FIRST AID 95 DELUXE
First Aid, which first emerged late last year, has the laudable aim of protecting the user from nasty Windows shocks - and protecting the support group from unnecessary calls. Despite the name, this is both a Windows 95 and 3.1 product; I tested it under 95. It's a shame that First Aid itself generated an error message when I started it, complaining about an incorrect DLL. Cybermedia's technical support said: "Oh, yes it does that. It's not really a bug, just ignore it." ... hmm.
First Aid uses a knowledge base of the components that make up many popular applications, giving it a chance to pinpoint an error and fix it. It can also give your multimedia the once-over. This is quite basic, ensuring that files play okay. It thought that my MIDI drivers were incorrect, even though they work fine. The solution was to re-install my sound card.
I followed its advice and ended up with the card installed twice, conflicts in the device manager and 10 minutes of untangling to get back to a working state, where once again I was told that my MIDI drivers were wrongly set up.
After another simplistic section checking your on-line connections comes the clean-up facility. This will remove or reattach any stray shortcuts and file associations. Next is crash-proofing, providing protection against GPFs and other problems with your old 16-bit applications. It works, but didn't help with my favourite error, where a 16-bit app crashes a 32-bit app - I suppose you can't have everything. First Aid concludes with some tune-up information, an application trimming feature, and Tech Support Yellow Pages (both a help file and a book) - an excellent list of contact information for over 2,000 vendors.
The Deluxe label adds a few worthy extras. Retrofix keeps snapshots of important files like the registry each time you shut down Windows. A handy feature if you install a program that trashes your settings, but not suitable for an inexperienced user. Deluxe also provides a boot disk to get your PC going in the event of losing your CMOS or any other catastrophe. But most interestingly, Deluxe has Internet connections. These link the tech support pages to vendors' Web sites, and provide updates to the First Aid database (and the program itself). This is a great idea, even if download times are a bit slow - updates are essential for a program that relies on information about individual applications to work at its best. One oddity here - the Tech Support link started Navigator, even though it wasn't my default browser. Maybe Netscape slipped CyberMedia a fiver.
I looked at WinProbe 4, WinProbe 95's 16-bit predecessor, about a year ago. US customers get WinProbe 4 free on their CD-ROM, but UK users have to buy them separately. One dumb thing about the installation: it asks for a serial number that's printed on the CD-ROM. So you get the CD out, type the number in, replace the disk and a second copy of setup auto-runs: marvellous!
I found the 16-bit user interface overwhelming. The range of dials and meters is still busy, but I coped rather better this time. Alongside a system information section, listing comprehensive data on your computer, is a tuner. This provides tweaks to the Windows user interface, like dropping the startup screen, and a registry tuner that looks out for unused entries, which is not a bad idea if you regularly uninstall software.
Beyond this you've got the ability to apply a quick set of diagnostics to your hardware and to produce the inevitable recovery disks. WinProbe includes all the drivers on the recovery disk - a real help - but it makes for a largish recovery set; mine ran to seven floppies. There's a unified editor for the registry and system INI files, which takes a relatively friendly approach and provides the very sensible precaution of automatically backing up the registry before putting the change in place - it's a shame that I couldn't find any documentation that tells you how to restore it, though. The registry editor could provide more knowledge on what various settings mean and what you can do with them, rather than just providing a structured editor.
Like First Aid, WinProbe has a crash protector, Crash Shield. This caught the crash that First Aid let slip, enabling me to save my work before shutting down - a big brownie point for WinProbe. Although there are some overlaps between the products, WinProbe and First Aid are both worthwhile additions to the toolbox.
Partition Magic has been around a while, but it's the first chance I've had to review it. At first sight partitions are a pain - why not lump everything together? Size isn't everything, though; big partitions bring their own problems. On a 1.6Gb drive like mine, each file, however small, occupies 32K. It's easy that way to run up tens of megabytes of wasted space. Microsoft has recognised the problem and is coming out with an improved version of the FAT file system, but it's unlikely to be retro-fitted, so this remains a problem for millions of existing machines.
That's not the end of the problems, either. A single partition means a single boot sector - not always desirable even with a boot manager.
The answer to all this is Partition Magic. This program lets you change partitions in a remarkably painless way. It's a DOS program, but it can be installed from Windows 95 and has an excellent imitation of a Windows 95 interface. Until now, partition changes involved considerable care, reinstalling data, and the sacrifice of several chickens - the remarkable thing about Partition Magic is that they become almost as simple as creating and changing folders.
If there's any doubt about the reality of the disk space savings, I partitioned off a 150Mb section and transferred my document directory across. Suddenly I had an extra 25Mb of free space. If you have a large hard disk and lots of small files, or you have to change your disk partitioning, forget FDISK - you need Partition Magic.
It would be unfair to mention Partition Magic without also throwing in System Commander. If you use several operating systems, you need a decent boot manager, and System Commander is one of the best. It claims to be able to cope with over 100 operating systems on a single PC - frankly, anyone with more than three is a touch sad, but some do need to flip OS with boring frequency. The most impressive thing about System Commander is its transparency. To add a new OS to its list, just install it as normal.
In the vast majority of cases, next time you start up, it will be on the menu and you're away. You don't have to have each OS in a separate partition of course - System Commander can cope with 32 in a single partition, happily maintaining separate copies of files like AUTOEXEC.BAT. If you're always changing operating systems in midstream, you'll love System Commander.
PANTONE COLORDRIVE 1.5
This is a bit of a specialist number - in essence, ColorDrive is a palette rationaliser. It enables you to establish unified palettes across your images and applications to produce a consistent result on a particular colour printer. Unlike many such utilities, this Windows 95 product is fairly user friendly, with a decent installer and a clear interface. Having said that, it could be more process-driven and cries out for wizards.
The argument that all the users are going to be experts misses the point.
They might be graphics experts, but that doesn't necessarily make them IT experts, and this application requires both. There's a good list of profiled colour printers, a tiny list of screens and a limited list of applications supported, although they are the obvious ones. Nonetheless, if you're producing professional colour output from a Windows 95 machine, this is a must.
ColorDrive is available from Pantone on 01303 259959. It costs #149.
Web site http://www.pantone.com
First Aid 95 Deluxe is from Cybermedia on 0800 973631. It costs #59.95 (upgrade from First Aid 95, #19.95). Web site http://www.cybermedia.com
WinProbe 95 is available from Quarterdeck on 01245 496699. It costs #49.99.
Web site http://www.quarter deck.com
Partition Magic (#69.95) and System Commander (#69.95) are distributed by POW! on 01202 716726. Web site http://www.pow-dist.co.uk
VERDICT: First Aid 95 Deluxe
- Crash protection
- Application fixing
- On-line updates
- Crash protection
- Irritating startup bug
- Got my sound card drivers tangled
VERDICT: WinProbe 95
- Good, quick diagnostics
- Crash protection
- Driver backup
- Still rather baffling
- Limited guidance on registry editing
VERDICT: Partition Magic
- It works!
- Flexible use of disk space
- Less value with new FAT
VERDICT: System Commander
- It works!
- Not intrusive
- Encourages multiple operating systems
VERDICT: Pantone ColorDrive 1.5
- Pantone knows about colour
- Fairly user friendly
- Powerful palette control
- Needs more guidance
- Tiny list of screen profiles.
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