Norton SystemWorks 2003 Utility Software

Another year, another fresh release of SystemWorks. Many of us raised on flaky Windows 95, 98 or Me machines will have had cause to be grateful to SystemWorks for saving the day in the past, but does the suite still merit a place on a Windows XP system?

The program interface has been carried over virtually unchanged from 2002, with the utility modules grouped together under four headings -- Norton Utilities, Norton AntiVirus, Norton CleanSweep and Web Tools -- along with a rather uninspiring Extra Features section. Each section expands to reveal a subset of related components. We won’t dwell upon the AntiVirus component here because it is reviewed in depth [see review UK JAN 03], suffice it to say that it integrates smoothly with the ‘feel’ of the suite and, sensibly, comes with full antivirus protection measures enabled by default.

Taking centre stage in the control console is a confidence-building One Button Checkup that runs through a quick series of exploratory scans on demand. But the real lynchpin in SystemWorks is, as always, Norton Utilities, a collection of seven system maintenance utilities.

Two of these -- Speed Disk and Disk Doctor -- essentially duplicate and enhance Windows’ own Disk Defragmenter and Scan Disk (or, in the case of XP, Chkdsk); and a third, UnErase Wizard, is little more than a super-safe Recycle Bin. It is also a tad superfluous given that SystemWorks ships with Roxio GoBack, a powerful disaster recovery program that lets you ‘roll back time’ to restore critical system settings and/or recover files and folders.

In short, you really don’t need both GoBack and UnErase Wizard protecting your files from accidental mishap. GoBack, incidentally, duplicates and (significantly) enhances the System Restore utility built into Windows Me and XP.

By contrast, the fourth Utilities module, Wipe Info, is a file shredder that can permanently delete sensitive information from your computer. Set the number of ‘wipes’ -- that is, how many times a file is overwritten with fresh, meaningless data -- to suit your personal paranoia.

So far, so good. But when it comes to WinDoctor, a heavy-duty diagnostic program, we really must pick a few nits. On the first scan it identified some 176 ‘problems’ with our (perfectly functional) computer. Close inspection revealed that these were mainly broken shortcuts, invalid ActiveX references and a whole heap of Registry errors. At such a juncture all you need is a quick fix, so we duly hit the Repair All button. WinDoctor spruced up the Registry in no time but then left us with two apparently intractable issues.

The first, we think, (WinDoctor was none too clear on the matter) involved a missing icon required by a PowerQuest program. Lost for a solution, we instructed WinDoctor to ignore this error in future scans. This did the trick in a head-in-the-sand kind of way, but it hardly felt like the problem had been solved. The second, seemingly more serious, problem was a stark alert: ‘c:\winnt\System32\mapis rvr.exe cannot access a necessary file gapi32.dll’. WinDoctor was stumped, and so were we, until we consulted the Microsoft Knowledgebase: “This error message is falsely reported by WinDoctor in most cases. If there are no problems with Windows or any programs, you can safely ignore the message.”

We followed up with a search on Symantec’s own support Web site and this was confirmed: “This appears to be a problem with WinDoctor, and not with the Microsoft files mentioned. It is probably safe to simply ignore the problems so WinDoctor will not keep detecting them.”

What is galling here is not so much that WinDoctor is fallible but that this particular error was identified as far back as 2001 and has still not been addressed.

Equally frustrating, in our opinion, is the System Information module. Why, for instance, is it necessary to identify a P4 processor as a “Genuine Intel Family 15 Model 1 1.6”; or Windows XP Home edition as “5.1 (Build 2600)”? This kind of techno-babble is simply meaningless to the average person, especially if you are using System Information for its avowed purpose of finding out something useful about your computer. Why, too, did the program fail to recognise our USB mouse (“Mouse Not Present” indeed!) and get our monitor’s resolution and colour depth settings hopelessly wrong? Our confidence was fast evaporating.

The final component in Utilities is System Doctor, a configurable panel of sensors and alerts that keeps a watchful eye over your computer’s every move and warns of potential trouble. It is intriguing for, oh, about five minutes and might be useful as a diagnostic tool in the event of a real problem, but again it could sorely use a crash-course in plain English.

Good housekeeping

Next up is the CleanSweep section. For the uninitiated, CleanSweep monitors new program installations so that you can backup, restore and cleanly delete these programs later. However, there is no great need for such an approach if software abides by the standard Windows install/uninstall routines, which is the norm with XP-compliant programs.

What struck us first as curious and then as downright careless was the inclusion of Internet Cache and Cookie Cleanup modules in the CleanSweep section. These are undeniably useful utilities but both then appear again (in a slightly different form, but to exactly the same effect) in the very next section, Web Tools. True, CleanSweep includes additional modules for removing ActiveX components and plug-ins, both of which are absent from Web Cleanup, the main module in Web Tools; but Web Cleanup offers far greater control over the cleaning process and is certainly our module of choice. Quite frankly, such duplication and fragmentation of resources is messy and unnecessary. Moreover, Internet Explorer allows you to carry out such housework without the need for any external tools. The second module in Web Tools is the imaginatively entitled Connection Keep Alive. This simple and far-from-unique tool sends packets of information to your ISP every minute or so to keep a dialup Internet connection ticking over during periods of inactivity.

One notable oddity: so long as your computer’s Bios settings are configured appropriately, you can use the SystemWorks CD-ROM as an emergency startup disc; but if you want to create your own set of emergency floppy disks, the tool from which to do so is absurdly buried in a sub-folder on the installation disc.

And another: while the manual and Help menu both described a promising method to create a set of ‘Rescue Disks’ (more duplication, presumably), the requisite button simply didn’t exist.

Norton SystemWorks 2003
For all the harshness of our comments, SystemWorks is not a bad program. Indeed, as utility suites go, it is still up there with the best of them. But it lacks cohesion in some quarters, it promises more than it delivers in others, and it offers little beyond improved Windows XP-compatibility to merit replacing an older version.
Price: $149.95; Upgrade $99.95
Phone: (02) 8879 1000

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Kyle MacRae

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