Two thoughts come to mind as to what the problem could be:
1: Massive malware infestation, but if you use Firefox as your primary browser and avoid file sharing programs, this is probably unlikely in your case.
2: Bad RAM seems much more likely to be the cause of your problem from what you've described.
It's also kind of a shame that someone sold you a system with 4GB of RAM and a 32-bit OS. About half of that last 1GB is just sitting perpetually idle because you're running a 32-bit OS.
So what I'd do, is start by taking all the sticks of RAM out, then putting them back in one at a time, testing the system out for a few minutes before putting the next one in. It's an agonizingly slow process, but once the problems start back up, you know you've found your bad stick of RAM.
Since you're running a 32-bit OS, depending on how the RAM is installed, you may just want to skip the expense of replacing the bad stick. A 32-bit OS can only actually use about 3.2GB of RAM. It will report that there's 4GB installed, but only 3.2GB of it (give or take) will be used. So you might really only be losing about 200MB of usable RAM if you have 4x1GB sticks of RAM and you just leave out the bad one. If you want to replace it with something, you could buy a much cheaper 256MB stick, where only about 56MB will be sitting idle.
Tech info;Gateway 5438, 4gb ram, 320 hd, Vista 32b
This infernal machine is driving me to distraction. I've had it a little over a year now and started having problems about 4/5 weeks ago.
It's just out of warranty but the tech support at Gateway was useless even before the warranty ran out.
Problem #1; it's almost spooky, my browser (firefox 3.or IE has same problem) works sometimes but usually crashes soon after launch and then won't launch and crashes repeatedly when I try to launch.
Problem #2 downloads don't launch (corrupt or missing file notification) Re downloading isn't effective.
Windows accessories keep crashing don't know why and didn't even know I had them.
I have wiped the hard disc and re-installed the OS several times and have used different recovery discs also. (same result)
I used a gateway disc utility and also installed over existing OS.
It may be something simple, (probably is) but my frustration level is at hand and I'm not going to take it anymore! This erratic and inconsistent operation is driving me f------ nuts. (short trip I know) Can anyone opinionate as to what the problem may be?? Pretty please.