If there’s been a single successful line of utilities since the DOS days, it’s Norton Utilities. Years ago we depended on Disk Test, Speed Disk and other parts of the Utilities package to clean up our DOS hard drives. As Windows rolled in, Norton adapted with utilities designed to work under that environment. Sold to Symantec years ago, Norton Utilities has continued to evolve, the latest release for Windows 98 is Version 4.0. (Norton Utilities for Windows NT is still in Version 2.0: Utilities for Windows 98 does not work properly under NT and you should not load it under that operating system.)

The Norton Utilities 4.0 package consists of a thin User Guide, CD-ROM and diskettes, as well as a six-month subscription offer to Norton Web Services for “only $6.95”. Norton Web Services is an update site that uses the automatic update feature built into the Utilities. There’s nothing else on the site other than updates and offers for other Symantec products. So you’re effectively paying $6.95 to get updates for the first six months after you buy a supposedly current release of the Utilities. Unfortunately, this tempting offer had expired by the time the Utilities package reached us, meaning we’d have to pay $29.95 for the updates instead.

If this little marketing twist left a bad taste, it was soon forgotten as we installed Norton Utilities 4.0 on a number of test machines, desktop and laptops alike. The basic Norton Utilities package looks the same as earlier releases. When you boot Windows 95 or Windows 98 the Norton System Doctor starts up and monitors the health of your system. An on-screen panel shows a variable amount of information, all of which is easily tweaked to suit your requirements. The System Doctor panel and its refresh cycles take a bit of processor power, and on a slow Pentium machine you’ll notice a hit in overall system performance when System Doctor is running.

The heart of the Norton Utilities 4.0 package are the utilities like Disk Doctor and Speed Disk which perform disk tests and defragmentation in a fraction of the time the supplied Windows tools take. The Disk Doctor tool also catches some problems that Windows’ ScanDisk can’t catch. There are all the other standard Utilities tools, too, including diagnostics for the entire system and a user-friendly System Genie which uses an icon-driven interface to allow novice users to perform various changes to the system (such as wallpaper and desktop shortcuts). The System Check utility scans your machine for common problems and provides single-click fixes to them, which can save you a considerable amount of time over checking everything manually. Registry corruption problems can also be fixed with Doctor Scan. There are many more utilities in the package, all of which you can evaluate with a time-limited evaluation version of Norton Utilities 4.0 from the Symantec Web site.

The Rescue Recovery Wizard is designed to create a set of backups for recovering your entire system. Norton Utilities 4.0 includes Zip and Jaz support, so these removable media can be used instead of floppies for emergency recoveries. (Norton Zip Rescue can be downloaded for free from the Symantec Web site, leaving you to wonder why you would buy Norton Utilities 4.0 for that feature.) Of course we should all have emergency recovery disks, but few do. The Recovery Wizard makes the creating and use of these recovery disks easy. Reloading a machine after a crash is particularly easy thanks to this Wizard.

New to this release of Norton Utilities is the ability to run most of the utilities directly from CD-ROM. This is handy when you have to fix a machine that has crashed for some reason, and you don’t want to install the full Utilities set. Another new feature is the Connection Doctor which performs a check of your modem and then checks conflicts with other hardware or software on your PC. A Troubleshooting wizard helps solve the most common problems (wrong COM port, for example), but will be of little use to experienced users.

One of the additions to Norton Utilities 4.0 is the latest release of Norton Crashguard, which according to the blurb on the box “automatically protects against application crashes and screen freezes”. Crashguard was problematic on all our test systems. It often reported crashes that were not real crashes. A typical example occurred during a network-based application that downloaded files from an FTP site on the Internet. When the connection became slow or transfers ceased for a couple of minutes, Crashguard decided the application had crashed and popped up its recovery window. The application could be restarted with the Revive button on the recovery window, but while the recovery window was active the transfer was locked. This illustrates a general point with Crashguard: when it thinks an application has crashed it prevents the application from doing anything further, even when conditions that may have caused the crash clear.

Another example may help: the SETI at Home project lets your computer process SETI signals in background (http://www.setiathome.com). One test system was transferring results to the SETI server when our router’s connection to the Internet dropped. Crashguard locked the SETI client application and popped up the recovery window. The connection to the Internet restarted a minute later, but the client remained locked out by the recovery window until manually restarted by a user. In the meantime, hours had gone by with no processing performed.

Even worse, on one test machine Norton Utilities itself caused a lockout that Crashguard didn’t catch. The machine was performing a software load when the process locked up with no recovery window from Crashguard appearing. Using Ctrl-Alt-Del to display the Close Program window showed both the install routine and Norton Utilities as “Not Responding”. Crashguard didn’t catch either crash and they had to be terminated manually.

What about more routine crashes in well-behaved applications? We tested Crashguard’s ability to allow a data save after a crash by using both Word and PowerPoint on two different machines, sharing a file from the other machine for each application. After failing the network connection, the Recovery window appeared. We tried using the “Revive” button to no effect. After reinstating the network connection, the Revive button still did nothing. The Office 2000 applications remained completely locked out and Crashguard failed to allow us to save our data. During use of Adobe FrameMaker with a file on the same machine, Crashguard popped up the Recovery window for no apparent reason. The Revive button got rid of the Recovery window and the application continued to work fine. We’re not sure why the Recovery window appeared. A particular favorite victim of Crashguard is Netscape Navigator 4.6. At least ten percent of the time we’d get a Recovery window appearing, again for no apparent reason, sometimes with the Revive button allowing us ton continue to work, sometimes having to use the Close Application window to terminate Navigator.

Did we have any good experiences with Crashguard? Not really. During our month-long testing period we had many Recovery windows appear, but in almost all cases we resorted to the Close Program window to manage the processes. After our testing period, Crashguard quickly was removed from the machines, never to be loaded again. We’re not sure why anyone would want to rely on this utility as it doesn’t seem to provide the type of behavior Symantec claims and at least on our network seemed to cause more harm than good.

There’s not a lot of difference in the Norton Utilities 4.0 package from the last release. A few tools have been tweaked, a couple have been added (most notably the Registry Doctor), but on the whole it’s much the same package as the last Utilities release. If you bought the previous edition of Norton Utilities it’s hard to see why you would want to upgrade. If you don’t have Norton Utilities at all, you really should consider purchasing it. The tools and utilities make daily use of Windows a much better experience.

Norton Utilities 4.0
10201 Torre Avenue
CA 95014