Systemworks bigger, better

It's one of IT's unanswerable questions: which is more efficient, functional and cheapest, specialist product or all-embracing suite?

It’s one of IT’s unanswerable questions: which is more efficient, functional and cheapest, specialist product or all-embracing suite?

In utilities, Symantec’s Norton products are undeniably the king of the suites and appear relatively immune from criticisms on the “Jack of all trades” front. The Norton Utilities suite is itself now embedded in the larger Norton Systemworks, both remaining popular and steadily adding new products.

New in Systemworks 2004 is a “one-button checkup”, which flags and clears irregular registry entries and orphan shortcuts, removes clutter from web surfing, checks program integrity (it flagged a misplaced reference to the uninstall for one application) and double-checks that updates to other utilities such as the virus scan are current.

Also new is a product activation feature, regarded by some as a retrograde step that intrudes on personal information and indicates mistrust of the user (or is that only when Microsoft does it?) It’ll be interesting to see if it loses Symantec sales.

The venerable Norton Antivirus has been updated with locators for trojans and adware/spyware, but I’m not the only reviewer who has found this aspect does a less than complete job, compared with the specialist products like Adaware and Spybot Search and Destroy. It will doubtless improve with time and database size.

Default settings sometimes seem odd in Norton. I prefer a virus that can’t be destroyed to be quarantined immediately, but the system asking me the obvious question is the default.

One failing that kept popping up in various guises is the lack of a satisfactory interface with “minor” products. The Password Manager utility would not work with my browser of choice, Mozilla Firebird, and only did a halfway job automatically filling a website form under MS Internet Explorer. The wisdom of keeping passwords in one place and storing credit card numbers for automatic insertion in forms should surely be questioned. What’s wrong with memory, or having the card with you?

The antivirus AutoProtect, which screens all incoming and outgoing emails, once again didn’t link automatically with my Eudora email client. I find I just have to fiddle exhaustingly with both products under each new generation until they finally recognise each other.

Also disappointing is the omission for Windows XP users of some facilities allowed to users of Windows ME and 98 — for example, the ability to be able to click on a stubborn out-of-the-way chunk of disk storage in the Speed Disk utility and identify the file that’s causing the problem.

Speed Disk is excellent; in fact, I found this version working better in tandem with Windows XP defrag than previous generations, where the two products seemed to some extent to be undoing one another’s good work. I now have a well-organised disk that actually looks from both Windows and Norton maps to be well organised, and the increased efficiency is noticeable.

Also new in the “professional” version of Systemworks is the New Zealand-created Ghost utility for cloning hard disks. This was beyond the scope of my single-machine test, but it has always had a good reputation as a single product.

Not entirely new, but a utility I don’t have in my current version, is the “shredder” WipeInfo. I haven’t had forensic experts check the disk to see if they can find traces of the files I consigned to oblivion, but the description of the procedures (repeatedly overwriting the data with hex 00 and hex FF byes and finally with a pattern of the user’s choice) makes it seem very thorough. The overwriting cycle can be done up to 200 times. I set it to 10 cycles and the typical document of some tens or hundreds of kilobytes will wipe in less than 30 seconds. A 100MB video file took 2 hours, 15 minutes, imparting a noticeable drag to the operation of other applications. But compared to PCencrypt’s permanent delete, which is much slower and can bring everything else on my 1GHz machine to a virtual standstill, Norton’s is impressive.

The virus check is very smooth. A colleague instructed me to “fiddle with the settings until you can get it to make the machine run like a dog”. I couldn’t produce more than a marginal slowdown.

Dick Smith is selling Norton Systemworks 2004 for $169.95.

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