New utility software packages help users
lower the cost of keeping computers healthy - Nov 18 1997

Over the last year or two, there's been a lot of discussion in computer circles of what it actually costs to own and operate a computer. And while even getting two experts to agree on a figure can be an impossible task, it seems clear that new technology is simply too complicated and too unreliable for many users.

One result is over 200 million phone calls a year asking computer vendors for help, at a cost to the industry of about $4 billion annually, an expense that's rising by 20 per cent a year.

Several innovative companies are now producing products aiming at helping end users configure their computers, update their software or protect their systems. I've been particularly impressed with the product lines from two small but growing software developers.

Santa Monica-based CyberMedia (www.
) has produced several titles that keep appearing on PC software best-seller lists, such as FirstAid-97. As the name suggests, that program aims to automatically recognize and fix thousands of common computer problems -- from software and hardware conflicts to faulty configurations. Like all of CyberMedia's products, it's designed for the vast majority of users who don't want to fiddle endlessly with options, but who are looking for software that will do the job quietly in the background.

CyberMedia's Oil Change builds up a list of the user's installed software and hardware, then checks whether the latest versions are installed. If desired, users can automatically download and install newer versions with a single mouse click, while backing up the older versions in case of problems. The program will even automatically update itself to the just-released version 2.0.

The newest release in the company's software lineup is Guard Dog. It aims to provide home and small office users who access the Internet the sort of protection corporate networks get from a firewall -- the ability to limit what comes in across the Net, and what personal information goes out.

The program starts, like many other programs, with antivirus protection, but also blocks potentially hostile Java and ActiveX applets, which run programs on the user's computer. Web surfers can limit 'cookies' (bits of information written on the hard drives, noting where they've been) and can ban unauthorized access to personal or financial information. Like all the CyberMedia line, it uses a limited version of Oil Change to keep itself up-to-date -- a particularly welcome feature in an antivirus and security program. Costing about $75, this one looks very useful.

Unlike CyberMedia's products, the utility programs from Oram, Utah's PowerQuest (, are aimed at more technically sophisticated users -- perhaps 'power users,' who want tools to help them get the most out of their hardware, or who are supporting a number of users in a large organization.

Their best-known product, Partition Magic, lets users stretch, shrink, and rearrange hard disk partitions. This can make it possible to run multiple operating systems, to store and back up data more efficiently, or to let multiple users share a single computer. Using multiple, smaller partitions can free up 30 - 40 per cent more space on a drive compared to a single large partition. And while DOS/Windows 95 includes a free partitioning utility, FDISK, using it destroys the data on the drive. Partition Magic is nondestructive, and features an easy-to-use graphical interface.

With big hard drives dropping in price, many users are wanting to upgrade the drives on their current systems. Power-Quest's DriveCopy simplifies the process of copying the contents of your old, small drive onto the new, more spacious replacement. And their latest product, DriveImage, takes that idea one step further.

With DriveImage, it's quick and simple to copy an entire system to a compressed image file across the network, or onto another drive such as a removable ZIP or JAZ drive. While this can be used by an individual user to upgrade a hard drive, it can be a real time saver for setting up a large number of identical, networked machines.

A few weeks ago, this column looked at the new generation of digital PCS portable telephones. While mentioning three companies competing in this market, the column neglected to mention that BC Tel Mobility and Clearnet are also active in that growing field, with BC Tel claiming the largest area coverage in the province and Clearnet claiming low prices for its service. And reader Guido Lepore responded to that column's wish for a unit that combined a digital phone with the ability to write a memo or browse the Internet; he used his PalmPilot Professional handheld computer, combined with a PCSI Pal phone, to e-mail me -- showing that with the right hardware, that capability is available now.*

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