A tune-up for old computers

The GCN Lab kicks the tires on System Mechanic 8.5 and finds that it can breathe new life into an old system.

It can be tough to keep a computer running at peak efficiency. Although PCs are not as mechanically complex as automobiles, they still have a lot of forces working against them. Some of those forces, such as disk defragmentation, occur naturally. Others, such as shortcuts and Dynamic Link Libraries (DLLs) that don’t get deleted when a program goes away, result from sloppy programming. And a few, such as viruses and spyware, happen because someone is out to get you.

There are many tools available for defending against various problems and threats, but running several programs at the same time can cause other problems. Not only will all those programs hog system resources, they sometimes conflict with one another.

GCN LAB SCORECARD

System Mechanic 8.5

Pros: Extremely powerful utilities, easy-to-use interface
Cons: Gives careless users the power to mess up their systems

Performance: A
Ease of use: A+
Features: A+
Value: A+
Government price: $40

GCN Lab Reviewers Choice small logo

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The best solutions for most users are fire-and-forget tools — a bundle of programs designed to work together to protect a PC. Utility suites have mostly moved in that direction and have reached the point where an administrator or someone else who really wants to get into the nuts and bolts of a system might feel he or she is getting watered-down versions of necessary tools. Sure, you simply press a button and the suite “fixes” your system, but you never know what’s behind the magic or whether a computer is truly operating at peak efficiency.

The System Mechanic Suite from Iolo Technologies has always been different. It provides the fire-and-forget functionality most busy users want, but it also offers the details about how it proposes to fix a system and lets users change that plan as they see fit — for good or ill. With great power comes great responsibility, and System Mechanic will let you really mess up your system if you’re not careful, so go into its advanced tools only if you know what you’re doing.

For our review, we dug up an old PC from the lab test bed that had been performing frontline duties for two years. Because of a busy schedule and overlapping reviews, it was way overdue for an overhaul. Typically, machines are blanked and returned to a pristine state between reviews, but this one had not been treated. So we guessed that System Mechanic had its work cut out for it, and for that purpose, it was a perfect test system.

The PC was running Windows XP, though System Mechanic also works with Vista and Windows 2000. For the $40 government price ($50 retail), you can install the program on three PCs. You also get updates and support for a year from the date you first install it. So it’s a pretty good value if you need to fix up more than one system.

The first thing we did was run the PassMark Performance Test Benchmark Version 6.2 to see how the system was running. We planned to run the benchmark again after System Mechanic was finished so we could look for performance gains. The original score was 466.8 — respectable for a single-core desktop PC.

Next we loaded System Mechanic 8.5. Before the program installed, it detected that updates were available and downloaded them, making sure we had the latest version of the program. System Mechanic includes a registry checker and cleaner, a disk defragmentation tool, a drive health monitor, and an overall security inspector. One thing it does not have is a true virus scanner or spyware engine. It can easily detect the damage that a virus is doing to a system, but it can’t find the virus or fix the problem. For that, you need a different program.

Once we had installed it on our test system, we instructed System Mechanic to perform a deep scan. Although it warned us that the process could take hours, the scan lasted just 8 minutes, 17 seconds. When it was complete, we were treated to a dashboard view of our system’s overall performance. We had a yellow reading for security, but red for health and overall performance.

We could have opted for the quick fix at that point, but instead, we looked at the explanations for all the red indicators. The test computer’s drive was 37 percent fragmented. It had 15 security vulnerabilities. The hard drive had a physical error. There were 196 registry problems, and the registry was 13 percent fragmented. It had six unnecessary start-up items taxing system resources and seven broken shortcuts. And to crown it all, there were 821M of system clutter.

Working from the top of the list, we started with the clutter, which was mostly due to Internet Explorer’s 602M of temp files. It was an easy fix.

In terms of security, several types of files viruses commonly exploit were set to run on their own, such as .crt and .hta files. Instead, System Mechanic set them to open in Notepad, where they couldn’t harm anything. It is not true virus protection, but it helps.

In the registry, there were five empty registry keys for software that had long since been eliminated from the system. There were also 69 invalid DLLs and 122 invalid folders.

The start-up items that System Mechanic considered unnecessary included one that put QuickTime in the system tray, one that ran an applet to check for Java updates, a program to load Adobe Reader into memory and another to activate Microsoft Office Assistant. All those programs can be loaded as needed, so having them activate at start-up wastes system resources. However, if we wanted to let any of those programs remain as part of the start-up process, we could.

The one mystery was System Mechanic’s message that our Internet connection, which goes through the local-area network in our test bed, was not optimized. But it gave no details. According to the company, that assessment is typically due to improperly configured settings that can be easily fixed in the control panel. System Mechanic will do that for you. It’s minor, but why not accept help when offered?

When we clicked “Repair All,” the program went to work. Most of the broken areas were fixed in under a minute, but the disk defrag took a long time. The total time to fix everything on the system was 1 hour, 44 minutes, with about 95 percent of that devoted to the defrag process.

Afterward, we reran the PassMark performance benchmark and got a new score of 489.1 — a 20-point jump that was noticeable when working with some large programs. System Mechanic also offered to continue to monitor system health to prevent future degradation.

For a relatively inexpensive program, especially when you can run it on three PCs, System Mechanic proved powerful and useful. If your agency or even your home office has computers that are mission-critical, it’s probably a good idea to keep them running as well as, or better than, the day you bought them. It might not be the fountain of youth for older systems, but it can prevent them from aging before their time.

If you have virus and spyware protection at the server level, System Mechanic is all the more valuable for protecting client systems from normal wear and tear. It earns our Reviewer’s Choice designation and remains one of our favorite utility suites for users at all levels.

Iolo Technologies, 323-257-8888 ext. 100, www.iolo.com

NEXT STORY: A scanner for the fast crowd

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