Protect & survive
Hard disk care
Healthy disk, clean botty - but how to keep it that way
It's not the sexiest software in the world, but it might just save your life. Ian Waugh guides us through a maze of disk rescue and maintenance packages, and finds a clean desktop isn't always the sign of a sick mind
You've spent a lot of money on your hard disk and it's a vital part of your music-production work. Modern hard disks are very reliable, but things can go wrong. Power cuts can occur, programs can crash, and you can even (though you may think you're immune from this) delete files by mistake. And when the worst happens - as it assuredly will at least once in your computing life - it's nice to have a utility to help you put the problem right.
The best insurance against disaster is to make regular backups, but I don't know anyone who does - no, not even me.
It doesn't take a major disaster to wrongfoot the files on your disk. If your computer locks up and you have to reset it, damage may occur to some files, especially on the Mac and PC which use the disk quite heavily as a temporary storage area. You may not know about this until you try to access the file or application. When a crash occurs, it's a good idea to run a utility program over the disk to see if any damage was done, and to repair it.
You might think that the only problem you're likely to have with a disk is for a file to become garbaged so that either it won't load, or else contains incorrect data when it does. There is actually a lot more to disk and file maintenance than that, and modern disk utility programs have a dozen or more subprograms which perform all sorts of tests and repairs on your disk and files.
Fortunately, most of this is fairly automatic. The programs run, do their stuff, and occasionally prompt you in relative English if there are any major decisions to be made.
For the PC, the two major players are Norton Utilities 7.0 and PCTools for Windows. Both handle an enormous range of disk and file problems.
Norton is a DOS-based program, but menu-driven and can largely be controlled with a mouse. It is packed with useful and powerful utilities, including a host of hardware diagnostics which can test your system board, serial and parallel ports, memory, hard and floppy disks, video, mouse, keyboard, and more.
Norton pioneered data recovery software, and the pack includes a vast range of recovery and repair options. It can recover deleted files (although the later versions of DOS have an undelete, too) and repair damaged ones. It can restore a formatted disk (up to a point) and protect disks against data loss. It also has a very powerful disk editor which you shouldn't mess with unless you're a PC pro.
There are also security options which prevent data being written to the disk without your approval, and which can totally obliterate a file so no one can recover it. The program can also encrypt and password-protect files to keep them from prying eyes.
There's also a facility to optimise your computer for maximum speed, and unfragment files. The System Info utility reports on all aspects of your system, which is useful if you have problems installing new hardware. It also performs benchmarks and gives performance ratings.
Norton contains lots of other tools, too, some of which will mainly interest the programmer or PC hacker. However, there are useful utilities here which everyone can use, such as Text Search which looks for occurrences of text in files. Change Directory lets you navigate through and manage the directory structure on your disk, and Duplicate Disk is a fast floppy disk copier.
Norton's main rival, PCTools for Windows, not only includes disk and file utilities, but also an alternative Windows desktop. The full installation requires 14Mb of disk space, although you can elect to install just selected utilities.
The desktop is superb and takes the place of the Program Manager and File Manger. The Program Groups become folders, which is far more sensible - a bit more Mac-like, really. You can actually create several desktops, so you could have one for wordprocessing, one for utilities, one for music, one for graphics, and so on.
The right mouse button calls up special sub-menus, and there's plenty of scope for customising your work environment. All the tools are available from Windows, which makes them very accessible if you're a GUI person rather than a DOS person.
The PCTools utilities are available through separate program modules, all accessible from the Multidesktop. They include Anti-Virus, Backup, Delete Protection (which greatly improves your chances of recovering deleted files), Disk Fix (which analyses and repairs disk problems), and File Viewer (which lets you display over 75 types of file in their native format). You can also view compressed files. Nice.
Meanwhile, the Optimiser defragments your disk, the Scheduler lets you run PCTools unattended at preset times, Smart Find helps you locate files quickly, and System Consultant tells you how your system is configured and how it performs.
There are also screen savers with password protection, an icon editor, several file accessories, and Script Tools - which is a powerful macro tool.
Mirror is a DOS program that saves a copy of the system information, which improves your chances of using Unformat or DiskFix.
"It doesn't take a major disaster to wrongfoot the files on your disk"
Although the Mac is intrinsically easier to use than a PC, there are more utility programs for it. Perhaps it's because Mac users don't want to get their hands dirty by delving into the system's innards - and quite right too!
The major utilities here are Mac versions of the PC programs: Norton Utilities for the Mac and MacTools 3. There are others, though, including Snooper (£145 from Symantec), MacEKG (£79 from Mac Warehouse), Help! (£79 from Mac Warehouse) and Peace of Mind (£125 from Amtech) which diagnose your Mac and report accordingly. They are useful if you want an analysis of your system, but they don't generally have the range of rescue and repair facilities of the other programs.
MacTools 3 is very similar in operation to PCTools. It doesn't have an alternative desktop - but then, the Mac doesn't need one, does it? The utilities include FileFix, DiskFix, FastCopy for copying floppies, Undelete, Backup, Anti-Virus, and Optimiser. The Trashback function lets you recover deleted files directly from a Finder menu. For some reason the Disk Edit feature from v2.0 has been removed, although most Mac users would probably steer clear of it anyway. The Auto Check function can run periodic unattended analyses of your disk during the Mac's idle times.
The pack also includes DriveLight, which gives you a visual indication of the activity on your disk drives. I find this very reassuring during long periods of disk activity. There is a shareware program which does a similar thing, but it's more basic.
Norton's main utilities are Disk Doctor, which analyses and repairs disks and files, Unerase, Volume Recover for formatted or crashed disks, Speed Disk (a defragmenter), and Norton Backup.
The pack includes several other utilities such as a fast floppy copier, an encryption routine, Wipe Info (which completely trashes a file), a superb Fast Find utility which finds files anywhere on your system, and a utility to customise the layout of files and folders in a window if you still haven't upgraded to System 7 (and if not, why not?).
Directory Assistance II enhances the Open/Save dialogue boxes, giving you a list of the most recently opened files and folders. There are other similar utilities such as Super Boomerang in the Now Utilities pack. I don't know about you, but now that I've got it, I simply couldn't work without something like this.
Norton also has a Disk Light indicator and a Disk Editor for anyone confident enough to dance with their disks - although there is no virus checker.
There is one more Mac utility I must mention and that's the FWB Hard Disk ToolKit. This is more a disk management utility than a repair one. It replaces your hard disk's original installer with its own, which gives you a lot of control over your SCSI storage devices, both fixed drives and removable ones.
There are half-a-dozen powerful utilities for formatting and controlling your disks. They include flexible partitioning, data security using passwords, and on-the-fly encryption.
Plus there are diagnostic routines, benchmarks, and a facility for the expert to customise over 150 drive parameters (don't even think about it).
"As a computer user, you owe it to yourself to invest in a disk and file protection"
Not so long ago, I had a problem with an external disk which I wanted to reformat, but none of the standard Apple formatters would recognise it. Neither MacTools nor Norton would mount the drive, so it was impossible to format. But ToolKit did the job and saved my life. Or at least, saved my ears from the wrath of an Editor's tongue due to a missed deadline.
Perhaps the ToolKit is not as essential to the average user as the other utilities, but if you have a couple of drives or use removable disks, or have experienced problems with your disk's driver, then it's certainly worth having. And the manual will tell just about everything you need to know about hard disks and the SCSI interface.
In a feature such as this it's impossible to cover every aspect of these programs, but if you've been convinced that you need some form of disk utility - and you do - you may be wondering which one to go for. It's very difficult to arrive at a 'best buy' as Norton and the PCTools programs each do an excellent job - yet neither does everything that the other does.
For the PC, PCTools is easy to use and has a superb alternative desktop to boot. If you have a spare 14Mb of disk space and are not a techy, then PCTools is for you. If you don't, and are quite happy with DOS, then Norton delves a little deeper into your PC's innards.
As we went to press, however, version 2.00 of PCTools was about to be launched, with many new features including Crash Guard on-line indication of system resources, new Anti-Virus for Windows, new Backup routines, support for the latest version of PKZip, a more integrated desktop and file manager, and a 100+ file viewer. Best news of all is the price, which has been reduced to £69 + VAT.
On the Mac, MacTools 3 has surpassed Norton in terms of features, and although I suspect Norton is due an update. I have no concrete information to this effect.
As a computer user, you owe it to yourself to invest in a disk and file protection and repair utility. Use it once, and it's paid for itself.
Buy one now before it's too late...
Feature by Ian Waugh
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