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Rx for your PC

May 18, 1998
posted at:02:05:00 PM

By Dean Andrews, Harry McCracken and Lincoln Spector

Ever notice how computing can sound hazardous to your health? We talk of crashing, freezing, or even corrupting our FAT. Yecch. Which is why Windows utilities are like health care for your PC.

It starts with "healthy habits" utilities--programs that promote high-efficiency, low-stress computing. For example, keeping your files in good order with a file manager means that you won't need to reach for the Maalox next time you need that spreadsheet you created back in 1994. Or suppose you simply must save a couple dozen screen shots from the way-cool Web site you found last night. Avoid hard drive cramping by squashing those JPEGs down to size with a file zipper. And what about that IS guy who sends his reports in XyWrite? A handy file viewer will let you look at almost any file that comes your way.

But sometimes even the healthiest PC needs a good MD. Diagnostic programs are like general practitioners, giving your system an overall checkup and pinpointing potential problems. Disk scanners are radiologists, examining your hard drive for trouble. Uninstallers clean your system of old applications and orphaned DLLs; call them the internists. And disk defragmenters? The shrinks of the PC world, they do their best to put your drive's scattered contents back in order.

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Finally, there's the emergency room. When disaster strikes, crash recovery programs can help your computer get back on its feet.

But like doctors, all utilities aren't created equal. To separate the experts from the quacks, we reviewed 28 products--including Windows' built-in tools and two do-it-alls, Norton Utilities and Nuts & Bolts. The diagnosis? There are gems, but snake-oil salesmen still thrive.

Just as different HMOs offer different services, different operating systems offer varied utilities. In "The Future of Utilities," we take a look at those in Windows 98 and in a future version of Windows NT. And because any PC surgery carries risks, "Bad Medicine" warns of dangers these programs can present.

If you'd rather not buy a separate file manager, disk scanner, and so on, go for a utilities suite. Of these, Nuts & Bolts sports a simple interface and file management tools. If you need more robust utilities--and better defragging and recovery--pick the slightly more expensive Norton Utilities.

FILE MANAGER Mijenix's PowerDesk Utilities 98 is everything Windows Explorer should have been, and more. You get the best of Explorer and the Windows 3.1 File Manager, plus encryption and file synchronization.

FILE COMPRESSOR Mijenix's ZipMagic lets your zipped archives act like standard Windows folders, so you can use the files without unzipping them.

FILE VIEWER There are many pluses in Inso's Quick View Plus 4.5: This easy-to-use upgrade to Windows' Quick View adds support for dozens of file formats. Built-in unzipping and other features help make oddball files easier to manage.

DIAGNOSTICS Alas, no product stood out as a stand-alone diagnostic program. But if you want a good crash recovery utility, see "Crash Prevention and Recovery," below.

DISK SCANNER The Disk Minder utility included in Nuts & Bolts (from Network Associates) is the best disk scanner around, repairing damaged files that the other products we tested couldn't. It's also the fastest of the bunch.

UNINSTALLER The best overall performer in our tests was CyberMedia's Uninstaller 4.51. The program removes newly installed applications flawlessly, and its interface and documentation are easy to understand.

DEFRAGMENTER Speed Disk, part of Symantec's Norton Utilities, is the fastest and best at defragmenting.

CRASH PREVENTION AND RECOVERY With its familiar browserlike interface, CyberMedia's First Aid 98 Deluxe is the best crash recovery utility.



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