Considering the number of things that can go wrong with Windows, ranging from the blue screen of death, registry errors, corrupted virtual device drivers (VXD) and applications that overwrite one another's dynamic link libraries (DLL), it makes sense to anticipate problems rather than just react to them.
Iolo Technologies' System Mechanic 3.2, Ontrack Data International SystemSuite 3.0 and Symantec's Norton SystemWorks 2001 help you do that. Each vendor offers a suite of tools to predict, prevent and fix a myriad of hardware configuration and software problems.
While none of these suites can take the place of a skilled diagnosis, or are suitable for troubleshooting network emergencies such as failed routers, they are a good first line of defence.
Prevention before cure
My vote for the most versatile collection of routine preventive maintenance tools and enterprise-friendly licensing goes to Iolo's System Mechanic.
Among its 15 utilities, one of my favourites is its Windows customisation tool - sort of like the Tweak UI desktop customisation utility on amphetamines - that lets you fine-tune the settings that affect appearance, security and performance. For example, it lets you control what applications and routines Windows runs when it starts, which has become a more difficult task than it seems.
I also like Iolo's Internet Optimizer, accelerating Internet communications by fine-tuning registry settings. I saw a 20 per cent increase in data exchange rates after using the Internet Optimizer.
Iolo's $US300 Mobile Toolkit will especially appeal to IT administrators who maintain a large number of machines. Mobile Toolkit is a CD that doesn't install itself yet can run on an unlimited number of machines. Changes made to a machine are permanent, only modified by re-running the Mobile Toolkit.
On the other hand, while System Mechanic is good for preventive maintenance, it lacks utilities for even the most rudimentary crisis management. Symantec's SystemWorks and Ontrack's SystemSuite are the clear choices when you need to recover accidentally deleted files, un-format a hard drive or when you require advanced data recovery. For the latter, US-based Ontrack includes EasyRecovery Lite with its suite. Symantec offers a similar service through a third-party provider, PromiseMark.
Both products also offer a broader range of utilities than System Mechanic, including antivirus protection and installation monitors, which can remove all traces of installed and downloaded programs.
Performance enhancers include program accelerators that can arrange a program's DLL modules on the hard drive by order of execution. Although it can take several days, or even weeks for the utility to learn an application's loading order, the effort is worth it. I achieved a 10 to 20 per cent improvement in loading time for many programs.
SystemWorks has a slight edge over SystemSuite, not due to superior technology but because it lets you run four of its utilities directly from the CD, eliminating the need to first install them.
SystemWorks, however, requires you to obtain a licence for each machine you use it on, even if you don't install it. You'll probably use three utilities that run from the CD - Win Doctor, DiskDoctor and UnErase - to identify and fix common glitches. A fourth utility, WipeInfo, overwrites deleted files so they can't be recovered.
To SystemSuite's advantage, PowerDesk 4 comes included and is one of the best and most adaptable graphical file managers around. It's not directly related to the suite's diagnosis and repair mission, yet PowerDesk absolutely runs rings around Windows Explorer. Version 4 includes a file transfer protocol downloader and a fast-loading file viewer that can display more than 200 formats.
I ran the three suites through an identical set of defects that I created, including erroneous shortcuts, incompletely removed programs, faulty RunServices commands, and renamed or missing VXD and DLL files.
The three suites performed as expected, although it sometimes took multiple passes to catch all the errors. System Mechanic seemed to run faster than SystemWorks, which ran faster than SystemSuite, but the differences were small.
System Mechanic and SystemWorks don't offer crash protection and recovery and I consider that to be a benefit. SystemSuite still includes this feature, which it calls CrashProtect. As hard as this utility strives to prevent data loss when Windows goes haywire, it often causes more problems than it solves. If the machine is unstable, it's better to save what data you can and reboot.
Microsoft promises error-trapping improvements in Windows 2000 and the next release of Office will reduce delinquent digital behaviour.
While it's premature to bid goodbye to the nettlesome problems that depress productivity and raise the pulse rate, this combination of error-resistant applications and easy-to-use diagnostic and repair utilities can help keep users' keys moving.
The bottom line
Iolo Technologies System Mechanic 3.2 can be purchased online at www.iolo.com. The single-user package is priced at $US59.95, while the 10-user suite costs $US399.95 and 200-user suite $4434 (prices do not include shipping, however downloads are available).
Ontrack Data International SystemSuite 3.0 can be purchased online at www.ontrack.com. Prices start at $US53.95 (download or shipping options available).
Symantec Norton SystemWorks 2002 will be available at the end of September. The normal package is priced at $A149 while the professional suite costs $A199. Contact Symantec Australia on 1800 680 026 or www.symantec.com.au for further information.