Computer journalism is responsible for many clichés. One of these is that a computer is similar to a car. Look at the cover of any computer magazine: ‘Supercharge your PC!’ it will say, offering ‘performance tweaks and tips!’. The computer/car analogy is true up to a point. Regular maintenance helps keep your car running smoothly. And a bit of loving care works wonders for your computer too. But cars don’t crash every half hour.
Most of the diagnostic tools within Windows are hidden at the very top of the Start Menu, under Programs/Accessories. Here you’ll find Disk Defragmenter, which can reorder your files so that the popular programs are at the beginning of the disk and not scattered in bits and pieces from front to back. You’ll also find DriveSpace which can compress your disk’s data to around 1/3 to 1/2 the size, making much more space available instantly (there’s a slight payoff with performance, however).
Windows 95 was praised for coming with useful tools but Windows 98 did even better, proving registry fixing tools along with a start-up manager (under Programs/Accessories/System Information) and System File Checker (located as previous). But not everybody was happy with the new tools. Companies like Symantec had previously made a living in this gap prior to the ‘expansion’ of Windows’ feature set. Nonetheless, their Norton Utilities product still proves popular and is currently on version 2000 (which doesn’t indicate 1999 previous attempts but merely cashed in on supposed millennium fever).
Norton Utilities goes beyond Windows’ own tools, providing programs such as CrashGuard, which intercepts crashes and stalls them for a few minutes so you can save your work. Other programs in the suite also aim to diagnose problems with your hardware, software and dial-up Internet connection. Also lookout for Cybermedia’s FirstAid 2000 which does much the same thing, and Mijenix FitIt! Tools.
However, it’s only a matter of time before Microsoft catches up and provides similar tools as standard. The Windows Me operating system already includes ‘roll-back’ software which lets you restore Windows to a previous state – much to the chagrin of PowerQuest and Adaptec, the developers of Second Chance and Go Back respectively, which perform much the same task.
One area Microsoft will probably never occupy, simply because it would treble calls to their tech help line, is disk partition management. Windows comes with FDISK, an old but still essential DOS utility that lets you carve up your hard disk into partitions prior to installing Windows.
A company called PowerQuest wondered why nobody had made a utility that gave you FDISK’s functionality but without the devastation – FDISK could only work on a blank disk and obliterated everything if used on a disk already full of data. PartitionMagic was thus unleashed and let people make new partitions or alter their file system to achieve more economic use of clusters, all without damaging the existing installation of Windows. It was so popular that other programs such as PartitionIt! (exclamation marks are common with utility software) followed.
A few other utilities take a similar line: System Commander lets you carve up your disk in order to install many operating systems, such as Linux or Beos in addition to Windows, for example, along with data recovery tools and the ubiquitous anti-virus software. The Windows utility market is not likely to get smaller, at least not in the short term.