Use utilities to tune up your Win95 machine

by Alan Zisman (c) 1997. First published in Computer Player (Vancouver), January 1997. Also appeared in Toronto Computes and Ottawa Computes.

Symantec Norton Utilities, $150
Symantec Norton AntiVirus, $70; Symantec Corporation; 1-800-441-7234;
Microsoft Plus!, $60
Microsoft PowerToys, free; Microsoft Corporation; 1-800-426-9400;
Hurricane Helix, $xx; Helix Software; 1-800-451-0551;
McAfee VirusScan, $65; McAfee Associates; 1-800-866-6585;

If an operating system like Windows 95, OS/2, or the Mac OS are like the engine that determines how your computer runs, then using utilities are like getting the oil changed, the engine tuned, and having an Automobile Association membership, with someone to call if the darn thing just won't start up.

And like with a car, some of us will want to spend a lot of time fussing with-getting it to look, feel, and run just the way we want. Others will be happy with it just the way it came from the factory, and will want to do the minimum, just as long as it keeps running.

Windows 95 celebrated its first birthday last August 24th-enough time for users to find the strengths of the operating system, along with the areas needing improvement, and for software companies to release products to try and fill their ideas of the gaps. In fact, with a number of these products now into their second generation of releases, it's a good time to take a look at some of what's available.

What's in the box?

Like earlier versions of DOS and Windows, Win95 includes several utilities, right in the package. DriveSpace 2 lets users compress their hard drives. Defrag optimizes disks, improving performance by putting fragmented files back together. Scandisk checks for file system and physical errors.

While they all work as advertised, they are pretty basic versions (If you have nothing better, by all means, use them... in fact, use Defrag and Scandisk regularly). And unlike DOS 6, for example, no anti-virus program is included.

Norton Utilities for ultimate peace of mind

Symantec's Norton Utilities package has, for years, provided industrial strength tools, first for DOS, then for Windows. Their Win95 version has just been released as a new version 2.0, which supports Microsoft's new FAT32 for hard disks larger than 2 gigabytes. It continues to provide a strong set of replacements for many of the core Win95 utilities. SpeedDisk, in particular, is much more functional than Microsoft's Defrag, allowing users to sort folders and files for example, and by optimizing the swap file, improves performance. I'm not convinced, however, that Norton Disk Doctor is much of an improvement over Win95's built-in Scandisk. Norton beefs up Recycle Bin for users who delete files from the DOS prompt-the standard Recycle Bin does not provide any protection for those files. Included DOS versions of many utilities provide protection against the possibility that Win95 just won't start. While many users won't need to use most of this package regularly, its major benefit is to provide peace of mind-knowing that its protection is on hand in case anything major goes wrong.

Microsoft's Plus!... or is that a minus?

Released at the same time as the core Win95 package, Microsoft's Plus! Package includes an odd mix of useful bits and fluff. DriveSpace 3 lets users create compressed partitions as big as 2 gigs, compared to the 512 meg limit for the standard DriveSpace. It can also be used to minimize drive space lost to cluster slack. But with big, cheap hard disks, drive compression is much less necessary. System Agent runs in the background, automatically running other utilities such as ScanDisk or Defrag, at set times when the computer is otherwise idle. But aside from that, Plus! consists of cute frills-desktop themes that provide sets of sounds, icons, and wallpaper. A nice pinball game. An obsolete version of Internet Explorer web browser (the current version can be obtained for free from For most users, not a must-buy.

Every Win95 user, however, should get a copy of Microsoft's free PowerToys. This collection of mini-utilities is available at, and was written by Win95 programmers in their, no doubt, copious free time. The TweakUI utility is, perhaps, the most useful-it adds itself to the Control Panel, and allows users to tweak the Win95 desktop and boot process. The SendTo utility makes copying and moving files with Explorer or My Computer much more efficient.

While at Microsoft's Web site, go to and check for the latest patches and updates. Some are only needed with obscure hardware combinations-but they're well described-- if any look useful, get them and apply them.

Double your memory, double your fun?

Microsoft claims that Win95 can run on a machine with as little as 4 megs of memory (RAM). That's true. Sort of. It will install, and will start up, but 'run'?. 8 megs starts to be usable, and 16 megs allows fairly reasonable performance. Even with the recent drop in RAM prices, many users still have 8 megs installed, and many notebook users are stuck with machines that remain difficult or expensive to upgrade.

Ram compression software has been popular, and reasonably effective on the Macintosh platform for several years-and several such products were released late in 1994 for Windows 3.1 and then Win95. Many users felt that the products did not perform as promised, however. In fact, market leader SoftRam 95 was taken off the shelves, after impartial reviews suggested that it did little or nothing.

Helix Hurricane doesn't promise to 'double your RAM'.  It does, however, use compression technology to effectively increase Windows performance (both Win 3.1 and Win95 versions are included in the package). It does this by finding little-used pieces of memory (on your video card, for example), and using these for a compressed-RAM cache used prior to the swap disk on your hard drive. Normally, when it runs low on RAM, Windows uses the swap disk space-but this is much slower than real RAM. By using its cache first, Hurricane provides more effective RAM with better performance.

Win95 users with 8 megs of standard RAM will be better off simply buying more RAM before prices rise again; notebook users, faced with higher prices may want to give this product a look.

It's flu season-even on your computer

Computer viruses are back-in a new form. Macro viruses, originally affecting Microsoft Word documents, but now in varieties for Microsoft Excel and other products, are accounting for increasing proportions of infections. Unlike traditional viruses, these can infect your system simply by reading an infected document... and some forms can be spread between Macs and PCs.

For that reason, it's more important than ever to get a virus checker, and to ensure that it's frequently updated to cope with the latest infections. Last year's model simply isn't very useful.

The new version 2.0 of Symantec's Norton AntiVirus  (NAV) for Win95 (also available in Windows 3.1, Win NT, and Macintosh versions) has a neat feature (shared with the latest Norton Utilities). With Live Update, a single-click logs onto Symantec's BBS or Web site, checks for any new virus definitions, downloads, and installs the update. By making it easier to keep the utility up to date, it makes virus infections more unlikely.

Despite this big plus, it's difficult to recommend NAV without qualification. Competitor McAfee, creator of the popular shareware VirusScan (available in DOS, Win 3.1, and Win95 versions) has taken Symantec to court. McAfee suggests that Symantec advertising, claiming that NAV recognizes and removes the most macro viruses, is misleading... that, in fact, independent tests show that VirusScan removes more of the viruses that are actually found 'in the wild'.

Some people wear both belts and suspenders. With viruses, there's no such thing as too safe-get several products, use them regularly, and update them regularly.

What's left?

We haven't covered anywhere near all available products-there are at least 200 Win95 utility packages. We haven't even mentioned all product categories, not even what's available in the Win 95 box. We will be running additional reviews of other utilities products in upcoming issues.

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