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article imageOp-Ed: Windows tools for tinkerers Special

By Jack Kapica     Jun 9, 2009 in Technology
The joy and the horror of the Windows operating system is its need for constant mollycoddling. In the first of a two roundups on the latest utilities for Windows, we look at suites to keep your system humming
Windows users are tinkerers — they have to be, because Microsoft designed Windows that force this role on them. Sometimes users curse tinkering, and are urged by well-meaning friends to turn their loyalties to other operating systems. But generally they accept their fate.
It’s like owning a car in the 1920s, when it was unthinkable to drive anywhere without a box of tools and the knowledge what to do with them. Eventually we will all expect foolproof systems, but until Microsoft designs a tinker-free system we will have to make do. Or switch to Macs.
Complicating everything is the fact we’re on the cusp of a minor Windows earthquake: More people are using 64-bit versions of Windows, and Microsoft is preparing Windows 7 for release later this year. So software utilities must not only be ready for 64-bit systems, but also for Windows 7’s new features.
I’ve received a bunch of Windows utilities recently for review, and most of them work on both 32-bit and 64-bit systems. I have also tried them out on an advance copy of Windows 7, and most work with that too, which appears to confirm my belief that Windows 7 will be what Vista was supposed to have been.
iolo System Mechanic 8.0, from iolo
There are several good Windows cleaners out there, and you can buy one that suits your level of expertise. iolo’s System Mechanic, now in version 8.5 (iolo technologies, founded in 1998, boasts more than 22 milliion users and is available in four languages in 14 countries), belongs to the easy class, although it inclides five "Power Tools" and more than 40 Individual tools for more serious tinkerers and computer-savvy users. (It works with 32-bit and 64-bit installations of Windows 2000, XP, Vista and Windows 7).
By easy I mean it presents a comprehensible menu from the installation and opening screens. All you really should know (though it’s not mandatory) is what it means to clean a registry, remove spyware, defragment your hard disk and remove Internet clutter.
Now hard-core geeks might urge you to get a series of free utilities that do the same things, such as CCleaner, Ad-Aware, Spybot Search and Destroy, and use the defragmenter that comes with Windows. There’s something to be said for this, but if you’re worried you might screw things up with a truckload of free software, a package like this can be reassuring.
Besides, System Mechanic adds a few more tools not usually found in free software, including options to Increase Performance, Free Up Disk Space, Repair Problems, Ensure Personal Privacy, Manage System Configuration, and Perform Diagnostics. Another, called DriveSense, monitors the hard drive’s activity and its temperature. This includes a registry cleaner, a disk-repair tool, a shortcut repairer, a startup optimizer, its own program uninstaller and a secure file eraser. And it can be easily configured to perform these tasks regularly, at times convenient to you.
There's also an iolo-created tool called ActiveCare, which tracks your CPU usage and, when it detects that your computer is on but not in use, it automatically launches itself and sets about cleaning everything up.
The cleaning works extremely well and without fuss. Moreover, it warns you what it’s about to do, but it might annoy people who want to know more details about what it is doing — what was really wrong with all those registry items that need fixing? (This, admittedly, is a problem with all registry cleaners.) And you have to dig a little in the program to find out what settings it tweaked to optimize Internet speed. Another frustration is the absence of the animated time-remaining bar to let you know long each process might take.
iolo System Mechanic is a subscription service — $34.97 (U.S.) a year for three licenses; $52.45 for two years and $68.18 for three years.The service allows you to download tool updates as they become available and entitles subscribers to a free version update,such as System Mechanic 9, due next month.
Since you can have three installations, you can share its benefits with other members of your family. But it won’t work across networks.
PCTuneUp 2.0, from Large Software
PC Tune-Up 2.0 ($30 U.S.), is designed for those who don’t want to be bothered with the details of cleaning up the computer.
This utility offers similar tools, including system and registry backup, creation of system restore points (in case of a system crash), registry defragmentation tool and a “Smart Scan" that reports on problems in need of fixing. And it’s an outright purchase ($29.95, with only one installation) — no subscription. It operates on Windows 2000, XP, Vista and Windows 7, but not for 64-bit systems.
The opening screen offers four steps to cleaning your computer: Back Up your System; Scan for Problems; Repair Found Problems; Defrag Your Computer. You can select any one of these options, or press the “Magic Button” to run all three.
Warning: With PC Tune-Up you need to configure two of those functions before you continue. Back Up needs to know where to put your backup files, and defragmenting your computer is a process that takes ages — you certainly don’t want to configure the program to run automatically on powering up. You can configure backups and defrag processes in the Advanced Options area, which offers some control — such as telling it how much space you want to set aside for backup configurations (it defaults to Windows defaults), and set how often the “Magic Button” will run on startup.
After that, everything works as expected. It offers a detailed description of the problems it encounters, and you can make the corrections with a single click, or select which of the listed problems you want to fix. But that’s for advanced users; eventually, most users will press the "Repair All" button.
More adventurous users will want to check out the Advanced Options section on Optimization. You can clean out the System Cache, the Prefetch entries, as well as a startup optimizer (you can control what is launched during system start, but do so only if you’re sure of what you’re doing). It all adds up to performance boosts for starting the computer and shutting it down.
I like the program’s flexibility, in catering to users who want a safe computer cleaner, and also to those who know something about what they’re doing.
But the best thing about it is its “footprint” — how much disk space it takes. And that’s all of 3 megabytes, an astonishing exercise in compact programming.
Norton Utilities 14, from Symantec
Peter Norton, an astute programmer, created a wildly successful series of system tools for DOS-based computers in the early 1980s. The tools were ported to the Windows system and, in 1990, Norton sold the tools and his name to Symantec, the antivirus people. Symantec folded the utilities into Norton SystemWorks in 2003, where they stayed until 2007. Now Norton Utilities has been revived as a standalone package, supporting Windows XP and Vista (32 and 64-bit), refreshed with code that Symantec bought with its acquisition of PC Tools; its licence was also modified to allow installation on up to three computers (for $54.13 Cdn.). The package includes Registry Defragmenter, Registry Cleaners, Disk Cleaner, Disk Defragmenter, Startup Manager, Service Manager, Restore Centre, System Optimizer, Process Viewer, and Performance Test.
This is a venerable brand from one of the most revered programmers and the world’s bestselling antivirus maker. Will it chase the competition away?
Let’s put it this way: It’s a serious tool for serious users.But it might to too serious a tool -- Symantec has always had a heavy hand with the Norton utilities, allowing them to chew up a lot of system resources simply running in the background.
The first thing I did was to test Norton Registry Cleaner, which reported 188 problems after it had been cleaned by TuneUp Utilities 2009. I have no way of telling if that’s a good thing or not. Most of these errors reported that “Highlighted value is missing or invalid” and offers you the opportunity to either keep the registry key as is or delete it. I’m not sure how many people, even seasoned computer users, will have the foggiest notion of how to make an informed decision or the patience to find out. Clicking “Repair all” … well, repairs everything. Usually without problems.
Another section, called Manage Your Services, assumes you know what a Windows service is (they’re programs running in the background that require no input from the user). Sometimes their ranks become overpopulated and the system slows dramatically. To put some speed back into your computer Norton lets you decide which services you want to run, and offers two “profiles” to use — Recommended and Minimal Services. Open either and you will be told in engineering language what each service is. But Norton won’t tell you what each does and why you might not need it, only suggesting you take their word for it. There is also a third option, to restore the services to the last known good setup. So it’s not a destructive choice to make.
Clean Your Disks deletes unneeded files, including browsing or documents history. It will also clean out the histories of all data created by every program in Microsoft Office, so it’s promoted as protecting your privacy. You can further “bleach” free space, meaning cleaning it of all ghost files that you might find embarrassing if someone found them.
Manage Your Startup is a method for choosing which programs to run on system start; Installing new programs often entails getting some well-meaning but memory-hogging application to chew up system resources. Unfortunately, the feature comes with no recommendations; the best program I’ve seen for startup cleaning is still The Ultimate Troubleshooter (http://www.answersthatwork.com), which gives you the straight goods in great detail and with a sense of humour too.
There are also options to defragment the registry or the hard disk.
A separate set of menus govern the monitoring of your system, which includes a peek into the background, where the processes are running. Much like the processes you see in the Windows Task Manager. Again, Norton makes no suggestion what to do with that knowledge.
It’s disappointing to see that an entire section dedicated to “Windows Tools” is just that. Windows Update, System Restore, Control Panel are simply shortcuts to utilities within Windows. Nothing of added value here, except the convenience of having the links all in one place.
So yes, this is a serious tool for serious users, and so should not compare to the other tools.
TuneUp Utilities 2009 from TuneUp Software GmbH
Comparatively, TuneUp Software, based in Darmstadt, Germany, is the Cadillac of Windows utilities. The company is reported to be scrambling in preparation for Windows 7. It released a version of TuneUp Utilities for Windows 7 beta, but then Microsoft released Windows 7 Release Candidate a few weeks back, and TuneUp ran into some difficulties. In the meantime, the suite runs nicely on XP and Vista, in both 32-bit and 64-bit installations ($49.95 U.S., for installation on up to three computers).
Created 11 years ago by, TUU09 (as it’s sometimes called) was intended to be a complete package for the optimization Windows, and ran under the name TuneUp 97 — The Intelligent Tuning Tool. Since 2003, TuneUp has been selling internationally, now claiming more than 10 million users in seven languages.
Like most other tuning suites, TUU09 offers cleaning of temporary files, a registry cleaner, a start-up optimizer, a defragmenter, file undelete and an uninstall utility. It also features some less familiar tools: It has Internet and program-acceleration tweaks as well as Windows performance enhancers. There’s a memory optimizer that helps prevent program crashes, a file shredder (erases ghost files too) and a recovery system for deleted files. Maintenance tasks can be scheduled, and there’s a really nice styling tool to tweak Windows’ appearance with a lot of nice eye candy available online from the Tune-Up.com site. If you’re afraid you’ve done something horrible, there’s a built-in Rescue Centre that restores changes all at once or individually.
The trick to TUU09 is its organization, not necessarily in its specific tools, although they seem to work faster and more efficiently than competing suites. From the opening screen to all the sub-menus, it’s clear what has to be done, and how to do it. It tells you in clear language what it recommends you do to improve performance, and what it is doing to your computer.
For instance, the registry cleaner sorts the errors into categories; you can click on an error for a brief description or double-click it to go to the error right inside the registry.
As a result, TUU09 is an impressive collection of tools to clean and streamline the operating system to help improve performance. And it’s good for all users, from beginners (who can use the one-click optimization setting) to more daring ones who will want to explore all the subtle changes it can make.
TUU09’s careful and clear organization instills a greater sense of confidence in running it and making the changes — this is crucial to all users who have had to rely too much on faith in the obscure geekery of so many tune-up programs.
The bottom line? If you’re feeling insecure about tweaking your system, go for iolo’s System Mechanic or Large Software’s PCTuneUp. If you’re a real wizard, go for Norton Utilities; but for most of us, TuneUp Utilities 2009 will do a splendid job and leave you feeling you’ve accomplished something.
Sometimes it’s all that’s required to make a good program great.
Reviewed on a computer built around an Intel motherboard and Intel Pentium D Dual-core processor running 64-bit Vista and Windows 7.
Next: Programs to rescue data from disasters.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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