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Illustrations by James O'Brien
Illustration: James O'Brien
Accidents--mangled data, crashed hard drives, misplaced files--happen. Fortunately, system utilities can help you prevent problems and recover when disaster strikes. Utilities can identify and correct problems on your computer before crashes occur, and sometimes they can repair the damage after a mishap. And if your PC suddenly refuses to boot, they can help you regain that vital business presentation or your records and photos.

A good suite contains most of the utilities you need on a single CD, with one price tag and one user interface. We say "most of the utilities" because we found that no single suite had every tool we look for; most notably, you'll need to supplement a suite with a backup utility (see "Backing Up to Happiness") and possibly a partition management program (see "Wrangle Disks Like a Pro")--and we aren't satisfied with any of the emergency boot tools available. For this article we looked at four packages: Business Logic's $50 Ultra WinCleaner Utility Suite 8, Iolo's $70 System Mechanic 4 Professional, Symantec's $65 Norton SystemWorks 2004, and V Communications' $60 SystemSuite 5.

Each suite includes an antivirus program: SystemWorks comes with Norton AntiVirus 2003, System Mechanic offers Panda Antivirus Platinum, SystemSuite bundles VirusScanner Pro, and Ultra WinCleaner has QuickHeal. (Click here for a recent review of antivirus programs.) In this article, we concentrate on how the suites keep your Windows XP computer healthy, clean up an overcrowded hard drive, and get you back on your feet after a disaster.

Since Windows XP carries its own collection of utilities, we set a high bar for stand-alone utility suites: We think a worthwhile suite should provide more tools than Windows itself does; it should secure your system, test your hardware to warn you of impending trouble, fix havoc-causing flaws in Windows' Registry, and simplify basic maintenance. Because hard drives collect garbage faster than the floor of your car, a good utility suite should help you remove programs and files you no longer want. If you wish to retrieve an accidentally deleted file, your suite should come to the rescue; but when you'd like a file to stay deleted, your suite should make it unrecoverable. Finally, if an accident renders Windows unusable, your suite should save the day.

We chose V Communications' SystemSuite 5 as the Best Buy because it has the most extensive and usable set of tools. The big disappointment was Symantec's Norton SystemWorks 2004, which is in severe need of a major overhaul. We did like its one-pass checkup and its Registry cleanup, but many of its most important tools--such as the emergency boot--don't support the NTFS file system used in Windows XP. Aside from the excellent Norton AntiVirus component, there's little reason to purchase SystemWorks--and you can buy Norton AntiVirus on its own for $50, or as part of the more useful Norton Internet Security suite for $70.

Though both System Mechanic and Ultra WinCleaner are useful collections, they lack the scope of SystemSuite's tools. Still, System Mechanic has the best undelete tool of the bunch, and Ultra WinCleaner--true to its name--was the only program to remove more hard-drive garbage than Windows' own Disk Cleanup. But neither of these packages offers the full set of tools that you'll find in SystemSuite. To be fair, Ultra WinCleaner is designed to clean up a system, not to do all the diagnostic and maintenance tasks that the other suites claim to handle.

In past years, both Norton SystemWorks and SystemSuite had a reputation for slowing down Windows. New tests by the PC World Test Center reveal that the current editions (in their default configuration, but without their antivirus components loaded) have no measurable effect on performance. Previous versions of these two suites loaded background system monitoring automatically, which could cause noticeable slowdowns. The current versions do not load these monitors at start-up by default.

Our Pick: SystemSuite 5

The Best Buy award goes to SystemSuite 5, which V Communications acquired from Ontrack last year. SystemSuite offers a broad range of practical tools, including extensive hardware diagnostics and a workable uninstaller, all in a very easy-to-use package. And we found this suite to be the most helpful in the case of an XP-based system suddenly refusing to boot.
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