ANY program that accesses the internet initially starts and then temporarily hangs for 2-10 minutes (really!). Internet Explorer 6 hangs BEFORE the point that the status line displays "Opening page http:// .... ". Once that line is displayed, the page loads quickly. Other programs that temporarily hang are Outlook Express, Word (updates), Adobe Acrobat (updates), etc. Control Panel/Network Connections/Change Internet Connections also temporarily hangs. If two programs are started at the same time, one might hang for 3 min while the other might hang for 5 min.
Once a program has gotten past the long hiatus, all subsequent internet access within that program is normal (ie., fast). But closing the program and then restarting it invokes the problem all over again. If IE6 or any other problematic program has passed it's hiatus for one user, the same program hangs when a new user opens it in their own area (Switch User dialog).
During the hiatus, Task Manager invariably reports that 98-99% CPU use is in "System Idle Process". Programs that do not access the internet run normally and are not slowed while a different program is hung.
The wired internet connection is fine: other computers on the same router, or temporarily on the same cable, work fine. LAN settings are standard automatic settings with NO proxy server.
I am confident there is no malware on the computer. Although it does not have SP2 installed, it has always been placed behind a hardware and software firewall, and Spy Sweeper, Norton AV, Norton Security Suite, SpyBot S&D, and RootkitRevealer have never found anything worse than adware cookies.
The problem started when I uninstalled ZoneAlarm v5 (which had well documented problems with shorter hangs) and reverted to ZoneAlarm 4.5. Removing ZoneAlarm entirely did not solve the problem. ZoneAlarm Technical Help recommended the use of a cleanup tool, which also did not help.
There are instances when problematic programs start normally. Some have been after VERY MINIMAL Registry cleans (Reg Organizer), and another was after running SFC (system file checker), which did not report any problems. In these cases, the problem is absent after a system restart but returns after a second restart. There have also been a couple spontaneous remissions.
Obvoiusly, I can reinstall Windows, but this is not invariably painless and I would rather avoid it if possible. I would also like to avoid using a Windows optimizer, eg., changing many Registry keys to fix the one bad one.