Win95 Uninstall Programs: A dangerous crowd?

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First published in Toronto Computes, April 1998

Imsi WinDelete 97
approx. $30-50, for Win95/NT

CyberMedia MicroHelp Uninstaller ver 4.5
approx $50, for Win95/NT

Symantec Norton Uninstall Deluxe
approx. $60, for Win95/NT

There are a couple of things about Windows computers that still give Mac owners reason to gloat.

For example, install a typical Mac program, and a few files get copied onto your hard drive, maybe some preference files go into neat and tidy locations in the System folder. These simple additions are equally simple to remove if desired.

Try the same in your Windows 95 machine? hundreds of small files into the program folder. Dozens of DLL files (and others) into the general Windows\System folder (sometimes overwriting newer versions of the same files, causing other programs to crash). Multiple undocumented additions to the obscure but vital Windows Registry. A mess!

Win 95 developers have to include an uninstall routine. Unfortunately, too many of these don?t quite work as advertised, leaving bits and pieces scattered throughout the system. And older, Windows 3.1 programs often lack uninstall routines entirely.

A few years of installing and deleting software can leave a Windows 95 system slowed down with unneeded files and Registry settings, sapping performance.

A marketing opportunity

I?m not the only one to smell a product niche here? at least half-a dozen companies have released programs promising to help uninstall Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 programs. Each tries to add value by including other general cleanup functions.

We?re looking at three:
WinDelete 97

WinDelete 97 is the most affordable of the collection. It promises to be ?The Only Complete Uninstaller, including Virus Protection, Zip, Optimization, and Internet Management?. Some of these functions, however, are the result of 3rd-party add-ins that are not integrated into the main program. The CD includes registered versions of McAfee?s VirusScan for Win95 and Nt along with a ZIP utility and a system benchmark and tuning utility, but these are not documented and have to be installed separately.

Like the other programs reviewed, WinDelete offers to install a program that runs in the background and monitors future program installations. Like the other programs, this option is not selected by default, but is useful for simplifying future program removals.

WinDelete offers a mix of well-thought out and poorly-thought out options. Like the competition, for example, it allows a user to look through a list of Start Menu and Desktop icons, and select one for uninstallation. Like the other programs, it offers the vital ability to archive or backup a program, instead of simply deleting it. Unlike the competition, however, it doesn?t offer a simple way to remove a program if its icon isn?t included in the Start Menu or on the Desktop?you can?t select a program that may be left behind in a folder on your hard disk.

There is, however, a nice Integrity Check function, not duplicated in the competitor?s offerings? this checks system files like AUTOEXEC.BAT, highlighting any references to non-existent files or folders. The Internet functions nicely let you remove unneeded Netscape plug-ins, along with the tons of cached files that often clog systems.

It?s also the only program of the three that checks for orphaned DLL files?program library files left behind after the main program is gone. It warns that this could be dangerous? as I found out; after running this ?feature?, the spell check in my copy of Microsoft Works no longer ran.

CyberMedia Uninstaller

Claiming over 2 million copies sold, Uninstaller (originally from MicroHelp, now marked by CyberMedia) is designed to look like a bright-orange box of laundry detergent, promising to keep your system clean. It includes a bonus copy of Dr. Solomon?s Anti-Virus utility.

When run for the first time, it takes 5-10 minutes to inventory your system, creating a ?SmartLinks? database, that it then uses to map program connections. The interface seems simpler and more understandable than WinDelete?s. Compared to that program, it also offers more choices of types of files to clean up, such as unregistered fonts and empty folders.

Be warned, however, that this means it will offer to remove many types of files that you may in fact want?all those frills that make computing more personal: wallpaper, screen savers, cursors and icons, clipart, and multimedia files. Similarly, the lists of ?unregistered executables? includes lots of useful program files? it is too easy to delete such files without warning. You can select individual files for removal, or skip these type of files entirely, but an uninformed user could delete a lot of files that they really want to keep.

As with the other programs of this type, deleted files and settings are archived by default?so if you change your mind, most changes can be restored.

The program does a good job of checking the Registry, and cleaning up settings pointing to programs that are no longer on your computer.

More attractive and better implemented than WinDelete, but it?s too easy for users to remove files they actually need.

Norton Uninstall Deluxe

Symantec is the new contestant in the bunch?their program is a brand new version 1.0.

They?ve obviously been paying attention to the competition, and have produced an attractive program with a feature set that?s virtually identical to Cybermedia?s. Like that program, for example, it scans your system the first time it?s run. The optional Install Guard utility does a nice job of monitoring program installations?unlike the similar features in the other utilities, it offers user the option of trying out a program, and cleaning it out if it doesn?t live up to expectations.

Like other Symantec utilities, such as the well-known Norton Utilities, it wants to appeal to the power-user market. As such, it provides more information about what it?s doing that the competitors? programs while scanning or removing programs. The added details may not actually mean anything, but it looks informative!

Unfortunately, its features don?t always live up to the promise. For example, like CyberMedia Uninstaller, it offers to remove unregistered fonts? but on my system, it only found one such font?run immediately afterwards, Uninstaller found an additional 98 that had not been recognized by the Symantec utility.

As a bonus, the CD includes copies of a wide range of Symantec products, ranging from the Norton Utilities and AntiVirus to Java and web page creation software. These are fully functioning, but self-destruct after 30 days.

What to get?

None of these programs manage to get my personal Must Buy recommendation. WinDelete and Cybermedia Uninstaller can be too dangerous, while Symantec Uninstaller doesn?t fulfill all its promises. I may simply stick to a different option: PC Magazine offers a range of free utilities, including one, In Control, that can be used to monitor program installations. The saved installation report can then be used to manually remove added items. Tedious, but reliable.

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