Utility programs are first-aid stations to make computing easier, safer

Computer file

July 01, 1991|By Lawrence J. Magid | Lawrence J. Magid,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

The new MS-DOS 5.0 adds a lot of features, but there is still a market for "utility" programs that make computing easier and safer. The two leading DOS utility publishers, Symantec's Peter Norton Group and Central Point Software, have just released new versions of their popular programs.

Utilities serve as health-maintenance and first-aid stations for your PC's disks. They help prevent accidental loss of data and improve performance by reducing the amount of time it takes for your PC to access data from its hard disk. But utilities don't stop at protecting your data. Both products come with lots of extra programs. Norton now has an alternative version of the DOS command line. PC Tools comes with a slew of application programs, including communications software, a database and software that lets you control a remote computer via phone or cable.

The two companies are very competitive and their products have a great deal in common. The main differences are the bonus programs that are included in the packages.

Both programs have features that can "undelete" erased files and restore disks that were accidentally reformatted. Similar features are now included with DOS 5.0, but these utility programs offer stronger protection than DOS 5.0 by itself.

Norton Utilities now comes with a feature called "erase protect" that intercepts commands that would ordinarily delete a file. Instead, it moves the file into a hidden directory named "TrashCan." You can specify the size of the trashcan and how long (in days) to keep old files. The feature, according to the company, can reclaim protected files with "100 percent reliability." PC Tools has a similar function called "Delete Sentry" which, according to the company "provides complete protection against accidental deletion."

Both programs can automatically diagnose and repair damaged disks. They run tests to determine the integrity of various parts of a disk. When they find a problem, they can tell you about it or fix it automatically. The programs can even detect areas of a disk that have physical damage.

Both products have features designed to speed up access to your hard disk. Left to is own devices, DOS stuffs pieces of your files in various locations around your disk. PC Tools and Norton Utilities include defragmentation programs that bring files together. That minimizes the necessary travel for the drive's read/write heads, therefore speeding up access.

The programs include disk caching software that improves performance by keeping recently used data in random access memory. They can also adjust the interleave factor on some types of hard disks. That can improve performance by better coordinating the way the disk's read/write head interacts with the disk itself.

Both programs have an "Advise Menu" to help users learn about common disk problems and DOS error messages. The Norton advise menu now includes error messages from WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and dBase III and IV.

PC Tools comes with two backup programs. One works under DOS, the other under Windows. The DOS and Windows programs are compatible, which is a good idea for organizations that mix DOS and Windows, as well as individual DOS users who think they may later move to Windows.

PC Tools' application programs include a dBase-compatible database, four calculators, a note-pad (mini-word processor), an appointment scheduler, an outliner and a macro editor. If you have a fax modem, you can use PC Tools to create and send a fax. PC Tools also comes with a program that lets one PC control another PC connected via a telephone or a serial cable. There is a telecommunications program that allows you to connect to MCI Mail, CompuServe and other online services.

PC Tools also comes with a program launcher and undelete program for Microsoft Windows. Norton 6.0 is designed to work safely with Windows and has a "Windows-like" interface, but it does not have any modules that run under Windows. On July 15, Norton will release the Norton Desktop for Windows ($129), which comes with Windows versions of most of its utilities.

Norton Utilities now comes with NDOS -- an enhancement to DOS' command line interface. NDOS makes up for a lot of DOS' shortcomings, offering features that aren't even available in DOS 5.0. One of its most useful features is the ability to add up to 40 character descriptions to your files. The description is displayed when you use the DIR command and it stays with the file when you copy, move or rename it.

NDOS offers more flexible wild cards. For example, by typing "DIR (asterisk) T (asterisk)" you can find each file that has the letter "T" in its name.

NDOS allows you to create more sophisticated batch files than regular DOS. Batch files are easy to write little programs that let you automate the way you use DOS. NDOS also makes it possible to run programs by typing in the name of a data file you associate with the program.

Both programs have a suggested retail price of $179, but there are promotional deals and other deep discounts. Owners of earlier versions of Norton Utilities can upgrade for $39. A PC Tools upgrade cost $49.

Central Point can be reached at (503) 699-8090. Norton/Symantec can be reached at (800) 441, 7234.

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