To clean & protect

Good system maintenance requires a bag of tricks. The GCN Lab looks at five utility suites

I don't know about you, but my hard drive often looks like a graveyard of missing program parts. I love to play with new software and try things out, but inevitably I keep only a fraction of the programs I load. Scraps of software litter my hard drive and system tray. And once fragmented, this data debris is hard to remove. I've often wished I had a computer maid to clean up after me, throw the trash away, organize my files, find things I've lost, spray for bugs and make sure all the doors and windows are locked.

And now, I do. The GCN Lab asked me to interview a roster of digital maids, i.e. system utilities, to find out which is up to the job of maintaining a well-lived-in computer. Despite Microsoft's best efforts to snap up and give away utilities with Windows, so-called third parties such as Symantec continue to be better at creating software to keep systems running smoothly. And the better the utilities, the more likely you are to actually use them and head off disaster.

What I found

All the packages I tested are software suites in the loosest sense of the word'they all come with several programs. But some, such as Norton SystemWorks 2005 Premier, are suite-er than others. SystemWorks is well integrated, with a central console for scheduling what are essentially individual maintenance chores. VCom's SystemSuite Professional 6, however, does not have the same level of integrated management, although it has a nice interface.

It's hard to say one suite is better than another. In a way, all the companies in this review are especially good at one or two things and have wrapped additional programs around those strengths. Iolo System Mechanic 5 Professional, for instance, comes with a good recovery tool. SystemWorks now includes Norton Ghost, an excellent disk backup and imaging program. And the VCom suites include my favorite registry cleaner.

But short of spending more than $300 to cobble together a best-of suite of suites, it's hard to buy a single bundle that does everything well. Norton SystemWorks remains a top utility package and can handle most of the system maintenance you require. And although VCom's SystemSuite looks like an attractive package, we actually recommend saving a few bucks and buying VCom's Fix-It Utilities Professional 6, which comes with powerful system tools and leaves security functions to programs you're probably already running.

Iolo System Mechanic 5 Professional

Pros: Good antivirus engine, useful start-up manager

Cons: No imaging/backup software

Overall grade: B+

Features: B+

Ease of use: A

Value: B


System Mechanic, a $70 download, is loaded with tools, and getting it off the Web and loading it is extremely easy'easiest of the group, in fact. My favorite feature of this suite is the Startup Manager controller. System Mechanic and TuneUp Utilities 2004 [see below] are the only suites that offer this functionality. Since Windows Startup works with individual Windows programs, these utility start-ups allow a user to choose which modules will automatically launch when the computer starts. This is important in avoiding system slowdown.

I was also impressed with the suite's recovery tool, which can restore e-mail mes- sages from most major e-mail programs including Outlook. If you're not already using a pop-up blocker, Iolo provides one. And I was especially pleased that the company did away with the Panda Software antivirus engine, which came with Version 4 of the suite. The Panda engine was rife with intrusive pop-up windows of its own, and by default it seemed to scan for viruses at odd times. System Mechanic 5 uses Kasperski Labs' antivirus tool, which is far more streamlined and much less intrusive.

System Mechanic would be a more complete suite if Iolo had included a hard-drive-imaging module. Backing up data is an essential maintenance task, so it was a bit of a surprise not to find a tool for the job. System Mechanic also does not have an uninstaller program, clearly relying on Windows and individual programs' uninstallers.

When it comes to performance and usability, System Mechanic is on a par with any other suite I tested. But others, such as VCom SystemSuite Professional, give you a little more bang for your buck.

Iolo Technologies LLC, Los Angeles, (323) 257-8888, www.iolo.com

Symantec Norton SystemWorks 2005 Premier

Pros: Good performance, powerful drive imaging

Cons: Little overall improvement, limited NTFS support

Overall grade: A-

Features: A-

Ease of use: A

Value: B


I'm happy to report that Symantec has finally solved its chronic problem of using too many resources and slowing computers with its SystemWorks utility suite. Unfortunately, it seems that is the only problem they've been working on. There are few new features that would appeal to the average user since the 2004 version, so it's hard to make the case to upgrade. But if you're looking for a fresh set of utilities, you could a lot do worse than Norton.

SystemWorks 2005 Premier ($100) comes with a bunch of name brand Symantec programs including Norton Antivirus, Utilities, GoBack, Ghost, Checkit Diagnostics and System Optimizer. Norton Ghost is probably the best and only significant new feature in the suite and gives SystemWorks a leg up over other bundles. Ghost uses hot imaging so a user can create backup images of their hard drive to a separate drive or partition without restarting the computer or exiting Windows. It's the fastest imaging program I've tested.

As for the tried and true features, they all continue to perform, as one would expect from such a name as Norton. Antivirus is still one of the best programs around. And SystemWorks and VCom SystemSuite are the only programs that offer active Windows resource monitoring above and be- yond what Windows Task Manager can do.

One of the strangest problems is that some of Norton's utilities, such as the emergency CD-boot virus scan, do not support the NTFS file system, which is basically the standard in Windows XP. SystemWorks also lacks the complete hard drive erase option most of the other programs have.
I also experienced some problems with CleanSweep, the suite's uninstaller program. CleanSweep works by monitoring the installation of new programs so it can uninstall them later. But it did not pick up on a few small shareware programs I loaded. Still, if you're already a Norton fan, you will be happy with 2005 Premier.

Symantec Corp., Cupertino, Calif., (408) 517-8000, www.symantec.com

TuneUp Utilities 2004

Pros: Good value

Cons: Dangerous registry defrag, no U.S. technical support

Overall grade: B-

Features: B

Ease of use: B

Value: B-


TuneUp Utilities is a relative newcomer to the GCN Lab'and at $40, a good deal. Based in Germany for years, the developer only recently released an English-language version of the program. But in any language, TuneUp Utilities performs most of the basic functions of utility suites, although it doesn't come with security or antivirus modules.

Among the bundled programs are SystemControl, DiskCleaner, RegistryCleaner, Unistall Manager, System Optimizer, StartUp Manager, Un-delete and Shredder'all fairly self-explanatory. I found WinStyler particularly fun to use. It allows the users to change the look of their entire systems.

Everything works extremely well. The interfaces are clean if slightly devoid of flair, typical of German efficiency. A useful 1-Touch Maintenance module lets you easily kick off or schedule a series of tasks. The company says the secure delete algorithm in the TuneUp Shredder was developed by the Defense Department. I didn't verify that, but it works very well.

The only glaring problem I encountered is that I could have inadvertently erased all my system files using the registry defrag utility. Defragmenting a hard drive is one thing, but only very experienced users should mess with their registries, much less defragment them.

Keep in mind the company has no U.S. offices, so getting support could be difficult. I never actually called Germany, but I did communicate with them via e-mail. In my experience they were prompt with their responses, normally answering within one day.

TuneUp Software GmbH, Darmstadt, Germany, www.tune-up.com

VCom SystemSuite 5

Pros: Many tools, excellent interface, good registry cleaner

Cons: Jack of all trades, master of none; some programs are incomplete versions

Overall grade: B+

Features: B+

Ease of use: A-

Value: B


The $60 SystemSuite 5 came with the most utility tools of any suite in this review'about 50. Its main features are Fix Utilities to speed up your computer, VirusScanner Pro to zap viruses, Secure Erase to ensure files you delete stay gone and Recovery Commander to get back files you accidentally delete.

They all work well, however, some of SystemSuite's smaller utilities are shareware that you could otherwise download for free. V-Com calls them bonus programs. But they're not even the full versions of the utilities. To get full functionality, you need to upgrade'and pay more. And that's annoying. If I'm going to pay $60 for a suite, I want all the programs to be registered versions. For example, GhostSurf, an Internet privacy program that comes with SystemSuite, is a freeware version and only has limited features.

That said, SystemSuite 5 is a good package. It's very robust and powerful with a great interface. All the bundled utilities are easy to access and navigate.

My favorite utility is the registry repair program. Registries have always bewildered and confused me, but SystemSuite does the best job of explaining the process of cleaning a registry step by step. In addition, VCom licensed its antivirus engine, a top program, from Trend Micro, so your system will stay well protected.

The weakest link of SystemSuite 5 is the defragmentation program, which is painfully slow and makes no noticeable difference in system performance. SystemSuite also does not have a central dashboard for scheduling and executing regular maintenance jobs, as all the other suites do. Each utility has to be accessed separately from the main interface.

SystemSuite gives you a lot for your money, while trying to get more cash out of you. It's easy to navigate but is really more of a software bundle than a suite, the latter being a more integrated package than a set of utilites thrown together. If there's something missing from a suite like Norton SystemWorks, chances are you can download it a la carte from VCom.

Avanquest Publishing USA Inc., Pleasanton, Calif., (800) 648-8266, www.v-com.com

VCom Fix-It Utilities Professional 6

Pros: Good value, excellent diagnostics

Cons: No extensive security features

Overall grade: A-

Features: A-

Ease of use: B+

Value: A-

If you already have all the Internet security tools you need, skip VCom's SystemSuite and buy its cheaper ($50) Fix-It Utilities 6.

This bundle is a more powerful version of the Fix module in SystemSuite. It also comes with a virus scanner, anti-spyware software, registry tool, PowerDesk file manager and Recovery Commander restore program. It has virtually all the best parts of SystemSuite for fixing and maintaining a computer, including the best hardware diagnostic tools of any of the suites reviewed here.

SmartCheck is a powerful little program that can warn you if your hard drive is about to fail so you can take measures to protect your data.

What you lose by not purchasing SystemSuite is most of its powerful Internet security tools, such as the NetDefense firewall and SecurErase drive sweeper.

Depending on your current system configuration, you may find it's worth the extra money to go for all the bells and whistles. But chances are also good that you already have a firewall or a program that protects your privacy online such as VCom's GhostSurf utility, which comes with SystemSuite but not Fix-It. In short, if you already have a good security program (and in this day you'd be crazy not to) Fit-It is a better value.

Avanquest Publishing USA Inc., Pleasanton, Calif., (800) 648-8266, www.v-com.com

Editor's note: This page has been updated since its original posting Aug. 15. The original version included a review of VCom SystemSuite Professional 6. The review in question, now labeled correctly above, was of SystemSuite 5. SystemSuite Professional 6 had not been released in time for testing.

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