PC Utilities Roundup 1997

by Alan Zisman (c) 1997. First published in Toronto Computes, September 1997

FirstAid 97
CyberMedia, Inc.

Nuts and Bolts
Helix Software Co.

PC Medic 97
McAfee Associates

Way way back, just after dawn of personal computer history, Peter Norton discovered that deleted files weren't really gone-with the help of a clever utility, they could often be recovered. With that discovery, both a software category-disk and file utilities, and a dynasty-Norton Utilities, was born. Now, three competitive products are looking to become the new King of the Utilities Suites. We'll take a look at the contenders here.

All of these products share many features. Each offers a program, similar to Norton's new Crash Guard feature,  that can lurk in the background, protecting your system from crash-happy software. Each installs basic protection against viruses. And each combines easy use for novices with customizability and depth for would-be power users.

Cybermedia First Aid 97

Cybermedia is a company on a roll. Their Windows Uninstaller helps users clean up their hard drives from the clutter left behind by unused software. Oil Change provides an innovative method of automatically informing users of hardware driver and software updates-and offers to automatically download and install them. But it's their First Aid product that is challenging the Norton Utilities, and appearing on software best-seller lists in the process.

Recently upgraded to look for hardware conflicts as well as software problems, First Aid 97 includes a Knowledge Base full of solutions for common hardware and software problems. One click, and the program gives your computer a 'Check Up' making corrections for optimal performance. If you prefer, you can call 'The Specialist' to focus on a specific problem in more depth, or 'The Advisor' to access its Knowledge Base directly. You can even update the Knowledge Base over the Internet.

The Windows Guardian intercepts crashes, and can reactivate locked programs. It can give warning in advance of potentially failing hardware. A basic version of Dr. Solomon's AntiVirus program is included, as is a version of CyberMedia's OilChange, limited to keeping FirstAid updated.

The Deluxe version adds "The Official Tech Support Yellow Pages book", and two multimedia tutorials- one for Windows 95, the other for the Internet.

The program does an exceptional job of integrating the Internet, from updating itself, to connecting to manufacturers' Web pages for information that isn't available in its Knowledge Base.

Helix Nuts and Bolts

Helix Software has, for years, produced DOS and Windows memory management products such as Helix Hurricane, which while never leading their product categories in sales have tended to include the most advanced technology in their class.

Their new product, Nuts and Bolts, continues the tradition, with a series of utilities, each of which provides more features and ease of use than the comparable Norton Utility.

Its 20 or so features are divided into four groups-Repair & Recover, Clean & Optimize, Prevent & Protect, and Secure & Manage. For example, R&R's DiskMinder resembles Microsoft's ScanDisk or Norton's Disk Doctor, but finds and fixes more category of errors than either. (The other two reviewed products simply automatically call on Win95's ScanDisk to check for disk errors).

DiskTune, in the C&O group, similarly resembles Win95's built-in Defrag, or Norton's Speedisk, but smarter-it can optimize your disk so the most frequently-accessed files are at the most easily-accessed front of the disk... if you so desire. As with all features in this software, it's completely user-customizable.

Other tools locate duplicate files, clean and rebuild the Registry, and encrypt documents. There's even a low-level Disk Editor, enabling power users total low-level control of their hard disks... and more power than Norton's version. The single product installs on both Win 95 and Win 3.1 systems, and be run on systems with as little as 4 megs of ram.

McAfee PC Medic 97

McAfee Associates is best known for their Viruscan anti-virus product, with wide shareware distribution. PC Medic targets FirstAid 97 as its main competition. While it offers fewer features, it has a similar, one-click interface. While limited, its features, such as the Diagnosis module are more powerful, and faster than the competition's version.
Like CyberMedia's product, it uses a medical metaphor: Diagnosis can check your machine to determine optimum multimedia settings-and offers to make changes for you. And like FirstAid 97, it offers a broad database of information, in this case, referred to as 2nd Opinion.

The other features of this product are built on McAfee's other software offerings- it includes a strong backup module, which supports many tape drives, as well as ZIP and JAZ drives, and rewritable CDs. It even allows you to use a tape drive as a (very slow) hard disk, for easier reading and writing. And its antivirus software is a limited-feature version of its own well-known Viruscan.

PC Medic works along with BackWeb to use Internet push technology for automated updates. Subscribers to the MediCast channel will receive notification of new versions, which can be downloaded in the background and easily installed.

All three products successfully challenge the reigning Norton Utilities champion... FirstAid 97 for ease of use, Nuts and Bolts for its depth of features, and PC Medic 97 for its strong diagnosis, backup and antivirus modules.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan