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I hadn't turned on my tower until today, it has been off for about the last month. However, the power supply wasn't switched off (so I think there was power to the motherboard). I've got a relatively high end (well, not low end) computer, and it's struggling to do any simple task.

Is there any obvious thing that could have happened? How would I go about diagnosing what has happened, and what needs to be fixed?

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Your computer probably just wants to sleep in. ;-) – Randolf Richardson Aug 14 '11 at 6:56
You might have one of those dormant SpyWare programs that takes effect at some date (e.g., weeks, months) after the infection (I suspect this is done by the SpyWare authors to make it more difficult for users to figure out the potential source). – Randolf Richardson Aug 14 '11 at 6:58
which operating system do you run for this computer? – icelava Aug 14 '11 at 8:51

If I had to guess I'd say it's doing updates (windows, av etc) or may be scheduled scans or any other scheduled jobs.

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I have exactly this problem with a business laptop that I keep for emergency off-site use. Whenever I have an off-site emergency the laptop would be useless if I didn't occasionally turn it on and let it grind away for an hour or two updating itself. – RedGrittyBrick Aug 14 '11 at 9:32
@RedGrittyBrick If you need to stop windows update to actually do something useful try doing net stop wuauserv to stop the windows update service temprorarily – Col Aug 14 '11 at 12:09

Your first stop should be Task Manager (assuming you are running some form of Windows), or top (for ?NIX variants). This will give you CPU and memory usage and will almost always reveal the culprit. You can reach the Task Manager from the the control-alt-delete menu on Windows. Virus scanners, indexing processes, or viruses are your 3 most likely culprits.

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