Every time Microsoft releases a new operating system, the question arises anew: What utilities do I need for my computer?
Computer utilities are small programs that help you work better with your hardware or existing software. Unlike application programs, they don’t let you do anything externally, such as prepare a letter or budget.
To its credit, with each new version of Windows and, before that, of DOS, Microsoft has bundled in utilities you previously had to pay extra for. Windows Me, the latest version, includes tools for restoring corrupted system files, sharing an Internet connection among multiple PCs, reattaching files that become fragmented, viewing graphics, deleting unnecessary files, and backing up data and programs.
Unfortunately, the utilities Microsoft typically provides are limited compared with “third-party” programs, and this continues with Windows Me. That’s why utilities remain popular. Five of the top 10 best-selling business software programs are utilities, according to the latest numbers from market research firm PC Data.
Whether you use a PC in a business or home setting, utilities can boost your productivity. They can also be fun, in a geeky sense, to experiment with.
Be aware that there’s a slight risk to utility experimentation. Infrequently, a poorly designed utility can corrupt other software. The remedy typically involves simply reinstalling the corrupted software, though very infrequently it can necessitate wiping your hard disk clean and reinstalling everything.
What’s more, when used carelessly, some utilities can temporarily disable a computer. This is why, in organizational settings, some system administrators restrict the use of utilities to advanced users.
Note that the financial risk to using utilities is usually small. Most cost little. Others are free (released to the public by the developer in an act of goodwill, to promote a consulting or publishing business, or to show off programming virtuosity).
Today’s Best Utility Choices
Here’s a roundup of some of the best utilities on the market currently. The list includes common names as well as little gems you may not have heard of.
Norton SystemWorks (http://www.symantec.com/sabu/sysworks). Peter Norton popularized third-party utilities back in the 1980s. After he sold the store to utility powerhouse Symantec, his products kept their well-respected brand name but sometimes experienced the indignity of bug infestation.
The latest version of Symantec’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink utility suite, Norton SystemWorks, seems stable. Included are top-notch tools for system maintenance, debris clean-up, and virus protection. The pro version also offers fax and drive imaging programs.
Norton Personal Firewall (http://www.symantec.com/nis). If you have a permanent Internet connection, whether cable, DSL, or T1, you need protection against hackers, and this is a great choice. A related product, Norton Internet Security, includes both hacker and virus protection.
Norton AntiVirus (http://www.symantec.com/nav). Virus protection is the most vital tool missing from all versions of Windows, and if you don’t otherwise have access to anti-virus software, buy this.
PowerDesk (http://www.ontrack.com/powerdesk). One of the earliest types of utility was the file manager. Though Windows Explorer, which comes with Windows, offers everything most people need to copy, move, and otherwise manage files, if you work with lots of files, you can do better with PowerDesk.
This program was recently sold to Ontrack (best known for its data recovery services) by its creator, Mijenix. Its two-pane view of the files on your hard disk and its bundled tools for working with Zip-compressed files are the most useful of the many improvements over Windows Explorer.
PartitionMagic (http://www.powerquest.com/partitionmagic). Dividing a hard drive into “partitions” is an effective way of keeping organized if you have lots of programs and data or run multiple operating systems from one computer.
This is the best collection of tools for managing these partitions. The most innovative lets you quickly move programs and associated files and links from one partition to another.
TweakIE (http://www.tweakie.com). As its name implies, this small utility lets you tweak IE—that is, Microsoft Internet Explorer. Among other things, it can help you cover your tracks when surfing by instantly wiping out your history, cache, and cookies lists.
RoboType (http://www.zdnet.com/downloads/stories/info/0,,000OHO,.html). This free utility, distributed by PC Magazine, lets you quickly insert “boilerplate” text—a word, phrase, or even paragraph you use again and again—in any program.
AI RoboForm (http://www.roboform.com). A free offering from Siber Systems, this program instantly fills in those pesky Web forms for you. The “AI” in the product’s name stands for artificial intelligence.
XDrive (http://www.xdrive.com). This free Web service places a utility on your hard drive that makes it easy to store files offsite. You simply use Windows to back up files, share them with colleagues, or access them from the road.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.