It took long enough, but Microsoft now offers first-rate, free security software for Windows via the Security Essentials program. Unfortunately, the wait continues for the company to provide an effective, easy-to-use, and free Windows optimization utility.
That doesn't mean you have to live with Windows' inevitable slowdowns. For years I've relied on Piriform's free CCleaner maintenance utility to give Windows a performance boost. But when CCleaner was unable to provide my Vista laptop with more than a modest speedup, I decided to try IObit's Advanced SystemCare Free. In my unscientific tests, Advanced SystemCare Free managed a twofold improvement over CCleaner in cutting Vista's start time. But it was the program's malware scans and one-click options that really won me over.
In search of faster startups
As I described in a post from last February about improving Windows' start times, I'm willing to give my security apps and other startup programs the time they need to get going, even if it means I wait a little longer to start my workday. But I still don't want to cool my heels any longer than necessary, so I regularly clear out Windows' cobwebs.
The last time I used CCleaner to tune up my laptop's Vista configuration, the machine's startup speed improved only about 4 percent. When I ran Advanced SystemCare Free's scans, I was able to knock an additional 8 percent off the wait for Vista to start. And more importantly, Advanced SystemCare gives you more maintenance and repair options and lets you run several tests with a single click.
CCleaner's maintenance scans are run one at a time from one of the program's three main windows: Cleaner's two-step analysis and cleanup, Registry's scan and fix options, and Tools' Uninstall, Startup, and System Restore windows. Scan results are displayed at the top of the main CCleaner window along with basic information about the results.
CCleaner offers plenty of customization options, such as the ability to delete cookies selectively, include and exclude specific folders when running scans, and choose one of four different options for secure file deletion (from one to 35 overwrites). However, you don't get much information about the potential ill effects of the various cleanup operations, so it's always a good idea to create a restore point before running any Windows maintenance scan. Better yet, use an automatic backup program to protect your data in near-real time; System Restore safeguards only your Windows installation.
One-click scan combines maintenance and malware detection
Advanced SystemCare Free packs its many features in a relatively compact window. When you open the program, you see on the left side of the window four big buttons surrounding one even-bigger button. The button in the middle lets you run the program's maintenance and security scans together, but without the feedback you see when running the scans separately via their own windows, which you access by clicking one of the four other buttons.
Clicking one of those four slightly smaller buttons on the left displays various information on the right side of the screen: Home shows the date of the last scan and the last database update; Maintain Windows lets you scan for and remove spyware and other privacy risks, Registry glitches, and junk files; Diagnose System promises to optimize and secure your system (including disk defragmentation); and the Utilities window offers more than 20 separate tools, including a restore center, uninstaller, startup manager, and game and Internet "boosters." Note that I ran only the scans available on Advanced SystemCare Free's maintenance and diagnostic screens.
I also didn't test the program's Turbo Boost feature, which promises an even greater speed boost by shutting down "unnecessary" background processes and services, clearing space in RAM, and "intensifying" processor performance. The $20 Pro version of Advanced System Care adds free tech support, automatic updates and scans, and something called an "ultimate speedup," according to the IObit site.
Even though I've used only a fraction of Advanced SystemCare Free's maintenance and security tools, I'm pleased with the result of the scans performed on the program's Maintain Windows and Diagnose System screens. Clicking the Options button in the top right of the main window lets you customize the program's various scans, including seven levels of computer optimization and four levels of network optimization. However, Advanced SystemCare Free offers only one level of secure file deletion: DOD 5220.22M, which overwrites the data three times.
There's much to like in both CCleaner and Advanced SystemCare Free, but now that both programs are installed on my system, I envision using the latter more often than the former.