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Review of:
Norton Utilities 3.0
 
by Vade Forrester

Norton Utilities 3.0 Violates Hippocratic Oath!

 "I will guard the sick from harm and injustice. -- From The Hippocratic Oath 

Norton Utilities is a collection of programs which diagnose and maintain the health of your computer. Several of the component programs use medical metaphors to connote healing the ills of your computer. Unfortunately, some significant bugs in the early versions of the programs caused serious problems for some users. I think these problems have been fixed, and I have not personally experienced them, but you need to know about them. 

 This is my third stab at reviewing Norton Utilities 3.0. The first two were highly critical, based on an early production version of Norton Utilities 3.0 installed on a PC with a partially defective operating system. I wanted to see how much Norton Utilities 3.0 would fix, but I found many of its programs just wouldn't work at all. 

 An article in PC Week Online related that many other users have experienced problems with Norton Utilities 3.0, so be warned. But some (hopefully all) of the problems have been fixed by now. 

 Several weeks later, I reformatted my disk drive and reinstalled Windows 95, I decided to give Norton Utilities 3.0 another chance. I'm glad I did; it now works perfectly. Of course, the first thing I did after reinstalling was to check for a program update on the Symantec Web site. Like all good programs, Norton Utilities 3.0 has an online update feature that calls up a Web site, identifies program updates, downloads and installs them for you. Symantec is particularly good about this approach, and all their programs have a Live Update button that makes the update process a one-click event. That's one of the reasons I keep coming back to Symantec programs. 

Although I am not a utility program expert, I have tried several others, and will offer occasional comparisons to some of Norton's competitors. These include Nuts & Bolts, a collection of utilities that exceeds Norton Utilities 3.0's feature set, and First Aid 98 and RealHelp, two programs that focus more on analysis of problems in your computer. All cost less than Norton Utilities 3.0's $79 list price. 

 The main control panel for Norton Utilities 3.0 is the Norton Utilities Integrator It's a little unconventional-looking for a Windows 95 program, but makes all features accessible and easy to use, unlike some of its competitors. The pane on the left side of the Integrator screen show four groups of utilities, while the right pane show the programs in each group. At the bottom are buttons for Live Update, some program options, and a really good help system. 

But these are only the Windows utilities; Norton's includes a collection of DOS utilities to help you even if Windows won't work! Included in the DOS collection is a version of Norton Disk Doctor, which diagnoses and fixes problems with your disk drive. Norton Disk Doctor replaces Windows 95's Scandisk, including the automatic scan that occurs when Windows 95B is shut down improperly (a precaution available with Windows 95B only). 

 Note that each program has its own help file, which is actually helpful. Some of the help files even include a video demo to show you how a feature works. Those files are designated by a filmstrip as part of the help file icon. 

 The four utility groups are Find and Fix Problems, Improve Performance, Preventative Maintenance, and Troubleshoot. In my discussion of each program in a group, I will try a rating system that shows how useful I think it is. I will use a 4-diskette rating system, where one diskette equals fair, two diskettes equals good, three diskette equals very good, and four diskettes equals exceptional. No diskettes implies the feature is of little or no value. 

 Find and Fix Problems has five programs. The first, WinDoctor, (there's the first medical metaphor) is a fast but thorough check of the Windows 95 system on your computer. A Wizard offers to scan the entire system, or let you specify an individual part of the system to check out. WinDoctor shows you a list of problems it finds, including their level of severity, and lets you see a detailed description of each problem. Then comes the really useful part: WinDoctor offers to fix those problems. In my experience, WinDoctor has a nearly perfect record of fixing problems. Other programs don't seem to be able to fix problems as well as Norton Utilities 3.0. 

The next utility is CrashGuard. This program, which is sold separately, is a memory-resident utility that runs in the background and tries to intercept programs that crash so you can recover data and shut them down normally. If a program tries to crash, CrashGuard intercepts it and displays a screen. CrashGuard also adds an Anti-Freeze button to the Windows 95 Close Program dialog box (reached by pressing Control-Alt-Delete once) which may let you free a program which has frozen. Although I saw CrashGuard work a few times, there were more times when it did not prevent a crash or a program from freezing. Other programs, like Nuts & Bolts, First Aid 98, and RealHelp, seem to be more effective at preventing crashes. None is fool-proof. 

Norton Disk Doctor (another medical metaphor) is the Windows version of the famous disk diagnosis program, and it is fast and effective. It offers to fix problems it finds, and is more flexible than Scandisk. I observed a difference in the performance of the DOS and Windows versions when the DOS version reported my disk drive space was showing an erroneous size, but the Windows version showed no error. Symantec tech support acknowledged that was a known problem. After I told the program to fix the problem, it recurred once, got fixed again, and happened several more times. Norton tech support is very helpful and responsive, unlike most other companies' support lines. 

 The UnErase Wizard is the next program. You may be asking why you need this utility; after all, doesn't Windows 95 have a Recycle Bin? It does, but only the files you specifically delete get put in the Recycle Bin; many others just get erased. The UnErase Wizard lets you look at all files that are erased from your drive, and helps you recover them. It even adds another level of protection to the Recycle Bin to let you recover erased files by browsing through a list. You only need to use this program a couple of times to realize how little protection the Recycle Bin provides. 

 Have you ever found two copies of a file with the same name and wondered how they were different? Norton File Compare lets you compare two versions of a text file and shows each version side-by-side in two window panes. You can see exactly how the files are different. 

 The next group of utilities is the Improve Performance group. The first program in the group is Norton's Speed Disk, like Windows 95's Disk Defragmenter, but with more features. For example, it reorders the files and folders to make the disk open files faster. It also defragments the Windows swap file, which Disk Defragmenter doesn't do. 

 The next program is the Optimization Wizard. Apparently this feature has been the one causing problems for many users. Optimization Wizard undertakes some very ambitious tasks, so it's easy to see how it could be problematical. Optimization Wizard tries to improve computer performance by optimizing several critical elements of Windows: the swap file, the Registry, and even how your applications load into memory. The Optimization Wizard tries to optimize the minimum size of your swap file to reduce fragmentation, which can be a problem if you tell Windows 95 to manage its own swap file. Since Microsoft strongly discourage you from trying to manage your swap file, most people don't change it. 

 A background monitor program called SpeedStart watches the way your programs load into memory and tries to speed up that process. Finally, Optimization Wizard tries to minimize the size of your Registry to make it load faster. Ambitious indeed, but with potential for speeding up your computer. The latest Live Update seems to make the Optimization Wizard function correctly, but it could be different on your computer. I would advise a backup of your Registry before running the Optimization Wizard. 

 Space Wizard is the third program in the Improve Performance group. It tries to identifies files that are commonly discardable, infrequently used, excessively large, or duplicate other files on your disk. But is lets you make the final decision to delete the files. Space Wizard even checks your Recycle Bin and offers to empty it if it contains deleted files. Space Wizard may not directly improve performance, but it can help make more space on your hard drive. It's a good idea to run Space Wizard before running Speed Disk. 

 The Preventative Maintenance group has four programs: Norton System Doctor, Rescue Disk, Image, and Norton Registry Tracker. Norton System Doctor (another one) is a panel of sensors that run in the background and identify pending problems, and sound an alert when they detect a potential problem. You can load System Doctor with Windows. You also have a lot of flexibility what sensors are included in the panel. Unfortunately, some of the sensors don't seem to work reliably, giving no indication how a particular part of your computer is working. You can manually trigger the detection program that would update the sensor, but then what good does System Doctor do? No diskettes. 

 Rescue Disk is a good idea that expands Windows 95's Startup Disk (you did build a startup disk, didn't you?) by adding several of the Norton DOS utilities along with important system files. Where Windows 95 needs only a single diskette for its Startup Disk, Rescue Disk needs three diskettes for a basic set of Rescue Disks. A new feature in this version of Norton Utilities is an ability to build a Rescue Disk set on an Iomega Zip Drive. As a Zip drive user, that sounded pretty exciting, since it would actually install many Windows file onto a Zip drive and boot into Windows instead of DOS. To use the Zip Rescue Disks, you have to make a floppy diskette to boot from and recognize the Zip drive. 

So how did the Rescue Zip work? At first, not at all. I use an Adaptec SCSI controller to run my ZipPlus drive and my tape backup drive. Unfortunately, the Rescue Disk program doesn't work with anything other than Iomega's own SCSI adapters. Symantec's tech support offered a work-around: install the real mode drivers for the Adaptec SCSI card. Of course, that would slow down the controller, so that was not acceptable. Buying a low-performance Iomega SCSI controller didn't seem like a viable option, either. Finally, I removed the SCSI connector and replaced it with the Iomega parallel port cable, and Norton Utilities 3.0 was able to create the Zip Rescue Disk. So now if I need to use my Zip Rescue Disk, I must replace the normal SCSI connection with the parallel cable for that purpose only. Crude, but it works. 

 The Image program saves important data in files called Image Files. These files are used when you want to recover an erased file, or even when you want to recover from an undesired disk format. This is really an internal program used by other Norton programs, so it doesn't do anything for the user directly. No rating. 

 The last program in the group is Norton Registry Tracker. When I have been saying to back up your Registry with the ERU program, I could have said to back it up with Norton Registry Tracker. Of course, ERU is a standard Windows 95 program that runs from a diskette, so I think it is a better emergency tool. But Norton Registry Tracker is easier and more flexible, letting you take a snapshot of your important system files and then recover to those files if a botched software installation or a disk failure occurs. 

Anything involving the Registry is dangerous and can make your computer inoperable if it gets corrupted. But since Norton Registry Tracker is pretty automated, it shouldn't be dangerous. You can either run this program in the background (Notice how many of these program want to run in the background? See why a fast computer with huge amounts of memory is important?) or run it just before you make a change to your computer, like installing a new program. Norton Registry Tracker tracks the last 20 changes you make to your Registry and let you go back to one that worked. 

 The last group in Norton Utilities 3.0 is called Troubleshoot. The first program in the group is the venerable System Information detector that has been a part of the Norton programs for a long time. I have yet to see a program that is anywhere as good at scanning your computer and telling what's in it. It's an invaluable tool for troubleshooting a computer. It gathers a lot of information about a computer, even telling you about your Internet service. 

 The next program is the Norton Registry Editor. Two paragraphs ago I commented on the dangers of fooling with the Registry, with possible lethal results on your computer. This tool lets you edit your Registry, which can be extremely dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. Do not use Norton Registry Editor if you aren't completely knowledgeable about the Registry. No rating. 

 The final program is the Norton Web Services, which is really not a troubleshooting tool. Instead, it is a vehicle to update program files for other programs than those covered in the Live Update. Think of it as a competitor to Oil Change. It seems to know of fewer program updates than Oil Change, but also seems to identify fewer files that you have already installed, which caused me to delete Oil Change from my computer. This is a subscription service, but Norton Utilities 3.0 users get a six-month free trial period. By then, Windows 98 may be out, and it may have this feature built-in. 
 
 

Gripes

Norton Utilities 3.0 provides limited virus detection. I believe it uses technology from Norton AntiVirus version 2.0. Since I already use a later and hopefully better version of Norton AntiVirus, 4.0, I don't see why it's necessary to download updates for the earlier version; in fact, I don't see why Norton Utilities 3.0 can't detect Norton AntiVirus files and not install the redundant files in Norton Utilities 3.0. 

 During the course of the review, I started Live Update and found a new version of, well, Live Update. I downloaded and installed it, and found when I tried to run the new Live Update, I would always get a message telling me I had lost connection to the Internet. However, that was an error; my Internet connection was solid. After a couple of messages to Symantec's tech support (whose responses didn't solve the problem), I discovered that Live Update won't work with an Internet proxy server, like the one Texas Net uses to speed up file transfers. Turning off the proxy server was a matter of clicking on a single box, and resulted in Live Update working again. This isn't strictly a Norton Utilities 3.0 problem; it affects all Symantec programs. 
 
 

Bottom line

In its latest updated version, Norton Utilities 3.0 seems to work reliably and rapidly. I really appreciate how straightforward the program is to use, and how useful its help files are. At $80 street price, it is expensive, and other programs, notably Nuts & Bolts, offer more features for less money. But Nuts & Bolts has been at least as problematical as Norton Utilities 3.0, and is now on its third major patch. Other programs like First Aid 98 and RealHelp do not include the breadth of features that Norton Utilities 3.0 does, although they may be better at diagnosing problems. So while I can recommend Norton Utilities 3.0 as a worthy candidate to protect your computer system, I can't rate it as a clear choice over its competitors. 

Major Norton Utilities 3.0 Patch 

Two days before the magazine deadline, (January 10th), Symantec posted a big patch file on its Web site. Accessible through Live Update, the patch fixes several problems with Norton Utilities 3.0. This is a must-have update, since it fixes several problems which could be lethal to your computer. Here's some of the more essential fixes: 
     
  • Norton Optimization Wizard. Compacting the Registry to make Windows load faster is a good idea, but it sounds risky. Apparently it was, and the compacted Registry lost settings that made programs or even Windows itself stop working. 
  • Norton Zip Rescue builds a rescue disk on a Zip disk. The initial version would unformat the Zip disk, making it useless. 
  • SpeedStart incompatibility with McAfee antivirus program. SpeedStart is supposed to make your programs load faster, but freezes up when McAfee's antivirus program is set to scan all files. Supposedly, resetting it to scan only program files fixes the problem. Symantec and McAfee are archrivals in the virus scanner industry, and spend fortunes suing each other. You don't suppose. . .
I applaud Symantec for rapidly responding to customer complaints, but such major problems really should have been caught in beta tests. The most important aspect of the Norton programs has been their stability and reliability, and Norton Utilities 3.0 has compromised that. 

Competitors like Nuts & Bolts have also had problems and required patches. But I contend any program that makes major changes to your computer's Registry and file structure should be tested extremely thoroughly. 

 Be careful if you buy Norton Utilities 3.0 and be sure to run Live Update before using any of the programs in Norton Utilities 3.0. 
 
 

Some advice:

It is a good idea to reformat your drive and reinstall your operating system once a year. You will be surprised how much extraneous stuff has accumulated during that period, and how many problems will be fixed. 

Of course, it should go without saying that you should prepare for the recreation of your drive by backing up all your data files, including things like mailbox files, e-mail addresses, and other files that may not be thought of as data files. Also, be sure to make copies of all your software serial numbers and registration information. Back up your Registry onto a diskette using the ERU program. If you use a tape backup, have the backup program software ready to copy onto the drive right after you reinstall the operating system. Don't do a complete restoral of your previous drive; after all, you want to fix problems that have crept into the old configuration. 

Vade Forrester, a quality consultant for the Air Force, is a former President of Alamo PC and currently co-chair of the Windows 95 and Word/Office special interest groups.