There are hundreds of vendors of network switches, bridges, interface cards, TCP/IP suites, utilities, and network management software packages. Why is it that none of these companies can put together a software package that distills everything a user (from the neophyte to the technical) needs to know about their network connections that is as useful and inexpensive as Net.Medic? Like many previous software categories, there are bound to be competitors to Net.Medic in the near future, but I have to admit it’s been a long time since I saw a software utility that was as useful as this one.

Net.Medic runs on Windows NT and Windows 95 machines. It consists of a single program that usually is loaded through the StartUp folder. Net.Medic has a simple yet remarkably powerful interface that monitors the health of your PC, network, modem, and ISP. Heck, if it’s networked to your machine, Net.Medic can watch it. At first glance the main panel Net.Medic presents looks like a collection of idiot lights and gauges automobile manufacturers moved to several years ago. As long as they’re green, all is OK. Bar charts and line graphs add color, but most people don’t understand them anyway. (How many people know what temperatures are good for their car’s oil and coolant? Most wait for a red light to come on or a needle to move to the red zone to indicate a problem.) Net.Medic uses the same approach, turning a virtual LED red to indicate problems, and providing enough animation on the main panel to let a novice user think they understand their system’s behavior. That would keep most of the population happy. Yet underneath, Net.Medic has a wealth of diagnostic and trouble-reporting aspects that make it not out of place for a network expert. That’s where the real strength of Net.Medic lies, although most people won’t ever see or use it.

The commercial version of Net.Medic comes on a single diskette with a well-written user guide. If you obtain the shareware version from the Web, a single zipped file provides the software. Installation takes a minute, with the software asking if you want to position Net.Medic to start automatically when the system boots (a good idea). After that, a small cross icon is added to the taskbar, the color reflecting the health of the systems that it monitors. When clicked, the main window appears. A set of icons at the top give access to reports and utilities, while a running banner underneath shows statistics. Then come up to ten information panels, each pane devoted to a different aspect of your machine. All the panes use colors effectively, as well as different types of meters and lights to show analyses. The right mouse button brings up pop-up menus that allow you to hide panes or tell them to stay on top of the desktop.

The panes of Net.Medic’s main window can be turned on or off individually. One pane shows the machine’s overall health, with fully qualified domain name, a CPU load meter, and a cache hit meter. The intranet pane monitors traffic levels and delays on the local intranetwork, if there is one. An ISP pane monitors the same information for your connection to the Internet provider. A modem pane shows on-line time and throughput. Real-time Web performance, retrieval times for different Web sites, traffic transfer rates and maximum speeds, and specific paths to Internet locations can all be monitored through different panes. Most panes have a gauge or two and some lights. When the light goes red, Net.Medic has detected a problem and clicking on the light brings up a status and diagnostic window. Net.Medic can add a small status window to Netscape’s Navigator, too, so you don’t have to keep floating panes active.

A number of reports are an icon click away, including a summary report on the health of your machine and its connections, an ISP health report, site problems, traffic reports, and an optimization report. Since network problems are usually trend-oriented, not short-term, the ability to look at reports over an extended period of time makes the history reports particularly valuable for optimization and diagnostic purposes.

In use, Net.Medic is unobtrusive. It exerts very little load on the CPU, yet manages to offer millisecond accuracy on loads and throughput. Watching the Net.Medic windows at the same time as a $20K data scope, it’s surprising how effective the software is. When trouble does occur, Net.Medic reports it instantly and offers explanations for the problem and recommended remedies. Little things impressed me. Net.Medic can track the number of hops my traffic takes to a remote destination (both Internet and intranet), and doing so, helped me isolate a balky switch on my intranetwork by marking it with a red light on a chart. The diagnostic routines spot most common problems, like mis-wired or misidentified network connections (and an AutoCure routine can fix many of them).

The shareware version of Net.Medic allows you to use the basic system free, with extended reporting functions available for thirty days. Registration can be by many methods if you want to keep the software. You can purchase the software in a package with manual from the Vital Signs’ Web site, or bundled as part of an offer with Netscape’s latest releases. For the non-technical user, Net.Medic is a gentle hand-holding through network mysteries, showing throughput and problems in a clean, effective way. For the technical person, the gratuitous graphics give way to a reporting and diagnostic system that is worth far more than the purchase price. Over one million people have downloaded Net.Medic from the Vital Signs Web site as this is written, and that’s without expensive advertising or reviews in magazines. Word gets out, it seems. If you get the idea I like Net.Medic, you’re right. I’m buying copies for each machine on my network. I’ll save a fortune over a datascope upgrade!

Net.Medic 1.2
$49.95 (shareware version available)
VitalSigns Software
2933 Bunker Hill Lans
Santa Clara
CA 95054
www.vitalsigns.com