Suite can keep teleworkers' PCs in tune and up to date

The System Mechanic software suite from iolo technologies has had a long history that harkens back to the DOS days when system utilities were incredibly powerful tools best used only by experts. Although somewhat scaled down in power, today’s commercial system tools are still important, especially for government employees who do partial or full telecommuting and who may be required to maintain their own gear away from agency administrators.

The new System Mechanic Version 12 does a great job of striking a balance between power and usability. For the complete novice, there are one-touch settings that can fix most problems. For those who don't ever trust automatic settings, the new version lets users "crawl under the hood" to analyze and approve every single change the software wants to make.

For our testing, we used a fairly typical PC from the GCN Lab with a quad core Intel Xeon processor running Windows 7, and ran benchmarks before and after using System Mechanic. The box had been the lab’s general-purpose office machine, and it had been in use for about a year without any tuning or  maintenance. We ran the Passmark PerformanceTest Benchmark on it and got a score of 1,685, which was respectable, but probably not quite where it should have been.

Installing the System Mechanic software is painless, either via a physical disk or downloaded from the iolo website. By default, the new System Mechanic assumes a user has no knowledge about how his PC works, although it’s easy for anyone to dive deeper. When the software first runs, it updates itself with the latest performance definitions and then scans the PC. The company maintains a working lab of people who analyze new programs for their impacts on system performance. This information, along with System Mechanic settings to maximize performance, are pushed out as updates on a regular basis, similar to the way definitions for anti-virus programs are updated, and is a key to keeping the software working properly. 

Once installed, a report is generated showing overall system health. If you wants, you can push one button and have System Mechanic fix everything. Although that seems to work, we don't know anyone who would put such blind faith in any piece of software.

On our test PC, System Mechanic detected 698 registry problems on the first pass, as well as 1.13 GB of system clutter. Diving into that a bit, we found that most of the registry errors were duplication problems, though a few were calls from programs that no longer even existed on the system, but which were not completely uninstalled, a surprisingly common situation. The system clutter was mostly temporary Internet files stored by the browser. The clutter didn't much affect system performance, though the bad registry calls could have become a problem as they built up. We had System Mechanic fix all of those problems, resulting in a bit of a performance boost for the machine.

It seems important to note that System Mechanic does a bit more than just a registry cleaning. We've actually seen some "cleaning programs" that slow down systems after they are run because they simply remove the problems with the registry but leave the actual program fragments in place. System Mechanic instead first diagnoses the problem and identifies where all the pieces are, and only then does it remove the registry errors alongside what is actually causing the problem. 

Start-up programs pose a bigger performance problem for many PCs. Most computers come with pre-installed programs that launch when the computer boots up. Many of these are included for the user’s convenience, so that when  a PDF is opened, for example, the reader program is already primed and ready to go. But the user who doesn’t open a PDF still has the program resident the entire time, slowing down his system performance and taking up memory for no real gain. Besides, computers today are so fast that almost nothing needs to be pre-loaded like that. At most, pre-loading saves just a couple seconds.

System Mechanic lets users look at each program in the startup path so that they can decide if it should run or not. It provides lots of data to make the right decision, describing what a program does, how it runs (such as if it's a background service) and, for some programs, what users with the same program decided. That recommendation feature is clever, but probably the least helpful for experienced users. 

So although the software can make logical decisions, it does not know the PC owner’s usage pattern. Government workers may want to launch a VPN tunnel back to their agency network every time the computer is turned on. Those who work with PDFs all day may find that the aforementioned few seconds saved could really add up. 

The new version of the software runs under Windows 8. We loaded it up briefly on a machine with that OS just to make sure, though all our testing was under Windows 7. It's also compatible with Vista and XP. Regardless of where it runs, it has a very Windows 8-looking interface. 

There is even a widget that launches in the corner of the screen that monitors computer performance. Ironically, the widget itself drains system performance a bit and is more or less useless because once the program runs and the system is up to "good" levels, there is very little for the widget to measure. When System Mechanic is set to stay up to date, it can run without the widget.

A couple of nice extras within the program include the Designated Drivers application and the SSD Accelerator. The first identifies the most important drivers within the system, such as the Wi-Fi adapter, the graphics card and even the keyboard, and automatically finds and keeps those drivers up to date. Those who use graphically intensive applications will appreciate not having to update the graphics driver manually every month, as some of the popular cards seem to require. The SSD Accelerator is simply a way to maintain speed and performance with solid state drives. This isn't significantly different from defragmenting a normal drive, but the pattern of moving data around is unique, so it’s good that there is a specific program to handle SSDs, which are common on many rugged government laptops.

For security, the Incinerator option for the Recycle bin destroys files and overwrites them so they can't be recovered. There also is an antivirus program that can be installed separately. We left that off in our testing and found that the main System Mechanic program did not conflict with the existing AV, so it's good that it was made optional.

For the final test, after the registry was fixed and extra startup programs disabled, we ran the benchmark again on the same system. Performance jumped from the original 1,685 score to 1,796, a pretty significant increase. Even more important, because we set System Mechanic to keep the computer up to date, it should maintain that level over time.

Employees working with their own computers or away from agency administrators should probably invest in a program suite like System Mechanic. They just need to ensure that they configure the machine according to agency guidelines.


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