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Utility Troubles

I'm a utility fiend. I admit it freely. I like nothing better than using Norton or MacTools or something similar to recover damaged files or a whole hard disk (preferably not mine, however). I had a bunch of things to play with under System 6, 911 Utilities from Microcom, MacTools Deluxe from Central Point, and SUM II from Symantec. In addition, I've used Norton Utilities extensively for other people although I don't personally own it. The DOS world is similar - I own PC Tools Deluxe, again from Central Point, and I've used numerous versions of Norton for several years.

Having used all these programs, I've formed definite likes and dislikes. For instance, I like the way Norton fixes Macintosh hard disks with a high degree of success, but I have better luck recovering deleted files with Complete Undelete (part of the 911 Utilities from Microcom). SUM II still holds its own in recovering deleted files as well, and MacTools hangs in there with the best feature combination. PC Tools and Norton for DOS have both performed well in the past when I've recovered DOS files that bit the dust after someone blithely typed DELETE *.* and answered yes when DOS asked if they really want to delete all the files.

Recently, many people have complained about the System 7-compatible version of Norton Utilities for the Mac, and System 7-compatible versions of SUM II and 911 Utilities are still in the works (although it now appears that the next SUM II will be a $9 version 2.1, and not a free 2.0.2). Both Norton Utilities for DOS and PC Tools Deluxe 7.0 have gathered numerous bugs reports on online services.

In Norton Utilities for the Mac, the most dangerous bugs seem to live in the Speed Disk application. Several people have reported on Usenet that Speed Disk gets partly through defragmenting the hard disk, then dies with an "unknown error" and some numbers. At that point, the file that Speed Disk was working on may be destroyed. The best work-around for this problem is to run Apple's Disk First Aid and then Norton's Disk Doctor on the disk before running Speed Disk. Even that may not help, so for the moment we recommend avoiding Speed Disk. Other problems reported on the nets include incorrect file attributes set by Norton Disk Editor and various oddities in dealing with alias files. In addition, Directory Assistance (an SFDialog enhancer that shipped with 1.0) no longer comes with 1.1 because they couldn't stabilize it in time, and Symantec decided there was no reason to bother with the Fast Find DA since Finder 7 can find its own files. All in all, Norton isn't as good a value as it used to be.

If it's any consolation, the PC world may be in worse straits. We haven't heard of major problems with MacTools Deluxe 1.2 (the System 7-compatible version), but both PC Tools Deluxe 7.0 and Norton Utilities for DOS 6.0 are both a tad dangerous to use at the moment. On the other hand, the PC world hasn't undergone any changes like System 7, so PC users can continue to use the older versions. Do not try to use older versions of the Mac utilities on a disk that has been taken over by System 7. You could seriously tromp on your disk.

PC Tools Deluxe 7.0 is an impressive collection of utilities, and in previous versions has been useful and stable. In this version, the Backup and Undelete programs can freeze the computer at times, Backup may reject floppy disks for no reason, and Compress can chew up data. Ironically, Microsoft licensed Undelete from Central Point for inclusion in DOS 5.0, but I haven't heard if that version of Undelete suffers from the same bugs as the version in PC Tools Deluxe.

Norton Utilities has a similar string of bugs, including one that sounds vaguely familiar from the Mac version. Using Speed Disk, with the DOS FastOpen caching utility can result in lost data and a munged hard disk. Caching in general seems to be a problem with Norton, since Norton Cache itself doesn't get along with several major environments such as Windows and Desqview, and don't bother trying to use 5.25" disks when Norton Cache is installed since a bug can reboot the system on you.

From what we've heard Central Point is working on version 7.1 of PC Tools Deluxe and Symantec is trying to push maintenance releases of both Nortons and SUM II out the door. All of the updates should be available soon, if they aren't already. Users and companies alike can learn some lessons from this situation, so pay attention, as there will be a quiz later, after the latest version of some utility has munched your hard disk. Don't say I didn't warn you.

  • Don't upgrade to a new version of a utility that plays with your hard disk on a low-level without waiting for feedback from the guinea pig community. If you're a member of the guinea pig community, keep excellent and frequent backups using a backup program known to be reliable.

  • If you have problems with a utility package, complain your head off to the company involved. If you're paying good money for a utility package, it had damned well better not do anything evil to your hard disk. That's like buying a spreadsheet that gets your numbers irrevocably mixed up each time you print. A program should work as advertised, and should not contain fatal bugs that can damage a system. I'm not picky about a crash here and there, and I don't even mind losing what I was working on too much. But destroy other files in the process or corrupt data files and I get irritated fast.

  • Utility companies build reputations on trust alone. Companies should remove features or delay a release in order to ensure that a program has been thoroughly tested. And I mean thoroughly, on lots of different types of systems with lots of different variables.

  • Hire plenty of people for the tech support lines and pay attention to complaints on online services. I can think of few things more frustrating than having a new release of a utility package destroy my hard disk and then not even be able to get through to tech support on the phone or online. I may be technically competent, but if your program destroys my hard disk, I want hand-holding. I also want free upgrades to versions that work as a sign of good-will.

  • Keep the good utilities coming. There's nothing I like better than playing around with a new, cool, utility package on someone else's dead hard disk. Quite frankly, without these packages, we'd lose far more data than we do by suffering through the occasional bug.

Central Point Software -- 800/445-2110 -- 503/690-8080
Symantec -- 408/253-9600

Information from:
Bill Johnston -- johnston@minnie.me.udel.edu
Numerous people on America Online
Dave Martin -- DAVE@gergo.tamu.edu

Related articles:
PC WEEK -- 29-Jul-91, Vol. 8, #30, pg. 1, 8