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Utilities lead to smoother computing

FROM time to time, I like to answer questions from the "I know this sounds dumb" mailbag. As usual, these aren't dumb questions at all -- just questions that people won't ask because they're afraid of sounding dumb. So ask away.

Question: I keep reading about programs called "utilities," but I can't find any on my disk. What do utilities do? Am I missing something?

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Long answer: If you look at PC magazine's list of top-selling business software this month, you'll notice something odd.

Of the Top 10 programs, only two have anything to do with actual business. One is the upgrade to Microsoft Office Professional Edition, which contains the latest versions of the company's word processing, spreadsheet, database and presentation software. The other is Symantec's WinFax Pro, which helps you send faxes using your modem. They occupied the eighth and 10th spots on the list, respectively.

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Not surprisingly, Microsoft's Windows 95 upgrade has the top spot. Win 95 has been a best seller since the software giant rolled it out almost two years ago. Many home and small business users who didn't see any reason to upgrade then are doing so now. Either they figure it's finally safe, or they realize that very few software publishers are writing programs for Windows 3.1 any more. Larger corporations, which stayed away from Windows 95 in droves, are starting to come around, too.

But the other seven spots on PC magazine's list are occupied by software called utilities. These are programs that don't do anything useful in real life, such as balance your checkbook, log onto the World Wide Web, analyze monthly sales, or help you write the Great American Novel. Instead, they help keep your computer running properly or fix it when something goes wrong.

This says a lot about the state of computing today. We supposedly buy PCs because the software that runs on them can improve our lives and make our businesses more productive. Then we spend our money on software whose main beneficiary is the computer itself. Collectively, we're like the guy who buys a boat because he loves being on the water and then spends 90 percent of his time painting, scraping and cleaning it.

The utilities on PC's list fall into several categories.

As with the national budget, defense takes a big chunk out of our software spending. In fact, the second- and third-best-selling programs are the Norton AntiVirus and McAfee's Viruscan. These don't add a penny's worth of value to our computers. All they do is fight off the twisted people who want to poison our PCs with hidden programs that trash our hard disks or make our other software inoperative. If you don't have a virus checker, buy one and use it regularly, particularly if you like to download programs from the Internet or exchange disks with other computer users. Also, write your legislator and ask to reinstate public flogging for the people who write these viruses.

Next on the list are programs that people buy because Windows doesn't do a lot of things that it should -- and because a lot of programs are downright buggy.

Two versions of CyberMedia's First Aid are among PC magazine's guests of honor. They try to intercept program crashes and fix them before they ruin whatever document you're been working on. Programs of this ilk will also analyze your system and try to resolve conflicts between hardware and software components.

Quarterdeck's Clean Sweep III gets rid of programs that you don't want any more. Many programs installed under Windows leave files scattered all over your disk. These files not only occupy space, but also may wind up causing conflicts with other programs down the line. In addition, CleanSweep will compress an unwanted program and store it on a disk, just in case you have second thoughts after you've deleted it. It will also move a program from one hard drive to another or from one computer to another. I've used CleanSweep for over a year, and it's one of my mainstays. You may want to check out other programs of the genre, including MicroHelp's Uninstaller.

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The Norton Utilities have been in power users' toolboxes for more than a decade. This collection of programs will monitor everything that goes on in your computer, repair damaged disks, restore deleted files, protect against crashes, optimize your hard drive, and -- with the latest release -- intercept program crashes. Once designed strictly for hackers, Norton's utility programs are much easier to use now and well worth the money. They can bail you out of a lot of trouble.

It's hard to describe exactly what the final program on the list does, but it's the most useful piece of software I own.

Basically, the Norton Navigator provides a lot of stuff that Windows 95 left out. Its centerpiece is the Norton File Manager, which makes it much easier to find, move, copy, organize, delete and view the contents of the files on your disk than the Windows Explorer. Navigator can index your word processing files for lightning fast searches by content. It handles the ZIPping and unZIPping of archived files that you download from the Internet or on-line services, and it gives many older Windows programs the ability to handle the longer file names that Win 95 allows. It's the closest thing I've found to a Swiss Army knife.

Pub Date: 7/20/97


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