Utilities each day keep PC doctor away

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Even if you're a power user who does everything right, your PC still might not be performing at its best. And if it does well today, that doesn't guarantee it will tomorrow.

The forces of entropy are stacked against computers running Microsoft Windows. Over time, the Dynamic Link Library files build up, sometimes conflicting with one another and redirecting memory toward programs no longer installed. Hard disks get fragmented as files are compressed and uncompressed. And Internet connections often slow down for no apparent reason.

Good users want to take care of their systems but, like car mechanics, they need the right tools. A bit of preventive maintenance often saves emergency repairs later. And because of the ever-increasing speed and software complexity of PCs, you constantly need up-to-date tools.

For this review, I tried out several leading utility programs designed to make PCs run more efficiently and stay in top condition. I graded the products for their functionality, interface and price. I did not test antivirus and antispam tools, although they're vitally important to keeping a PC running in top shape.

An old favorite

My longtime favorite, Norton Utilities, has been phased out as a separate product by parent Symantec Corp. Norton Utilities was there at the dawn of Windows computing and for many years was the only choice, or at least the best one, for keeping systems healthy.

But it hasn't gone completely away. It's part of SystemWorks 2004, which has about everything you need to keep a PC healthy, including virus protection and troubleshooting tools.

SystemWorks installed very smoothly. After I inserted the CD-ROM, it prompted me to choose which elements of the suite to install, or just to install everything.

There's a lot in there, so look it over to make sure you choose the correct protection programs for your situation.

After installation, the suite automatically checks for updates. That's obviously essential for antivirus protection, but it also keeps other programs in the suite current.

SystemWorks' most useful elements run in background without much user intervention.
CleanSweep monitors where new programs place files. When you uninstall them, it makes sure that everything exits.

GoBack works the same basic way, but instead it records everything about the state of a PC when working properly. If a new program causes a crash, GoBack reverts the system to the last known good configuration. It's kind of like realizing you locked your keys in the car, and then warping back in time to a moment before the door slammed. When I induced several crashes on my test system, GoBack worked just fine.

Password Manager is an interesting tool for government users who must remember multiple passwords. It stores them in an encrypted folder. When you are prompted for a known password, it is automatically entered for you, assuming you have set the program to do that.

If password storage violates your office's security policy, you can simply have the program remember your passwords in case you forget'just don't forget the one that lets you in to Password Manager.

The $99 professional suite I tested also includes Process Viewer, which shows what is happening on a system much better than Windows' standard task manager, as well as a disk image backup tool, both of which I recommend.

System Mechanic 4 from Iolo Technologies LLC is SystemWorks' main competition. It takes a slightly different tack, but many of the programs are similar. The emphasis seems to be on file management in all its many forms, plus uncovering hidden Windows options.

The interface was easy to navigate, but it did seem to assume slightly more advanced knowledge than SystemWorks did.

If you use System Mechanic incorrectly, its powerful tools could actually harm your system, although it tends to give a warning if you attempt a dangerous process.

Besides antivirus and antispam tools, a program called System Shield can prevent personal or sensitive data from exiting your system by any means, including manual typing into e-mail. That's helpful in case a rogue user or program tries to send out credit card or other private information. System Shield also scans for spyware and other nefarious programs, and it's nice to have this extra level of protection.

One of the best things about it is its easy access to more than 100 Windows settings that are difficult to find otherwise. You can configure memory and video settings for optimum performance'but be careful because it's possible to do harm instead of good. Better leave it alone if you aren't certain.

System Shield also can erase deleted files from floppy disks or hard drives so that they are unrecoverable. In all my tests, a file killed in this manner was gone forever.

SpeedUpMyPC 2.0 is a handy utility for users who know a system is slowing down but don't know why. Unlike System Mechanic, it works without much user intervention. That's obviously safer but less helpful for power users. Still, it works.

Once it's installed, you simply tell SpeedUpMyPC to get busy. It frees up RAM, assigns more CPU resources to critical applications for which you tend to notice a slowdown, and checks disk performance. If the system has gotten cluttered with rogue DLLs, SpeedUpMyPC can also clean up the registry and make the system boot a bit faster.

On my very cluttered test system, it made memory-intensive programs such as Adobe PhotoShop run faster, and it also shaved about 6 seconds from boot time. I would have liked to tweak performance a bit more myself, but for users who don't relish getting under the hood, SpeedUpMyPC provides a quick fix.

DeviceLock 5.6 is an interesting utility for users who deal with sensitive government information. Even if your agency has the best firewall in the world, a tiny $50 USB key drive can pierce your security plan like a hot knife through butter.

Under Windows XP, the use of USB and FireWire devices cannot be managed via group policy settings. Anyone with a key drive or even an MP3 player could steal data or install malicious code.

DeviceLock controls access to USB and other data ports, and it is extremely easy to use. What I like about the program'besides closing up a hole'is that it is not all-or-nothing.

If I am an authorized user allowed to take data on travel with my key drive, my personal device can be whitelisted by DeviceLock for access regardless of other security settings. Anyone who uses antispam controls will recognize the interface.

The utility works on standalone as well as networked computers. It can prevent CDs from being burned, too. I feel safer knowing that when I leave my computer for lunch or at night, it will be safe from local tampering.

The GCN Lab loaned me a hard-drive copier used by government forensics in-vestigators to copy data from suspects' hard drives. Despite the presence of DeviceLock, the copier was able to duplicate my drive contents, probably because it works at the preboot phase. But then, I suppose if the FBI is raiding your office, you have bigger problems than data integrity. Against common threats, DeviceLock worked perfectly.

Preventive maintenance

Disk defragmenting is a bit like changing the oil in your car. You can ignore it for quite a while before engine trouble starts, but eventually you'll have major problems. And the more you drive your car or your computer, the faster the problems arrive.

The usual solution is to right-click on the hard drive icon, go into Properties and run Windows' disk defragmentation program, which can take anywhere from a few minutes to many hours, depending on the degree of data scrambling and the computer speed.

The trouble with this approach is twofold. First, things can get pretty bad before you notice programs are running slowly and your drive is spinning a lot more than usual. Second, by then a full defrag can easily waste an entire workday.

In a way, Diskeeper 8 is a stealth program. You can trigger full defragmentation if you like, but you can also set it to monitor files constantly and defragment them when needed.

Diskeeper assigns itself a very low resource priority, so it does not compete with your work. It just quietly does its job in background.

Think of it as a mechanic who comes in at night and changes the oil, or even rides along with you to replenish used oil as you go. Your files stay unfragmented and your computer runs fast without your having to give it another thought.

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

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