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Tools For Trouble-Free Computing

From the May 2002 issue of PC World magazine

Maintaining a computer is much like maintaining a marriage--healthy ones require both regular attention and occasional extra effort. Neglect either your spouse's or your PC's needs, and you risk having to get along by yourself.

Utilities--applications that maintain and repair your system--help your PC run better and more dependably. Patience, love, and an open mind, among other things, make your marriage run smoothly, but few people want marital advice from a computer magazine, so we'll stick with what we know.

File Backup

Failing to back up your data is playing with fire. Imagine losing your address book or that big project due tomorrow.

If timely access to your data is essential, you need a more sophisticated solution, one that includes regular, automated, incremental backups to a network. Average users won't need such precautions: Backing up files and settings you've created or changed should be enough.

If your hard drive goes down, however, you'll have to reinstall everything. The best way to deal with day-to-day backups is to use a CD-RW drive. Consequently, we tested four programs--Stomp's BackUp MyPC, NewTech Infosystems' Backup Now 2.5.1, Dantz's Retrospect Express 5.6, and Iomega's QuikSync 3--that can back up using CD-RW drives.

Stomp's BackUp MyPC, formerly Backup Exec Desktop by Veritas, wins top honors for its ease of use and lack of serious flaws. Setting up a backup routine is simple, using either the wizard or dialog boxes. You can easily define full and incremental backups, schedule them, and restore files.

At first glance, NTI Backup Now 2.5.1 seems every bit as easy to use as BackUp MyPC. But the longer you work with Backup Now, the more shortcomings you discover. For instance, when Backup Now fails to back up a single file (which is quite common among backup programs), it doesn't mark the files it did back up, and as a result it backs them up again--modified or not--next time. Backup Now offers only limited support for storage devices, but a new version, 3.0, will include support for additional media and devices.

If Best Buys were awarded on ability alone, Dantz's Retrospect Express 5.6 would win. One very nice touch: Retrospect can restore a drive to the state it was in after its last backup (even recognizing and not restoring files that were purposely deleted).

But Retrospect Express is difficult to use. For example, instructing it to back up specific folders involves defining the folders as "subvolumes"--a procedure that's neither obvious nor clearly explained. (Dantz says it will address this problem in the next version.) This is software for people who have time to read the manual.

Iomega's QuikSync takes a different approach: It backs up automatically in the background while you work. However, QuikSync can't support CD-RW drives without the help of software that isn't included. But a program such as Roxio's DirectCD, which likely came bundled with your CD-RW drive, will do the job.

Defraggers

As you create, delete, and edit files, they become increasingly fragmented--scattered in pieces all over the hard drive. A defragger reunites these pieces. We used to say that defragging would speed up a system, but with today's larger, faster hard drives, that no longer seems true.

The PC World Test Center's tests reveal that defraggers don't actually improve performance. And Steve Gibson, president of PC consulting firm Gibson Research Corporation, confirmed our findings.

Nevertheless, regular defragging is still a good idea to aid disaster recovery. The more fragmented the files on your drive are, the more likely a disk error is to destroy them.

But while there is reason to use a defragger, there's no reason for you to buy one. Symantec's Norton SystemWorks has a defragger called Speed Disk, and Ontrack SystemSuite 4 includes JetDefrag (apparently both companies still want you to think of their defraggers as speedup tools).

Windows XP's Disk Defragmenter, on the other hand, not only comes with the operating system, but is simple and fast.

The only reason we can see to use a defragger other than Windows' own is to make scheduling easier. (Windows' Disk Defragmenter has no built-in scheduler.)

Pretty to look at, Speed Disk has lots of accoutrements, but they're of questionable value. For example, you can specify where on the disk files will go, though we haven't found evidence that such optimization enhances performance.

Ontrack's JetDefrag may not be as fancy as Speed Disk, but it gets the job done. It doesn't let you choose where on the disk particular files go, though Ontrack claims to place files intelligently for quick access.

Occasional Maintenance

Some jobs you don't have to do regularly, but only when necessity dictates. For instance, if your hard drive fills up, a disk cleanup program can make room. When things aren't working properly, diagnostic tools may find and fix the problem. And to prepare for the worst, drive imaging software can provide an exact copy of your hard drive's state in happier days.

Disk Cleanup

Hard drives accumulate junk. If you're running out of room, you have to get rid of something. But what? Cleanup programs help you locate seldom-used files, leftover temporary files, and other space wasters.

These programs know that some files, such as those in your Temp folder or in the Recycle Bin, are safe to delete. Others, such as old Word documents and duplicate files, are questionable--you, not the program, must decide file-by-file which can go. All of the programs we reviewed offer a quick and easy way to remove the safely deletable files; the question is, how do they help you choose among other files that you may or may not want to delete?

We took a look at Windows XP's Disk Cleanup tool, and at the file-cleaning capabilities of Symantec's and Ontrack's suites, plus Network Associates' McAfee QuickClean, a stand-alone program.

Windows' Disk Cleanup isn't an overly ambitious tool. It cleans out obvious file types (temporary Internet files, Recycle Bin, and so on), and not-too-obvious ones like downloaded program installer files.

Ontrack's SystemSuite 4 Utilities wins our Best Buy because of its wide assortment of cleanup utilities and its integrated file viewers, which let you examine files before you delete them.

One of Ontrack's utilities, QuickFileClean, easily takes care of safely deletable files. For a more thorough cleanup, AdvancedFileClean helps you choose files to delete. The program clearly explains file types and their history (for example, "Graphics, sound, and movie files that have not been accessed since 1999"), and its expandable outline file list and file viewers help you decide what goes. Well, mostly: The file list's layout makes it difficult to see what folder a file is in.

McAfee QuickClean 2 falls short of a Best Buy, primarily because it lacks file viewers. This omission is all the more annoying when you notice a grayed-out "Viewer" option on the menu--grayed out because the application works with QuickView, a discontinued Windows accessory.

If QuickClean does not clean enough for you, the program includes additional tools to help you examine files by category (fonts, data files) and decide which files stay and which go. QuickClean one-ups the other contenders in one respect: It's the only program we reviewed for this article that can search for and remove duplicate files--and that can reclaim a lot of space. This is a dangerous maneuver, however, because two applications may look for the same file in different places (QuickClean properly warns you).

Symantec's CleanSweep, available both in SystemWorks and as a $30 stand-alone program, contains a simple utility, Fast & Safe Cleanup, as well as Internet cleanup tools and an uninstaller, but its tools for creating more room on your hard drive are decidedly limited. You cannot, for instance, go through a list of deletion candidates and say yea or nay.

In theory, cleanup programs are also uninstallers that remove applications, but we found that these programs do even less than the uninstall routines accompanying the software that you're trying to remove. (Windows' own Add/Remove Programs control panel is merely a shell for launching these routines.)

Diagnostics and Repair

Computer hardware fails occasionally, and headaches with Windows are entirely too common.

Most of Windows' problems exist in one place: the Registry--a database that contains Windows' settings, application and hardware configurations, hardware specifications, and user identifications and preferences. It also contains potentially conflicting junk inserted by every program you've installed--including those you've uninstalled. We took a good look at programs intended to clean and repair the Registry, as well as those that back it up.

XP doesn't offer a Registry cleanup tool, but it has a great way to back up and restore the Registry: System Restore, which backs up the Registry automatically every 24 hours by default and lets you restore it manually whenever you want. Regular and frequent backups of the Registry are critical because restoring an incompatible version can prevent the operating system from functioning. Restoring the Registry manually in Windows XP entails walking through a short and simple wizard, and a reboot.

Of the third-party programs we looked at, Ontrack's SystemSuite offers the most extensive set of hardware diagnostic and Registry cleanup tools. One of them, PC Diagnostics, runs many hardware tests. Reasonably clear descriptions usually succeed in explaining what a test will do.

Symantec's Norton SystemWorks, by contrast, no longer contains the hardware diagnostics program included in earlier versions. Instead, Symantec focused its efforts on other areas of the suite.

Both suites offer similar Registry cleaners. Symantec's WinDoctor and Ontrack's Registry Fixer examine the Registry, provide a list of problems, and then let you fix them en masse or one at a time. They nearly always find a huge number of problems, so expect to give up on the one-at-a-time stuff and go the all-at-once route.

Ontrack's Registry Fixer won't let you "fix" a potentially dangerous problem--such as a Registry listing that could render Windows unbootable if changed or deleted--without examining it first. WinDoctor, on the other hand, simply doesn't list the dangerous ones. In theory, this gives Registry Fixer a major advantage, but in reality, it's a minor one--you probably won't have the patience to trudge through all of the hundreds of potentially dangerous problems anyway.

Ontrack's SystemSuite has a useful Registry backup program, System Saver, that you can schedule. Symantec included a similar tool in SystemWorks 2001, but no longer offers it. Windows XP's System Restore makes that tool unnecessary.

Disk Imaging

Today, many computers ship with an image file of the system included on their hard drives. Should you encounter a problem that you can't fix, this disk image file allows you to return the system to its original state.

But wouldn't it be better to return it to a point when it last worked properly--with all of your personal tweaks intact? Drive imaging software can do that for you. Unlike with file backup software, you probably won't need to use it frequently. Instead, use it after setting up your new PC, and again after making a major change, such as installing an application. The main difference between drive imaging and file backups is that drive imaging is meant to return you to a complete working installation, whereas file backups protect the day-by-day changes to your data.

A drive imaging program creates an exact copy of your hard drive setup and stores it in one large compressed file, which you can save on a dedicated partition on your hard drive or on a series of CD-R or CD-RW discs.

Writing an image to a partition is faster and easier but requires a lot of free drive space (as well as partitioning software). And if your drive dies, you're out of luck.

Like partitioning programs, the three drive imaging programs we reviewed--PowerQuest's Drive Image 5, Symantec's Norton Ghost 2002, and V Communications' DriveWorks--need to boot into DOS to do their thing. PowerQuest says Drive Image 2002, which wasn't ready in time for this review, will support backup and partitioning from within Windows.

The current version of Drive Image wins our Best Buy because it's easy to use and reliable. As with the company's PartitionMagic, Drive Image has modules that work inside and outside of Windows. You can load the Windows program QuickImage, tell it that you want to back up the C: drive to a file, set options such as the compression level, and then click the Create Image icon. QuickImage will then close Windows, reboot to DOS, perform the imaging, and boot back into Windows.

We found nothing easy about Norton Ghost 2002, but in its defense, it is designed with highly technical corporate IT users in mind. You load Ghost by booting from a floppy--a floppy that you create from a wizard inside Windows. Be careful what options you pick in that wizard, however. If you don't read the on-screen fine print, you could easily create a floppy that can write to a CD-RW but not read from it. In other words, you'll be able to create a hard drive image, but should disaster strike, you won't be able to restore it. Once you've booted into the DOS-based Ghost, you have to contend with confusing terminology ("Proceed with partition dump?") and an annoying copy-protection scheme. One thing in Ghost's favor: It's the only imaging program of the three that will work across a network, giving you an option other than backing up to a partition or a CD-RW disc.

DriveWorks combines drive imaging with a version of Partition Commander. It's a good thing it can create partitions, because DriveWorks does not support recordable CD media at all--V Communications says that'll arrive in a future release. Another DriveWorks limitation: The program can only back up to a FAT16 partition, which has a maximum size of 2GB.

The Suites

Symantec's SystemWorks 2002 and Ontrack's SystemSuite 4 are both chock-full of useful tools, but most users will be able to get along without either suite. We've awarded Ontrack's SystemSuite two Best Buys for its diagnostic and disk cleaning tools. It's an extremely feature-rich package, with far more tools in a single box than Symantec offers. But bugs in other areas keep it from winning a Best Buy as a suite. For instance, the All-In-One Wizard can, on some computers, disable Microsoft's Word XP, although it is relatively easy to enable it again. Symantec wins this year because we didn't stumble upon any such bugs in SystemWorks.

Although neither suite is absolutely necessary, both offer one feature that's essential on any PC: antivirus software. You don't need to buy a whole suite to get a good antivirus program, however.

Both suites have plenty of other tools. For example, each includes a disk scanner that inspects your hard drive for file system errors such as lost clusters, and optionally scans the drive for physical problems as well. (Symantec's scanner is called Disk Doctor; Ontrack's is DiskFixer.)

Each suite also has an easy way to run multiple maintenance checks. Norton's is called One Button Checkup. SystemSuite has four different maintenance wizards.

Both packages contain an early warning program that operates in the background, looking for problems with your hard drive, Windows, and other trouble spots. Symantec's is called System Doctor; Ontrack's is SystemMonitors. Both suites have a tool that can defragment the Registry (Symantec's Optimization Wizard and Ontrack's Registry Defrag). Both suites offer unerase tools, as well as shredders if you want to make sure that no one will ever recover a particular file. And each program lets you create an emergency boot floppy to help you recover from a disaster.

The suites also include tools for monitoring installations and tracking system changes, plus a wizard for removing applications. Both are able to move a program to a different location (folder, drive, or computer), as well as archive and restore a seldom-used application.

Both programs boast Web-based services for updating, but on closer examination, these are merely links to Web sites that offer these services to anyone.

Ontrack's SystemSuite comes with plenty of tools you won't find in SystemWorks, such as NetDefense Firewall, and a program called CrashProof that tries to stop Windows crashes. SystemSuite also has many file management utilities that SystemWorks lacks, such as PowerDesk Pro. Among the software's other unique tools are ClockSync, which resets your system clock by syncing with an atomic clock, and DiskVerifier, which scans CD media for errors.

Symantec has removed features that were in previous versions of SystemSuite, stating that they weren't popular or were no longer necessary. About the only thing you'll find in SystemWorks that you won't find in SystemSuite is a limited version of Roxio's GoBack, a backup program that operates in the background, tracking every change made to your system files.

Five Utilities You've Never Heard Of

Not all great utilities come on expensive CD-ROMs. Many are try-before-you-buy, downloadable shareware programs. Others cost nothing. You can download any of these programs from PC World's Downloads section.

TweakIE

Having trouble with Internet Explorer? A $15 shareware program called TweakIE cleans out Internet garbage, and solves all sorts of problems. A general browser care and feeding package, TweakIE lets you change settings, check your Favorites to make sure they're valid, and clean out all cookies except those you wish to save. Not be confused with Microsoft's free TweakUI, a Windows interface modifier.

SiSoft Sandra Standard

Want some details about your computer and how it works? Free for personal use (a Professional version costs $29), SiSoft's Sandra Standard can probably tell you. Sandra Standard, which resembles Microsoft Windows' Control Panel, gives you icons with names like System Summary and Mainboard Information. Just double-click and wait for an answer. Double-click System Summary, for instance, and you'll get system and user names, processor type, speed, and onboard cache size, chip set, monitor make and model, information on drives, and much more. If you double-click the CPU & BIOS Information icon, you'll find out everything from the CPU's packaging to what kind of socket it's plugged into, plus a breakdown of different types of caches and even the temperature. Answers for some technical details, though, such as ATA/ATAPI information, require Sandra Professional.

CDCheck

Now that you've got files backed up to CD-R, how do you know if they're perfect copies? Fusion's free CDCheck program can test your CD-ROMs, CD-Rs, and CD-RWs to make sure the data on them is readable. If the files are still on your hard drive, you can compare the CD copies against the original to make sure they really match.

Duplic8

For $15--about half the cost of McAfee QuickClean--Steve Evans' Duplic8 will find duplicate files on your hard drive. The search criteria are impressive: You can, for instance, match files by size only, or insist that file names match as well. You can mark individual files for deletion, export the results of a search to a file, or open Windows Explorer to any file's enclosing folder.

MultiRes

This free program provides the easiest way imaginable to change your screen resolution. Simply click a shortcut icon to select resolutions, color depths, and refresh rates. You can also set up a shortcut icon on the Start menu or on your desktop that changes the screen to a given resolution when clicked.

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