Disk housekeeping utilities group test review

Drive management software
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SystemWorks really does do the works. As well as Ghost, covered elsewhere in this group test, the suite includes Norton Anti-Virus, Utilities, Password Manager, GoBack and CleanSweep, as well as WebTools and numerous other little helpers.

Some of these utilities are self-explanatory, with Norton Anti-Virus, for example, being one of the best-known forms of protection against unwanted visitors from the Internet. Automatically updated from the Symantec site for one year, this product costs half the purchase price of the suite on its own.

Norton Utilities is the second major player in the suite and divides down into seven different utilities. These include System Doctor, which monitors your PC for problems, Speed Disk, which improves hard drive performance by reorganising the data on the disk, and Disk Doctor, which analyses its file structure and partition tables.

Judicious use of all these applets can improve the sweet running of your PC, although if you install all the active performance monitors, you’ll notice a reduction in performance due to the diagnostics themselves.

Password Manager is of particular use for those who spend a lot of time online, as it encrypts all the passwords you keep for sites, e-mail and software access, while still leaving them accessible to you. It reduces the chance of identity theft with the minimum of fuss.

A couple of the utilities are not as useful as they used to be, because Microsoft has improved the way Windows handles the issues they address. Norton GoBack serves much the same purpose as Windows XP’s System Restore, for example, and CleanSweep removes installed applications in a similar way to Add/Remove Programs in Control Panel.

But even if you only use half the utilities on offer in SystemWorks 2004 Professional, it still represents good value for money.

Ghost is one of the original disk imaging tools, designed to take an exact copy of a disk partition to copy elsewhere. The main elements of the program are again Wizard-driven and you can save drive images to CD or DVD drives and to external and network drives. You can create a drive image from within Windows, but also using a Ghost boot disk, without having to install any operating system on your PC.

While its use for backup is undeniable, there are various restrictions to the program which hold it back. There’s no way within it to schedule a backup, for example, and facilities to use a ghosted image when upgrading a hard drive are a bit tortuous. There’s very little help on upgrading in the on-line manual and the overall feeling is that you need to be confident you can work on your own.

Ghost has a slightly different remit to some other imaging programs, as it’s often used by network supervisors and PC manufacturers to copy standard drive content to multiple PCs. Before Windows XP, Ghost used to be the basis for several suppliers’ system restore options.

One particular feature which helps with network management is the program’s peer-to-peer cloning. By connecting two PCs with similar specifications, either through their parallel printer or USB ports, Ghost can copy a drive image directly from one machine’s hard drive to the equivalent drive on the other. This is a much quicker process than building up, say, a Windows installation from scratch.

While Ghost is excellent at what it does, it lacks rather too many of the features of its main rivals. With Symantec’s recent acquisition of Drive Image 7, a generally more sophisticated imaging tool, it’ll be interesting to see whether both products continue to be marketed in parallel. It seems likely that they’ll be merged into one.

This is a major competitor to the likes of Partition Magic, and we first reviewed it here. Its whole aim in life is to make partition management something anybody can do. If you have several partitions on your hard drive and want to change their relative sizes, why should you have to re-build your system from scratch?

You install Partition Commander 8 under Windows, but when you run it the system restarts and a dedicated Linux implementation runs with the actual application in a pseudo-Windows environment.

Here there are all the main functions you’d expect a partition manager to be able to handle, all wrapped up in a series of Wizards. You can use the Partition Wizard to resize existing partitions or build new ones and the BackStep Wizard to undo those changes you don’t want to apply.

As you’re working with your different partitions, a graphical display shows the way your drive is structured and how any changes will leave it looking. You don’t have to implement any alterations until you can see what you’ll be getting.

There are several extras supplied with the program, including System Commander, which is a boot manager enabling you to start up different operating systems, even within the same partition. There’s also Copy Commander, which helps when migrating an image from one drive to another. This is a good solution when upgrading a hard drive.

The program can handle FAT32 and NTFS Windows partitions and is also good for ext2, ext3 and ReiserFS Linux partitions. With Windows 2000 and XP, you can also convert Dynamic drive partitions back into Basic ones, if you no longer need the extra facilities of the Dynamic formatting.

Although it can be a little unnerving to move from the security of a Windows environment, the look-alike quality of the specialist environment VCom has created soon makes you feel at home and the power and clarity of the utilities in this package give it a firm thumbs up.

With all the extra automation that Microsoft keeps building into Windows, you might think that disk housekeeping software is a thing of the past. In fact, it’s needed just as much today as it has ever been, though not everybody will find a use for all the utilities on offer.

Most housekeeping tasks come down to fiddling with your hard drive. Whether it’s to create a backup of your system disk to protect yourself from catastrophic hardware failure, or the need to manage hard drive partitions to get the most out of your available storage, it’s changes to the information on your fixed drive that matter most.

If you stop and think about it, the contents of your hard drive define your PC. All your Windows settings, the applications you have available and the documents you create are a function of the storage on your hard drive – change the hard drive and you change the ‘personality’ of your PC.

Utilities that can make essential changes to the structure of your hard drive and take steps to secure its contents need to be both effective and easy to use. Any change at this low level to the structure of your data comes with a risk of inadvertent damage, so it’s especially important that you understand what you’re doing at every step.

There are two main types of hard disk housekeeping utility we’re looking at here. There are utilities, typified by Ghost and Drive Image, which copy a complete image of everything on your hard drive onto a DVD, external drive or network server, so you can reinstate things if you have a drive failure or when you upgrade to a new device.

Then there are utilities to manage the partitions on your hard drive, the virtual divisions which split up your information onto different parts of the drive. These can be used to organise the way you store your stuff or to handle two or more different operating systems on the same PC.

Here are three examples of each type of utility, along with Norton SystemWorks Professional, a bundle from Symantec which aims to cover all the bases.

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When launched, Drive Image 7 was a PowerQuest product, but earlier this year that company was acquired by Symantec, so this product and its well-known partner, Partition Magic, are now both available from the home of Norton products.

Installation is a bit more involved than with some other utilities, as you need to install a copy of Microsoft’s .NET framework if it’s not already on your system. While this is all handled pretty painlessly, it takes quite a while. You must have at least 256MB of available memory, too.

Drive Image 7 provides all the basic functions you would expect of this kind of utility, and can handle them all from within Windows. You can create a drive image, restore it again or extract files from it one-by-one, as you need them.

You can also create a copy of your hard drive onto another drive, ideal when upgrading as the drives don’t have to be the same size. Should you need to run Drive Image without access to Windows, you can run from a boot disk using the PowerQuest Recovery Environment (PQRE).

You can schedule back-up jobs within Drive Image 7, so images can be created automatically, but there’s no facility for incremental back-up, so you may need substantial storage space if you’re going to maintain several images in a grandparent, parent, child sequence. To help with this, DriveImage 7 offers three levels of compression, from around 30 percent to something over 50 percent.

Drive Image 7 only runs under Windows 2000 and XP. An earlier version of the program, Drive Image 2002, is supplied in the box for Windows 98 and Me. However, important features of the new software, such as the ability to backup to DVD and external devices, are only available in the newer version.

Acronis specialises in hard drive housekeeping software and True Image is the company’s offering for saving and restoring complete hard drive images. It runs from Windows, but also includes a facility to prepare a boot floppy or CD, so you can get at the images even when Windows won’t load.

All the main tasks the program can undertake are Wizard-driven, taking you step-by-step through the process in a clear and logical way. Backups can be created on a variety of different media, including recordable CDs and DVDs, external drives connected through USB 2 or FireWire ports, and network drives.

You can restore complete images or selected files, making the program particularly versatile should you corrupt or inadvertently delete important information. Support on the desktop and in the PDF manual for cloning an image from one drive to another is particularly clear and, although Acronis also sells a dedicated utility for hard drive upgrading, True Image 7 handles this task well, too.

Backups can be scheduled automatically and options such as incremental backup are well explained. Incremental backup means True Image only saves sectors of the hard drive which have changed since the last backup. The key advantage is that the size of the backup is considerably smaller than with a complete drive image. It does mean, though, that you need to maintain at least one full image and a complete list of incremental supplements, to be able to restore a current image.

If you’re worried about inadvertently deleting a backup image, you can create what Acronis calls a Secure Zone, which holds just images and can’t be accessed directly from Windows – only through True Image. All these extra features, and the attractive price, make this modern piece of hard drive imaging software an attractive proposition.

A partition manager looks like a one-trick pony and you wonder why you should have to lay out so much to complete a single task… until you need to change the structure of your hard drive. Then, the thought of having to reformat it and reinstall everything to get Windows running becomes a nightmare. A utility which can do it all on the fly is suddenly no longer a luxury, but an essential.

Disk Director Suite 9 enables you to divide up existing partitions, create new ones and delete those which you no longer need. It does all this from within Windows and without losing any data in an active system. It works quite quickly, considering it’s making fundamental changes to the file structure of your PC.

As something of a blast from the past, Disk Director Suite 9 includes a hexadecimal disk editor, so if you want to get deep down and dirty, you can. You need to know what you’re doing, though, and we were concerned that when we tried to load a text file for viewing in the editor, the program asked us to confirm, told us the action was irreversible and promptly converted a different partition on our hard drive to RAW format. Good job we had a back-up. We’ve asked Acronis to explain this aberrant behaviour.

Disk Director Suite comes with Acronis OS Selector, a boot manager which enables you to set up two or more partitions to hold different operating systems. Apart from the outlined problem with the disk editor, the utility works well and offers automatic as well as manual modes for the nervous and less expert.

As it stands, however, we don’t feel comfortable recommending software which appears to work in this unpredictable fashion, particularly when data loss can result. The problem could be due to something we’ve done, but we don’t think so.

This is probably the best-known drive installation and upgrade manager in the world and Ontrack claims over 150 million copies have been sold. Rather than working with existing drives in a PC, it aims to provide painless installation of a primary or secondary hard drive, by providing all the information needed and automating the configuration process.

The main screen of Disk Manager 5 offers several options, but the main application is the installation tutorial. Here you select the drive you want to add to your PC and you can view or print out a checklist showing exactly what you need to do to install the drive, set up its jumpers and install an operating system.

What Disk Manager 5 does, it does extremely well, but it’s of much more use to PC builders or repairers than to the general user. It provides up-to-date information on a huge range of hard drives, including IDE, serial ATA and SCSI devices. This makes initial installation a very simple process, without the need to look up jumper settings and specifications in numerous technical manuals.

The information doesn’t end there, though, as the program can create a Data Adviser diskette, which will boot from cold and display detailed information on the status of your PC’s memory and, particularly, its hard drives. This is a really useful diagnostic tool which completes surface scans and a file structure analysis; ideal if your job involves sorting out sick PCs. Again, though, it’s a program you’re only likely to use when something goes wrong.

Disk Manager 5 can’t re-partition an active drive and includes no facilities for restructuring a drive without wiping its contents. You’ve really got be configuring a lot of PCs for its undoubted time-savings to make it a worthwhile purchase.

There’s little doubt of the value of these housekeeping programs, when you need them. Like so many things in computing, though, you probably have to get bitten by a problem they can solve before you realise what they have to offer. It’s like anti-virus software – until you’ve been hit by a virus attack, you can’t really perceive the benefits.

Of the drive imaging programs, we like True Image 7 from Acronis, because of its wide range of functions and their ease of use, through its suite of Wizards. If you look at the comparative table of features, you’ll see a huge column of ‘Yes’ entries under the True Image heading, showing that it provides all the features we consider important. Big advantages are things like its built-in scheduling and ability to produce incremental backups, which could save you a lot of storage space.

The partition managers vary quite a bit and here the Acronis product has a question mark over it, because of the problems we had during testing. Our favourite in this group is VCom’s Partition Commander 8. Although it doesn’t work directly under Windows, its logical, Wizarded automation and look-alike interface make it easy to work with. Take a look at the market leader, Partition Magic 8, before making a final decision, though.

And then there’s SystemWorks 2004 Professional – rather a law unto itself. As well as a full copy of Ghost, there are utilities covering a huge swathe of other tasks; everything from virus protection to password management and the full delights of Norton Utilities. Even though some of the programs included in the suite, such as GoBack and CleanSweep, have been made semi-redundant by improvements to Windows itself, there’s still a lot here for your money. If you buy one utility suite to help make your PC a better place to work, it should still be this one.

Company: Acronis

Contact: 01727 799670