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CRASH COURSE

 

STANDFIRST

There’s no such thing as a crash-proof PC, operating system or application. However, if you’re prepared for the worst you can reduce the chances of it happening to you, and when it does, limit the damage to no more than a minor inconvenience

 

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Sooner or later your PC is going to suffer a crash! That much is certain and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it, but there is a lot you can do to minimise the damage. Crashes happen for a multitude of reasons but the vast majority are caused by software faults. Quite frankly it’s a wonder that PCs works as well as they do, when you consider the virtually limitless permutations of programs and peripherals...

 

Software problems fall into one of two general categories. Firstly there are programs or hardware that for one reason or another is faulty; it may be poor design, an unresolved  bug or compatibility issue, and plain old corrupted files. The other common problem concerns files left around by the operating system and applications, or when a program has been deleted. In both cases the end result is usually the same, parts of the system conflict, the computer locks up, or responds with an error message. The severity of the conflict varies from a simple failure of an application to respond, to a complete system-wide crash, when the only solution is to re-boot the machine.

 

When that happens you are bound to loose all data created during that session, following the most recent backup. You may be lucky and the system will continue to operate normally afterwards, giving you the chance to track down the fault, but there is the possibility that the conflict will have affected the operating system or other vital files in some way. That’s the dreaded worst-case scenario, when the computer refuses to boot, and you’re faced with the prospect of picking through the debris. Often the only way out is to re-install the operating system, though there’s no guarantee that the fault will have disappeared.

 

Following the introduction of Windows 95 and ‘Plug and Play’, hardware problems should be a thing of the past. Needless to say they’re not, though they can sometimes be a little easier to resolve. Windows 95 has a range of utilities designed to assist installation and automatically avoid conflicts. Nevertheless it can still be a very frustrating business -- as we know only too well  -- moreover it is often compounded by manufacturers telephone helplines.  They can leave you waiting ages for someone to talk to. If you’re lucky the call is a freephone number or charged at normal rates, but an increasing number of companies have premium rate lines, effectively charging you for their help. Worst of all is to waste a lot of time and money, only to be told that the problem and the responsibility to find a solution lies with someone else’s hardware or software. We’ve all been there...

 

Time now for a spot of good news. Various utilities have been developed that can help avoid a lot of the trauma of installing new software and hardware, solve long-standing conflicts that cannot be cured using normal means, and remove the garbage that can cause problems. We’ve been looking at five such packages. Two of them -- Quarterdeck CleanSweep and Cybermedia Uninstaller -- are designed to safely identify and delete unused or faulty files and applications. The other three  -- Cybermedia First Aid 97, Quarterdeck Fix-It and Kiss Software Corporation’s Rescue Me -- work by monitoring the system, and recording changes, and in the case of the first two, intercepting faults and suggesting or instigating fixes.

 

 

CLEANSWEEP Version 3.0

Cleansweep has become something of a benchmark for uninstaller programs and this latest version shows Quarterdeck are determined to maintain their lead. The user interface has been spruced up and made a little easier to use, though behind the scenes it’s pretty much business as usual and users of older versions will feel completely at home. New additions to Version 3 include ‘Update It’, which downloads updates either automatically at regular intervals, or manually. A new Windows Registry editing tool has been added, along with Registry Sweep, a new cleaner, for deleting invalid entries. The knowledge base has been improved, it now supports NT 3.51 and 4.0 and there’s better prevention for accidental deletion.

 

The core facilities remain, with installation monitors recording any changes to the system, making it easier and safer to remove programs. The Cleansweep main screen opens with ‘Wizards’ for uninstalling and archiving programs, making backups, moving or transporting applications. The ‘Cleanup’ ultilties are the most useful ones for de-cluttering well-used PCs. It features a set of file finders that looks for duplicates, redundant DLLs, unusued and low-useage files, and orphan files that have been left behind. After each search it lists all the files it has found, shows what they are and what they do, with a simple colour code to signify their importance.   

 

Deleted files are automatically compressed and archived, they can be brought back at any time using the Restore facility. The View Tab brings up three logs, that show what has been deleted and when, plus a running total of the saved hard disc space, and file useage. The two Registry utilities plot a relatively safe path through one of Windows 95’s more dangerous areas.  It allows the Resistry file to be edited with relative ease, though it’s not something first-timers should be tempted to tamper with as all sorts of horrible things can happen to your system if you get it wrong. The last part deals with automatic updates and customising Cleansweep to work in the way that best suits your system.

 

Quarterdeck seem to have eliminated the tiresome bugs that afflicted Version 2 (one sample we tried always crashed when Cleansweep tried to analyise its own files...), and it now operates very efficiently indeed. The files finders are excellent and managed to locate no less than 120 megabytes of wasted space on one of our office PCs, most of which was safely recovered. A simple, easy to use application that will keep your PC clean and running smoothly. Reccommended.  

 

Street price                   £29

System req.                  IBM PC or compatible, 4Mb RAM, 12Mb free hard disc space, Windows 3.1/95/NT

Media                           CD ROM, 3.5-in floppies

Main Features            installation monitor, auto file delete and backup, file move/transfer, 1000 program knowledge base with internet update, 32-bit support  

Contact             Quarterdeck UK Ltd., (01245) 494940

 

CV Ratings

Features                       ****

Performance                  ****

Ease of Use                  ****

Value for money            ***

Overall rating            82%

 

 

UNINSTALLER Version 4.5

The washing-powder motif is well chosen, Uninstaller does a bang-up cleaning job, leaving your hard disc smelling Summer fresh. Once Uninstaller has been loaded it scans the hard disc, to establish what’s on it and to be able to record subsequent changes. The main desktop has six buttons, four of them are for taking out the garbage, the other two are housekeeping features.

 

At the top there’s Application Cleanup, for deleting, moving or archiving entire programs. Below that there’s File Cleanup, which tracks down and identifies the dozens of unwanted or unneeded files that quickly accumulate, even on the best managed systems. Relevant files are grouped and colour coded according to how important they are, or safe to delete; (red for danger -- don’t do it!, yellow indicates caution and green means it should be safe to delete). The Quick Clean Up utility is for clawing back disc space in a hurry. Just tell it how much you need and off it goes, looking for junk files, internet and multimedia clutter and long-forgotten data. Nothing is ever lost though -- unless you want it to be -- Uninstaller automatically compresses and archives everything it deletes, which is where the Restore function comes in. This simply puts back anything that has been removed, from a single file, to an entire application.

 

Every action Uninstaller makes is recorded and can be reviewed using the ‘Report’  facility. It provides a detailed summary, including how much disc space has been freed up during any session. Finally, Update, which uses a program called Oil Change to launch the PC’s internet browser -- assuming it has one -- to contact Cybermedia’s web site. This enables Uninstaller to add to its knowledge base and download any new information, that would assist performance.

 

Running in the background there’s Installation Monitor. This scrutinises each new item of software as it is loaded, so that if and when it has to be removed, no bits are left behind. Installation Monitor can be set to load automatically at start-up, or it can be manually engaged.

 

Uninstaller has been around for a while, and it shows; it looks and feels refined, and the interface has been designed to be very easy to use. The cleaning action is deep and thorough, picking out all the obvious jumble on our tests PCs, plus several fragments of long-forgotten applications, that must have been very deeply buried. Worth considering.

  

Street price                   £35

System req.                  IBM PC or compatible, 486 or higher, 8Mb RAM, 8Mb free hard disc space, Windows 95/NT               

Media                           CD ROM, 3.5-in floppies

Main Features            installation monitor, delete, move and archive files and applications, archive deleted files,

Contact             Cybermedia, telephone 0800 973631

 

CV Ratings

Features                       ****      

Performance                  *****

Ease of Use                  ****      

Value for money            ***

Overall rating            80%

 

FIRST AID 97

Once installation is completed First Aid 97 prompts the user to give their PC a thorough examination. This looks for hardware conflicts, gives Windows System the once-over, checks all applications, tests the printer, modem, multimedia and network devices, then assesses general performance and health. If it finds nothing wrong it emits a gratifying ping and presents the user with a pass certificate. However, even on the healthiest PC it is bound to pick up a few problems, which it outlines and offers to sort out. Selecting the Autofix button will either do the job straight away, or short-cut to Windows 95 device manager and the trouble-shooter Wizard.

 

A set of utilities called Windows Guardian runs in the background, on the lookout for trouble. If the system is about to lock up Crash Protector steps in and gives you the opportunity to save data. CPR or Computer Program Reactivator revives frozen programs. Backtrack Monitor notes changes to system files. Early Warning periodically checks the hard drives. Memory and Disc Space Monitors keep tabs on memory resources.

 

The Advisor option presents the user with a graphical picture of their system, clicking on a component brings up a list of the most commonly encountered problems, which leads to a simple yes/no answer session that attempts to identify and rectify the fault. This also provides a gateway -- using Oil Change -- to Cybermedia’s Web site and knowledge base, plus a direct route to the web pages of scores of other manufacturers

 

The Emergency Care facility is split into two sections: part one prepares an emergency start-up disc, and provides a shortcut to Microsoft Backup; part two deals with recovery, with two utilities called BackTrack and Restore -- that record any changes to the system or files, so it can be easily returned to the last working configuration.  Four ‘Specialists’ provide specific diagnostics for applications, multimedia components, modems networks and printers, and the operating system.

 

Dr Solomon’s FindVirus is bundled with the package; it’s either the world fastest virus checker or our sample wasn’t working properly as a complete virus scan of an almost full 1.7Gb disc took less than half a second... Reinstalling it a second time produce a more realistic performance.

 

Apart from that First Aid 97 inspired a great deal of confidence. It correctly identified and cured several niggling problems on one of our test PCs, that other fixer packages failed to spot. It’s friendly and easy to use with a huge range of resources, and it should be able to deal with the bulk of commonplace PC troubles. Recommended.

 

Street price                   £26

System req.                  IBM PC or compatible, 486 or higher, 8Mb RAM, 17Mb free hard disc space, Windows 95     

Media                           CD ROM, 3.5-in floppies

Main Features            crash interception and protection, find and fix start-up problems, automatic backup of critical system files, 10,000 program knowledge base with internet update and fix finder, Dr Solomon’s Find Virus

Contact             Cybermedia, telephone 0800 973631

 

CV Ratings

Features                       *****

Performance                  ****

Ease of Use                  ****

Value for money            ****

Overall rating            85%

 

FIX-IT Version 1.0

Fix-It has a very business-like appearance,  the layout is generally gimmick-free, simple and to the point. Following installation Fix-It begins an inventory of the hard disc and all connected peripherals, checking for missing files, incorrect configuration and conflicts. If any problems are detected it checks its knowledge base of more than 1,000 programs, and proffers detailed advice; be warned, some suggestions are quite advanced and require a fair amount of expertise.

 

The main Fix-It window contains 8 elements: Conflict Detector, Problem Preventer, Preinstallation Inspector, Crash Defender, Performance Optimiser, Change remover, Emergency Recovery and Support Directory. The Conflict Detector gives a general overview of the software and hardware configuration. It is thorough, though on one PC it indicated one non-existent driver conflict and a half dozen or so missing files, that were in fact there. Problem Preventer was equally fastidious, scrutinising shortcuts, Windows Registry integrity and hardware configuration.

 

It offers to fix most problems, though you really do need to know what you are doing as it doesn’t go into much detail about what the consequences of deleting particular files might be.  Preinstallation Inspector lists hundreds of popular applications and checks if there’s any known conflicts with what is already installed on the system. Crash Defender monitors the system for fatal errors, intercepting them whenever possible to allow the user time to save data; information about the crash is saved so the cause can be more easily identified by software support staff.

 

Performance Optimser checks everything is configured properly and working in the most efficient manner; changes are suggested and made where necessary. Change Remover logs every action Fix-It makes, so that they can be undone if further problems arise. Finally the Support Directory contains details of hundreds of hardware and software companies,  including their US phone number and if they have one, their web address as well;  clicking on it opens the user’s internet browser, taking them directly to the site.

 

Fix-It works very well indeed, minutely scrutinising the system for conflicts and potential problems. We particularly like the vigilant installation monitor which makes uninstalling iffy applications a lot easier.  If anything it is a little too conscientious and we suspect many of the problems it uncovers are perfectly harmless, though to be honest there’s no way of knowing. A powerful and effective package,  maybe a tad daunting for absolute beginners though.

 

Street price                   £25

System req.                  IBM PC or compatible, 386DX or higher, 4Mb RAM, 5Mb free hard disc space, Windows 95        

Media                           3.5-in floppy disc

Main Features            16 and 32-bit program crash interception and protection, conflict detector, installation monitor, 1,000 program knowledge base

Contact             Quarterdeck UK Ltd., (01245) 494940

 

CV Ratings

Features                       ****

Performance                  ****

Ease of Use                  ***

Value for money            ****

Overall rating            82%

 

 

RESCUE ME Version 4.0

Rescue Me is the odd one out in this round up. It doesn’t have any troubleshooting facilities as such, though it can be used to rectify problems, by quickly undoing troublesome changes. Once loaded it takes a ‘snapshot’ of the system, covering five specific areas. These include details of all files, directories and Windows Registry, an overview of the system, plus all connected disc drives.

 

The main window has buttons for seven key functions.  ‘Snapshot’ manually creates a named system inventory. ‘Manage’ renames or deletes snapshots, and schedules automatic snapshots at various intervals, from once a month, to every time Windows starts. ‘Report’ does just that, showing what Rescue Me has been up to; this can be viewed on-screen, or printed out. ‘Profile’ manages the list of configuration profiles; this appears to be a newly added features as it’s not mentioned in the manual or Readme file on he installation disk. ‘Restore’ instantly resets the system to a selected  working configuration, if a problem occurs. This will work, even if Windows won’t load as it can be enabled from the DOS prompt, though clearly restoration will only be possible if key system files were not corrupted.. Lastly there s ‘Undo’, which restores files to their original state in a chosen configuration.

 

All system information, directories and file structures are clearly presented in the main window; changes are highlighted along with the time and date the alterations were made. However, the main feature of Rescue Me is the facility to restore a PC to a previous working condition. This it can do quickly and efficiently, though in order for it to work properly, it requires a little discipline on the part of the user, both to ensure Rescue Me is regularly updated, and to make sure they know how to use it. It’s not that intuitive, simply installing the program and hoping it will tell you what to do if things go wrong  is a mistake. It’s well worth having a dry run, to make sure you know what to do if the worst happens. 

 

Rescue Me has the potential to get a desperate PC user out of a very deep hole but unlike most other problem-solver programs, it’s not a pro-active panacea, that holds your hand whilst it mends the fault. It is definitely worth having though; look upon it as cheap insurance, a way of getting a dead PC back on its feet -- assuming it is capable of being revived --  when all conventional therapies have failed.

 

Street price                   £24

System req.                  IBM PC or compatible, 486 or higher, 4Mb RAM, 5Mb free hard disc space, Windows 3.x/95

Media                           system snapshot, restore previous working configuration

Main Features            3.5-in floppy disc

Contact             Kiss Software Corporation, telephone 0181-875 4422

 

CV Ratings

Features                       ***

Performance                  ****

Ease of Use                  ***

Value for money            ***

Overall rating            75%

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1997 2107

 

 


 

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