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The Net Takeaway: New PC, New Software

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New PC, New Software · 01/28/2006 06:25 PM, Tech

My wife was getting sick and tired of her old PC, so we took advantage of the holidays to upgrade me to a new Dell and give her my old one. I tried to do things a little differently this time.

I wound up with a Dimension 9150, which is similar to an XPS 400 (middle of the line gaming machine). I went for 1 gig of ram, a 250G SATA drive, and an nvidida generic (dell version) Geforce 6800 on a PCI Express 16 slot. The system uses the new Intel Pentium D 830 chip (800 mhz bus, 1mb onboard l2 cache, acts like 2 cpus, but no hyperthreading) on an Intel 945G chipset.

Zippy machine, but lots of gotchas to be aware of.

Because I was trying to save money, I decided to try something different with my utilities. I’ve used Norton Utils since the early 80s (when they bought out my fav PCTools from Central Point Software). But each additional version has been more and more annoying, and has more and more ways to take my money. So, I decided to try some less well known but cheaper options.

Costco is wonderful for software when they have it. Its always cheaper than anywhere else, even Newegg, even Buy.com. And so I got the following:

Iolo System Mechanic 6

Iolo, out of LA in California, have been around for a while, since 1998. They are now on version 6 of their package, but its gotten practically no reviews. A couple of people have reviewed version 5, and the response was always mixed. In addition, they always reviewed the System Mechanic Professional version, which includes anti-virus and firewall, but I wasn’t looking for that (more below, but the AV and FW is just Kaspersky and I wanted something different (and it used to be Panda, so can’t they keep a partner?)). The reviews usually focused on that part of the toolset and ignored the useful stuff. So, I was flying blind when I bought System Mechanic 6.

So, what have I found? Well, its true, they did cheap out in places. Where Norton makes a WinPE bootable CD and disk for rescue purposes, Iolo chose to use FreeDos (and don’t really provide any of the GPL code or GPL licenses, bad move). The problem is that the version of FreeDos they are using to make the CD bootable (or to make a boot floppy) doesn’t recognize the SATA drives in the new Dell, so the rescue boot thinks I have no drives and locks up. While this is not a dealbreaker, it does leave me a bit defenseless during a catastrophic failure. I never had that issue with Norton; its rescue stuff always boots. I will be playing with the disks myself to see if I can update the FreeDos or create my own rescue disk (lots of botable CDs out there, but none have the Iolo tools).

The interface does have some weaknesses: everything is a wizard, so its hard to get control over some of the features. It assumes the user is not as savvy as an expert, and so tries to hide some of its details away. I don’t love that, but I can usually tell what its doing. (Read my McAfee review below for an interface which hides everything it can, to the user’s detriment.)

I’m going to focus on what I use; there are lots of features here, many of which I don’t care about. It does have the various alerts and such to tell you that you haven’t optimized this or that. Unlike Norton, it does have an Internet “speed-upper”, basically a set of registry mods to up the TCP receive window, simult connections, etc. It checks startup programs and lets you re-order them (a nice touch), as well as “optimizes” them and, of course, remove problems.

Like Norton, it has a defragger. While its faster than Norton’s, and does have boot-time defragging (a very nice touch), it pales in comparison to the absolutely awesome Diskeeper. I don’t own it personally, but we use it at work, and WOW (but the Professional edition is $50, 2x the price of all of SM6 at Costco). Anyway, the defragger is not as fast as Diskeeper, but isn’t bad.

System Customizer is a nice menu over a collection of registry settings for all sorts of speedups and hacks. SM6 also has a “memory free-up” and “memory defragger”. Most reviews of standalone memory utils say they suck (I recall the fun of Ram Doubler and its ilk during the heydays of Windows 3.1 and 95) and I haven’t found this to be all that useful… but its interesting. There’s also a nice process manager, not as powerful as the amazing (and FREE!) ProcessExplorer at Sysinternals, but still pretty handy.

I haven’t yet tried it, but it does have a Registry cleaner. Fred Langa did an amazing review of 10 registry cleaners (though not this one) and he wasn’t all that impressed with any of them. SM6 also has “Spython”, a spyware checker, but I’ll stick with Microsoft’s Anti-Spyware.

It’s Drive Medic is their Disk Doctor. Its slow, and doesn’t reveal what its checking, which really irks me. I presume its like Norton’s, but honestly, it hides so many details that I’m completely unsure what its doing. That scares me. I don’t understand why they don’t provide an expert mode for each tool, esp this one, which gives full into on what its doing, finding, and fixing.

There is a wizard which looks for security flaws, which is not such a bad thing. I didn’t agree with all of its recommendations, but it was probably right. Automatic System Protection basically backs up some current settings (home page, etc.) and tries to intercept changes to them, mostly around Startup, certain process insertions, and homepage and searchpage changes. One could consider this a spyware/virus protection thing, but I already have Microsoft’s Anti-Spyware and a virus scanner keeping an eye on these things. A “Windows Change Tracker” does snapshots of many settings, akin to the system restore built into windows or Norton’s GoBack (but not as continual as GoBack, which is pretty impressive if your system has the horsepower). An OK System Info tool gives the usual stuff, and a built-in logging system tries to let you roll back changes (but is so confusing that to me, it’s worthless). I have to say, the logging is full of extraneous and undetailed events. I really don’t care that the menu was opened, but I damn well want a list of what scans were run and what was found, from Drive Medic through to Defrags.

There is a scheduler built in for running many of its maintenance tasks. SM6 also has a popup blocker (who needs this nowadays?), a “junk file remover” which I never trust (I can clean my tmp and internet temp files myself, thank you very much), a Dupe file finder, a software uninstaller (don’t know how much I trust that yet either, but it may turn out to be handy if it cleans the registry), an Internet cleanup/privacy tool (don’t know if it can kill index.dat, and cookies aren’t so bad, what’s with you people?) as well as a “permanent file deleter” which overwrites the file with scramble. There is a shortcut fixer, which I don’t think I have ever worried about in all my years of Windows. It has a “software mover” which basically edits shortcuts and the registry when you move apps to a different drive or folder (but on the same machine, this is not Alohabob’s PC Relocator) These are all dupes of various standalone utilities and apps, some of which you may want, but for me are just useless. I guess you are getting them as a bonus, since Norton doesn’t really have any of them. If these are things you don’t already have, or really want, more’s the better.

Support has sucked electronically. I’ve waited multiple weeks for responses for each request I’ve logged. Each time I’ve had to call and sit on hold for up to 20 minutes. The techs are ok, and are American, but still… Online technotes are void of useful details about the tool, and mostly repeat the help files.

I miss my Norton Recycle Bin, which caught anything deleted by any program. Iolo has nothing like that.

Summary? So far, its OK. I wish the rescue boot thing worked. I wish defrag was faster. I wish they were more upfront with tech info on their site so I could better understand what the tool was doing. But it was much cheaper than Norton, and it does have many of the same features, if not implemented the same way. I don’t recommend it unilaterally: decide if Norton is worth the extra money to get the extra stuff (Ghost is great if you get the expensive package, and of course, NAV is a standard, GoBack can be handy). There is a free trial, so you can actually use it for a time to see how it works. Backup your stuff, of course before trying this (I love Norton’s Ghost or Retrospect by Dantz.)

McAfee VirusScan and Personal Firewall Plus

My other machine has run NAV and ZoneAlarm Free for years, and for the most part, its been pretty good. ZoneAlarm, of course, is the gold standard for free personal firewalls and thanks to the loss of most of the rest (I’ll talk about them in a future post), its an obvious starting place.

The problem was that I started wanting more more and more control over what the firewall allowed and didn’t allow… and ZoneAlarm Free didn’t do it. I could have upgraded to a paid version… but that still left me wondering what to do for a Virus. Yes, since I didn’t buy SystemWorks, I had to find a virus program as well.

There are free anti-virus programs out there as well, but I don’t love any of them. And since I wasn’t going with SystemWorks, I now had to find both a virus and a firewall.

Costco to the rescue again. They had a bundle of McAfee VirusScan and Personal Firewall Plus (I have not figured out what’s so plus about it) for cheap… and it was already installed on the Dell for a 90 day trial, so I figured: let it run and see how it does. For those history buffs, the firewall is the relabeled Signal 9 ConSeal Private Desktop which McAfee absorbed in 1999, and VirusScan has been around since DOS days (along with the faster F-Prot).

Basically, McAfee crams it all into a “security center” console, and tries to treat the user like an idiot. Going even beyond Iolo, it hides away every possible way to let the user know what its doing so that you can have an “ignorance is bliss” feeling. Every setting is an “all or nothing” setting. I can’t, for example, allow local IPs in my network to do some things but not others… I either trust them completely or block them completely. Too bad, I really wanted to allow my wife to see pictures of my son, but I guess she won’t be allowed to. If you are willing to click deep enough, you do stumble across some useful firewall features, but they are both well hidden and incomplete.

AntiVirus just bugs me. Scans are pretty fast. But its impossible to find out information about what happened. No log of runs (or of settings used) is kept, no info about the scan is given to the user at all (elapsed time? k/sec? What it scanned, what it skipped?). I guess they feel that if nothing is found, then the user shouldn’t even know anything happened… and that’s sloppy, esp for a security company. And how about this gem from the Help file:

“Rescue Disk is not supported by your operating system. We are currently working on a solution and will automatically provide an update to your VirusScan software when it is available.”

Well, thanks for nothing. Funny, your compadres at Norton do provide a way to make a rescue disk. Yes, I am aware that Iolo copped out on this too. Hear the birdies go “cheap, cheap, cheap”.

Basically, VirusScan is probably powerful at detecting well hidden and subtle things, but how can I tell? So much is hidden away from the user that if I did get a virus, I would have little to no control over how to fix it.

The Firewall is also a subscription service. Why? What possible reason could we have for subscribing to a firewall? Turns out that they want us to download new application signatures for automatic configuration. Tell ya what, McAfee: let me figure that out, don’t try to find a way to keep charging me for a firewall. You have a cash cow with antivirus, don’t pee into the wind.

This firewall has a bad rep for outbound events, with perhaps too much emphasis on inbound events… that is, it logs (relatively well) the inbound stuff of interest, but there is no logging of outbound (which really, really sucks). Good trace and ban features (though the fact that I trace a portscan to Bulgaria helps me how? Pretty though it may be…). Reviews constatnly pointed out how leaky (allowing programs lots of outbound access) it is, and though some folks disagree, I think its sad that only ZoneAlarm is so focused on fixing this, while others (like McAfee) seem to just let it ride. PCMag got verification that McAfee allows this on purpose which is rather disappointing. Seems the McAfee corporate firewall stops leaks, but regular old infected users are allowed to pollute the internet as much as they want.

Now, I haven’t seen it, but almost every review points out the incessant ads in McAfee products. B/c my Dell has the full suite in trial mode, I don’t see ads now… but if I start seeing them, I will be pissed. Since the other reviewers imply that its coming, I’m gritting my teeth. See, for example, AdwareReport’s review

So, my summary? It was probably a mistake to cheap it out. I should have bought ZoneAlarm Pro which retails for $40… and if I had bought it direct from ZA, I could have gotten Iolo SM6 for only $20 (even cheaper than Costco). The full load is $60, which is getting to SystemWorks or Norton Internet Security pricing… but ZA really seems more controllable.

Note that Symantec effectively priced me out. I wanted to get SystemWorks and the Norton Firewall and be a one-stop shop, but even at Costco, I would have spent almost $100 and bought some programs twice.

Its too soon to spend more money on this stuff, and its dangerous to run too many types of these utilities at one time. I will probably, near future, get Systemworks and ZoneAlarm and run things the way I want to. Yes, I know Systemworks has problems, but better the Devil you know than the Devil you don’t, right?

Firewalls

If you don’t want to buy one, at your own risk check out:
ZoneAlarm Duh.
Filseclab Open Source…
Jetico Freeware
NetVeda Appears to be free, but hard to tell
Kerio Acq by Sunbelt Software, a “limited” free edition (and cheap purchase)

A recent (01/24/2006) review by WXPNews is here where Kerio is the winner. Some people complained, and they followed up with:

For an unbiased opinion, though, check out Neil Rubenking’s firewall review in the October 2005 issue of PC Magazine. He reviewed the same products and came to the same conclusion: Kerio is the best choice for Windows 2000 and XP. We should have mentioned that Kerio PF 4.0 doesn’t support Windows 9x and Me. We also should have mentioned that, like the others, Kerio has a free version as well as the paid one. Some of our readers mistakenly stated that Kerio is not free and shouldn’t have been compared to the free firewalls. You can also read the review at http://www.wxpnews.com/rd/rd.cfm?id=060131ED-Review, which gave Kerio a 9 out of 10 user rating. Kerio 4.0 also got 5 stars from popular U.K. magazine Webuser at http://www.wxpnews.com/rd/rd.cfm?id=060131ED-Review2. It has also been recommended by Jason Parker at CNET. We could go on, but you get the idea: we aren’t the only ones who believe Kerio is a great choice if you need a personal firewall.

Sygate and Tiny are both gone. Agnitum Outpost is pro only. (Correction: As my brother (Thanks, Darren!) points out below, Outpost does still have a free version… but it hasn’t been updated since 2002, so for all intents and purposes, its free but potentially out of date. Since it was one of the better ones, its probably still worth considering, with caveats as noted by PCMag’s review).
Windows XP SP2 has a firewall, which is better than nothing, but barely.

Anti-Virus

Same as above. Some of these are just scanners, others include live blocking (you want the live blocking! aka on-access real-time scanning).
AntiVir Personal edition
ClamWin Free open source scanner (only!) for Windows
Grisoft AVG Free Editon (note how they hide this from the main Grisoft page).
Free Avast
BitDefender Free Edition

There are probably other FW and AV programs, but these were in my bookmarks. There are also free online virus scanners, but that doesn’t help you remove the problems. Finally, note that spyware is different (but related) to viruses, and you want one of the usual suspects on your machine such as Microsoft’s, Lavasoft’s, or S&D Spybot as well as your virus stuff.

* * *

 

  1. Agnitum Outpost Free, ca. 2002:

    http://www.agnitum.com/products/outpostfree/download.php
    Darren    Jan 29, 08:40 PM    #


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