These utilities can keep your computer fit

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Programs can keep computers healthy and running at top efficiency despite viruses, spyware, other hazards

It's not easy to keep a PC running well in the face of viruses, spam, resource-hogging applications and rogue Dynamic Link Library files from deleted apps.

All these factors conspire to turn a nice new client into a leaden paperweight. But with the right utility programs, a smart systems administrator can eke out top efficiency over years of extra duty.

For this review, the GCN Lab chose some of the best utilities and suites on the market, aiming for all-around protection. We graded these utilities for their usefulness, the simplicity of their interfaces and cost.

System Mechanic 4 from Iolo Technologies LLC, a catchall suite, has helpful programs that can be set either to active mode'the user tells a process when to run'or passive mode. In passive mode, they run automatically when a problem is detected, or routinely at set intervals.

One of the more useful programs in the suite is SpyHunter, which can detect hidden spyware, something nobody in government wants to harbor. It's amazing how many apps install some form of spyware to secretly report various user activities back to the vendor. SpyHunter finds and kills these wasters of processor cycles and bandwidth.

The suite's automatic processes include memory defragmentation and registry compression, both of which will keep a system from gradually slowing down in use. And once they're installed, the administrator can sit back and let the utilities do the work without further intervention.

When you kill a program or document, the suite's System Shield utility will make sure it stays dead and cannot be recovered. And DriveScrubber can nuke the entire hard drive, as many agencies require in preparation for replacing old PCs.

Norton System Works 2004 evolved from Norton Utilities, one of the first such suites for PCs. Symantec Corp. has given System Works 2004 many of the same system-enhancing tools as System Mechanic 4, but Symantec puts more emphasis on the PC's outside connections.

One of the most convenient things System Works can do is manage passwords, which tend to multiply for every agency user in these days of e-government and broad connectivity. If your agency has specific requirements for frequently changing your passwords, they get to be hard to keep track of.

System Works' Password Manager stores all your passwords inside an encrypted folder that only you can access. Without putting your memory to the test, it automatically goes to the encrypted folder and pulls the correct password when you visit a given site or open a program.

System Works also can make a detailed chart showing what processes are running, with much greater detail than the standard Windows interface shows.

Speed for power users

Is more speed what you need? SpeedUpMyPC from LIUtilities Inc. is the fire-and-forget answer, perfect for the sysadmin on the go. This clever program does the most for users who run lots of 3-D applications and other memory-intensive programs, though anyone can benefit.

SpeedUpMyPC monitors CPU usage and reassigns resources if it determines that they are being mismanaged. On my test system, for example, one program constantly tried to grab too many system resources, sometimes even crashing the computer. SpeedUpMyPC stopped this misbehavior and kept vital processes running. The greedy program still was operating, though a bit more slowly than normal, and I saw no more crashes.

SpeedUpMyPC can do the same basic thing to squeeze a few extra kilobits out of an Internet connection.

Although I found it useful, the program's automatic nature gave me few configurable controls. Microsoft Windows experts can probably accomplish most of what SpeedUpMyPC does, but why waste the time?

Diskeeper 8 from Executive Software Inc. is the best defragmentation utility I have ever tried. Anyone who installs Diskeeper 8 won't have to worry about disk fragmentation bogging down the system.

Diskeeper 8 runs as a low-level process in background, unlike Windows' standard defragmenter, which takes up so many processor cycles it actually competes with anything else you're trying to run.

I found I could work in Microsoft Word and Excel and even a 3-D rendering application while the defragmentation was going on, with no noticeable slowdown. That's impressive.

You can also set Diskeeper to constantly monitor your hard drive to make sure it does not become fragmented in the first place. If you choose this mode, Diskeeper will run automatically when a file starts to become fragmented, though you'll likely never notice. You can even set Diskeeper to run while you're not doing anything else, such as when a screensaver is active.

The only tricky thing is knowing which version of Diskeeper 8 to choose. Users of Windows 9x, Millennium Edition or XP Home should get Diskeeper 8 Standard Edition.

Those who have Windows 2000 or XP Professional should buy the Professional edition. That's also the right choice for government sysadmins who manage multiple clients from a single location.
Once you have one or all of these utilities working on the inside, don't let some malicious program from the outside mess things up.

Computers can get bogged down in various ways, and two of the most annoying are spam and viruses.

Norton AntiSpam 2004 takes a radically different approach from most antivirus programs. Instead of being server-based, it works inside the client. It will even work for computers that connect to the Internet by dial-up modem, such as those at remote offices or those used by teleworkers.

Because Norton AntiSpam doesn't go through a mail server, it is somewhat limited, but it works well within those limits. It tags and routes incoming spam to a special folder.

You still have to take the time to download the spam, but your inbox won't get junked up. You can also set Norton AntiSpam to discard e-mail that does not come from approved sources. All contacts in your address book automatically go on the approved list.

Norton AntiSpam applies complex rules to determine whether a message is spam. As new kinds of spam evolve, you can update the spam profile to catch the new junk.

As a bonus, the program can block Web ads and pop-ups while you surf. It's very good at blocking pop-ups. It isn't perfect at blocking banner ads, but it will stop the loading of ads from known sources such as DoubleClick.

Free virus help

One really important utility for users who aren't behind a firewall is an antivirus program. I decided to test one at the most entry-level price'free.

That's right, free. If you need basic protection from viruses but don't want to spend $70 or more for a program, then get nagged periodically to pay more for updates or another year of service, AVG Anti-Virus might be for you.

Download this 6M virus fighter from www.grisoft.com/us/us_dwnl_free.php. The software is not crippled'it won't expire after a certain time, and it won't throw ads up on the screen. The only catch is that you must register by giving Grisoft Inc. your e-mail address. A return code by e-mail activates the product.

In two weeks of testing, I received only the one e-mail from Grisoft with the product code, the installation instructions and a single product pitch to purchase other software.

I tested the program in various sneaky ways. Using a collection of viruses I've built over the years, I e-mailed several to my test system as file attachments, some embedded inside .zip files. AVG's automatic scan found them each time. It also found ones that I downloaded from the Internet by File Transfer Protocol.

Unlike commercial antivirus programs that charge to update virus profiles, AVG requires you to manually download new profiles, but you can do so for free. The company posts the newest profiles, and you go get them.

Although they're easy enough to install by simply clicking, it's your responsibility to keep the profiles updated. Users who are willing to take this trouble can get perfectly good virus scanning and protection for no money at all. Be sure to tell your supervisor'claim the savings as an accomplishment.

These programs, taken together, will keep PCs from degrading in response and performance. Their useful lives can be extended, and they'll keep running as smoothly as they do out of the box.

Greg Crowe is a free-lance software reviewer in Sterling, Va.

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