldn’t be overcomed are worth more than money 🙂 However, in the end, like all things, “caveat emptor”… let the downloader beware 🙂

    Again, I take issue with your last paragraph. The keywords here are “well configured system”. And a well configured system shoudln’t have any spyware or virus problems. Furthermore, they need not be formatted, thus, it wouldn’t be the topic of my post.

    Thanks for commenting, I appreciate what you have to say here.

  7. Dabido (Teflon) Says:

    I have to agree with you Azmeen. It’s a good post with good advice.

    Most places I’ve worked the PC Support guys loved to blow everything away, as it was easier for them to do, (ie they were being lazy) NOT because it was necessary. The PC guys, rather than spending time working out the issue would just set the machine to reformat the drives, then walk away and muck about till the reformat was finished – come back and put the OED disk in the machine to install everything off the network, go away, muck about for a while, then come back and finish the installation.

    It’s not that they didn’t know how to diagnose things, they just couldn’t be bothered. It also lead to a number of people constantly having the same re-occurring issues, as the ISSUE remained the same, as the users were never taught not to load stupid things onto their machines. (Or not to do stupid things like play with their registers!) Not all issues are Virus/Malware related either – most are user related.

    The lost productivity of the user ends up being greater than what the lost productivity would have been if the PC support guy took his time to actually fix the problem rather than spending a day blowing away a system. The PC supoort person saved themselves time and effort, but not the company or the user.

    Whenever we had a problem with a Unix box though, we’d always contact SUN or HP etc to ask about the solution. Normally would take a while, but it’s always better to fix things than blow everything away. I could tell you some horror stories (like the time someone blew away the i-node to the password file on a Sun machine so no one could log in. It took me a few hours on the phone with Sun before we figured out what the issue was, but once found, the solution was very easy to fix). Imagine the lost productivity that would have cost the company if we blew it all away and had to restore from the previous nights backup.
    [The thing which upset me most, is the guy who blew away the i-node didn’t even get a reprimand. He was trying to crack the system, but management didn’t even friggin’ care!]

    Anyway, Microsoft do offer support for problems too. Any company who choses to use Microsoft should have a support agreement with them for when things go very ugly. Plus, anything Virus/Malware related – the company should be paying for support from Semantec etc. No support person should be choosing to blow everything away before using every avenue possible to restore normal operation. Best thing about doing it correctly, is you become good at recognising and solving the same issue next time. [And hopefully will have good advice for the user if there is something they can do or avoid doing to stop the issue next time].

  8. Dabido (Teflon) Says:

    Wooops – SOE disk, not OED! Bodoh Dabido! SOE – Standard Operating Environment! Have no idea what I was thinking typing OED!

  9. farking Says:

    org malas camtu ler 😀

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