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mac.column.ted: Filling the Norton Utilities gap

mac.column.ted: Filling the Norton Utilities gap

Posted Monday, July 11th

Ted Landau
July 2005

One of the great improvements in Mac OS X, as compared to Mac OS and its predecessors, is its superior resistance to disk structure damage. In the "old days," Mac users typically found it necessary to run repair software every few weeks or so -- or risk the arrival of an assortment of irritating symptoms. With Mac OS X, running repair software on a maintenance preventative basis is almost superfluous. Yes, I have had a few occasions when I benefited from First Aid, the repair component built-in to Mac OS X's Disk Utility, but they have been rare. Only once have I had a problem that needed more firepower than First Aid provides.

Even so, it pays to be prepared. That's why I would still recommend having at least one repair utility, beyond First Aid, in your troubleshooting arsenal. Until recently, your choices here centered on a trio of time-tested products: Symantec's Norton Utilities, Micromat's TechTool Pro, and AlSoft's DiskWarrior. But with the release of Tiger, the Mac community bids good-bye to Norton Utilities. Symantec states: "Norton SystemWorks and Norton Utilities will not be updated for compatibility with Mac OS X 10.4."

As luck (or good timing) would have it, a new repair package recently arrived on the scene, aiming to take Norton's place: Drive Genius. Although Drive Genius is published by Prosoft Engineering, its origins lie elsewhere. It is based on a trio of utilities from SubRosaSoft: DiskGuardian, VolumeWorks and CopyCat X. SubRosaSoft no longer markets DiskGuardian, shunting interested users to Drive Genius instead. You can still get the other two utilities directly from SubRosaSoft, but Drive Genius is a bargain by comparison, as it incorporates and updates all three (adding new features as well) for less than the combined cost of the two remaining SubRosaSoft products.

In this column, I take a look at what Drive Genius brings to the table. To answer some questions that came up along the way, I went to the source: Marko Kostyrko, the developer of the program.

Drive Genius. Much like Norton Utilities, Drive Genius falls into the Swiss Army Knife category of troubleshooting and repair software. Its major features are:

  • Repair drive and repair permissions. This is the main course of any repair utility. Drive Genius begins by more-or-less duplicating what Disk Utility's First Aid does. But Drive Genius can also rebuild the Catalog B-tree, competing a bit more with what DiskWarrior and TechTool Pro do.

  • Optimize. Drive Genius can optimize a drive, consolidating all the volume's available free space. This is very different from the "optimizing" that is done when installing new software via Mac OS X's Installer utility. It's much more similar to what Norton Utilities' Speed Disk did. The main difference is that Drive Genius cannot defragment individual files (although, in Mac OS X, doing so would have only a minimal benefit on performance at best).

  • Repartition. If you have partitioned, or are thinking about partitioning, a drive -- repartitioning is a great feature to have. You can use Drive Genius to shrink or expand the size of a drive's existing partitions, create an entirely new partition, or delete an existing one -- all without having to erase the drive!

    Drive Genius starts by using the pdisk Unix command (built-in to Mac OS X) to accomplish its work. It then goes a bit beyond. For example, it is more efficient in reducing the size of a partition, allowing you to go to a smaller size before it would require erasing existing data.

    Personally, I have been gun-shy of repartitioning; I get too nervous that it may destroy the contents of the drive if it fails to work. But Drive Genius has several safeguards to protect against this. In any case, it worked flawlessly when I tested it. Still, I would make sure I have a backup of my drive before repartitioning.

  • Duplicate. Drive Genius can create an exact clone of any volume, including a bootable volume. It cannot, however, do any more selective backup or synchronization, such as a subset of files on your volume. But it is a relative speed demon at this one task, primarily because it clones the volume at the device level, rather than making a file by file copy (as most other backup utilities do).

  • Integrity Check and Benchtest. Drive Genius can do a SMART check of the functioning of a drive, if the drive supports SMART. Going the extra mile, it can do its own more extensive checks of the read/write integrity of a drive, scan the surface of a drive for defects, and do benchmark speed comparisons to other Mac models. This begins to invade the territory owned by TechTool Pro.

  • Initialize and Shred. If you want to start over with an empty volume, you can re-initialize it. It is easy to do -- using Disk Utility's Erase feature for example. Drive Genius can similarly re-initialize a drive, but with a twist: When initializing a USB drive, Disk Utility formats it as a Windows volume. Drive Genius formats it as a Mac volume. If you have a USB "key" drive that you intend to share with a Windows PC, the Disk Utility approach is better. Otherwise, you'll probably prefer Drive Genius.

    For those concerned about security, however, be aware that a simple initialization does not actually erase the existing data from the volume. It just installs a new Apple driver and partition map. The alternative is a secure erase, which truly makes the data irrecoverable but takes a lot longer to do. Drive Genius' Shred function provides a secure erase capability. However, unlike the Finder, it cannot Secure Erase selected files. Drive Genius can only "shred" a volume -- either in its entirety or just its "free space" (akin to what Disk Utility can also do).

  • Sector Edit. This last feature will remind long-time Norton Utilities users of the Disk Editor hex-editing utility. Symantec dropped this from its more recent versions of Norton Utilities, deeming it too geeky and too dangerous for its target audience. However, for those who still want to be able to view and modify a volume's raw hex data, Drive Genius has granted your wish.

    Tip: To go directly to the hex data for a particular file, select the desired file via the Open command in Drive Genius' File menu, rather than clicking the Sector Edit button.

The alternatives. So how does Drive Genius fit in with its repair utility competitors: Disk Utility, DiskWarrior and TechTool Pro?:

Disk Utility has one significant advantage: It's free for all Mac OS X users. It is also the least likely to inadvertently harm your drive while attempting a repair (although Drive Genius is almost the same in this regard). On the downside, Disk Utility is likely to be the first one to give up and say that it cannot repair a drive (advising you to try third party utility instead).

DiskWarrior remains the program of choice for fixing a damaged drive directory. No other utility is as successful as often. On the downside, DiskWarrior is pretty much a one-trick pony. It does disk repair and nothing else. TechTool Pro and Drive Genius are much more versatile.

TechTool Pro, in fact, tries to do just about everything. It's especially great for checking for hardware problems, from memory to displays to peripheral drives. Yet it also includes the major software repair features: volume repair; volume optimization; as well as data protection and recovery. My main criticism of TechTool Pro is that its user interface is clunky to navigate. As a result, I suspect many users still haven't discovered all that this program can do.

Bottom line. Each of these repair utilities have at least one advantage not found in the others. If price were no barrier, it would pay to have all of them. It certainly pays to have at least one -- beyond Disk Utility. The acid test, of course, is how well they actually repair a damaged disk. I was unable to make such direct comparisons for this column. However, after surfing the Web for user comments, I would say that all of them do at least an adequate job. But judging mainly on its range of features and convenience of accessing them, I would give Drive Genius the slight nod as the one to get if you can only get one.

This is the latest in a series of monthly mac.column.ted articles by Ted Landau. To see a list of previous columns, click here. To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here.

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