No one is a bigger fan of freeware than I am. Yet I have to admit that for some purposes, free software comes up short. One of those purposes is Windows system maintenance.
If you rely solely on the tools built into Windows to keep your PC running safely and smoothly, trouble will find you soon enough. It may even find you if you rely on a single commercial package for protection. This point was driven home for me when I tested the new version 10 of Iolo Technologies' $40 System Mechanic utility package (a fully functional 30-day free trial is available).
While there are many free system tools that do a better job of maintaining your PC than Windows' own utilities, none that I've used can match the thoroughness and simplicity of System Mechanic. (I reviewed Piriform'sin a post from February 2009, and back in April I compared .)
When I ran System Mechanic's "Deep Analysis" on my test Vista PC, the program discovered 11 separate problems, including 31 security vulnerabilities, an unnecessary and dangerous startup program, 71 broken shortcuts, 2.5GB of system clutter, and more than 3,000 Registry errors. All of these glitches were unearthed immediately after I had scanned the PC using both Windows' own system utilities and Symantec's $80. The pretest runs of the Windows tools and Norton 360 had reported that the machine was fully secure and optimized.
Fast, thorough system checks with only a couple of clicks
During System Mechanics' installation, you're asked whether you want to add the PC Health Status Gadget to your desktop. (The option to do so is checked by default.) This adds the program's gadget to the desktop sidebar and shows via a green-yellow-red gauge your system's status. Click the gadget to open a window that provides an overview of your PC's health.
The first time you open the program, you're prompted to perform either a Quick Analysis or a Deep Analysis. Since the Deep Analysis is estimated to take only 5 to 7 minutes (as opposed to 1 to 2 minutes for the Quick Analysis), I recommend the more thorough test.
During the Deep Analysis, you're asked whether you want to check your hard disks for errors, which the program warns can add up to an hour to the time required to complete the scan. You're also cautioned not to cancel the disk test while it's in progress.
When I tested the program, the disk checks added only a few minutes to the overall scan time. When System Mechanic's Deep Analysis completed, I was surprised to find 11 separate items reported as requiring attention, especially considering both Windows' built-in system tools and Norton 360's maintenance utilities had indicated just prior to the scan that the machine was in ship-shape.
Maintenance scan uncovers a malware infection
The most troubling of the errors System Mechanic found was an unneeded and potentially dangerous startup program named WMSvc.exe. After looking for more information about this program, I was left scratching my head. For example, Bleepingcomputer.com confirms System Mechanic's report that this program is malware added by the W32/Rbot-UG network worm and should be removed, while another page on the same site indicates that WMSvc.exe is "valid" and related to Microsoft's Internet Information Services Web Management Service.
I took no chances and deleted the program. I then reran Norton 360's malware scanner and performed an additional scan using Malwarebytes' free AntiMalware utility, both of which gave the system a clean bill of health.
Many PC users wonder whether the time they spend running maintenance utilities translates into time saved through improved system performance and reliability. I didn't notice faster startups or other speed boosts on the 5-year-old Vista machine I used to test System Mechanic. But considering the machine's age, I'm happy just to keep it running at all, which may be the true benefit of a program such as System Mechanic. Besides, there are so many variables to performance from system to system that you can't expect the results seen on one machine to indicate a similar outcome on another.
The discovery of an infection on a machine that one of the leading antivirus apps had reported as virus-free is a reminder that you can't expect any security program to catch every threat and potential threat on your system. PC users need an assortment of tools to keep their systems running safely and smoothly. A $40 investment in System Mechanic buys you peace of mind. What's having a few less things to worry about worth to you?