A decade ago, a battle of the PC-utility titans raged among Norton Utilities, PC Tools, and Mace Utilities. After two dropouts and some minor challenges, Norton Utilities (now Norton SystemWorks) has pretty much kept the field to itself. But suddenly, a newcomer called System Mechanic is beginning to look like a genuine contender. This computerized Swiss Army knife still lacks some of the most basic tools needed to challenge Norton, including a good disk defragmenter, but its selection of utilities includes many useful items that Norton leaves out, such as various Internet optimization tools. Unlike Acronis Power Utilities, which includes specialized heavy-duty utilities ignored by Norton, System Mechanic is useful for general PC needs. Installation of System Mechanic 3.7 is a simple matter of running the setup program on the CD. Alternatively, you can download a 1.5MB 30-day trial version. System Mechanic creates a folder on your hard drive that contains the utilities themselves, the help system, an order form (whether or not you've already purchased System Mechanic), a read-me file, and an uninstall button.
Once installed, running System Mechanic is a snap. Just hover your mouse over any utility tool to display an extensive description of what the tool does. Plus, the program itself is easy to navigate and well organized.
|Hovering the mouse over a tool reveals an explanation of what the tool does.||System Mechanic's scheduling facilities will automatically clean your Registry, junk files, and Web cache.|
The tools are divided into three basic groups. Under the Files menu, System Mechanic offers tools to find and remove junky or obsolete files, fix broken shortcuts, find and remove duplicate files, and securely delete any files and folders. Under System, you can clean your system Registry, customize Windows settings, enable/disable all start-up programs (not just those that are found in the Start Up folder of your Start Menu), remove invalid uninstaller information, and enable Safe Installer, which monitors changes made to the system during application installation and optionally rolls all changes back to some past time. The Internet menu offers privacy controls and tools for Internet and network speed.
A pair of uncategorized tools live on the main interface itself. Maintenance Wizard consolidates several other tools (Registry cleaning, junk file removal, Web browser cookie and cache cleaning) behind a simple menu system, and the Scheduled Maintenance tool does just what it says. The latter offers a host of preset maintenance schedules, including hourly, daily, weekly, and monthly interval schedules, or it will clean up your hard drive after your primary drive uses up a user-defined amount of free space. Few tools in System Mechanic compete directly with Norton SystemWorks' tools, while those that do compete with mixed results. For example, while we like Norton CleanSweep's Fast & Safe Cleanup, System Mechanic's "Find and remove junk and obsolete files" (admittedly not the best name for a utility) begins with a much wider list of file extensions to remove. You can change the list of searchable file extensions and limit the list to those files that you haven't accessed for a set number of days. You can also choose to instantly delete or remove files to the Recycle Bin or to a separate directory. You can select individual drives to scan and whether to include zero-length files. The only thing lacking from System Mechanic is an automatic delete button.
On the other hand, Norton WinDoctor's tool to find and fix broken shortcuts easily surpasses System Mechanic's, as it not only examines shortcuts but also program locations and Registry integrity.
Perhaps the most valuable tool that System Mechanic has to offer is NetBooster, which sets several important Registry entries that control Web surfing speed, including Maximum Transfer Unit, Receive Window size, and TCP Large Window support, to name a few. The help system furnishes an excellent discussion of each entry, along with suggested values for each.
|System Mechanic diagnoses your data throughput while you're online.|
NetBooster also includes diagnostic graphs that measure incoming, outgoing, and total data throughput, along with a relative speed test that notes both the average and the peak speeds of your Internet connection. It keeps a text log of the date, results, and Registry settings in use, allowing you to tweak the program to maximum advantage. This puts it somewhat ahead of InKline Global's Modem Booster, which makes far more exhaustive measurements but never informs you of the changes it has made. We tested System Mechanic on two computers, both Pentium 4 1.3GHz processors with 256MB of RAM. The first had both Windows 98 and XP Professional partitions, while the second ran Windows 2000. We added inaccurate shortcuts and dummy Registry entries, duplicated files across drives and directories, and partially deleted some installed programs to see if System Mechanic could track invalid uninstaller information. We tested NetBooster extensively alongside competing Net tweakers and checked the Registry to make certain that entries were being altered as requested.
|System Mechanic's NetBooster performs relative speed tests that allow you to fine-tune your Internet Registry settings.|
Unfortunately, System Mechanic is a resource glutton. On both of our machines, the software consumed roughly 30 percent of all available resources. Of course, resources can be spooled to a hard drive on Windows 2000/XP systems, but System Mechanic still slows down operations. On a Windows 98/Me system, this could cause erratic program performance and crashes. We don't recommend operating this application when other apps are open on your desktop. We truly appreciate System Mechanic's thorough, intelligently written, well-indexed and linked help system. The entire system is context sensitive so that if you click Help in a given tool, the index that appears is specific to that tool. Click Help Topics for the grand menu with all of the program's help subjects. However, System Mechanic comes without preprinted documentation, which is a drawback. With applications of this complexity that are capable of making irreversible PC changes, it makes sense to offer a hard copy of all documentation for easy access, in case your machine crashes.
|System Mechanic's help system is among the most thorough we've seen for this kind of product.|
If problems do occur, free, unlimited tech support is available by phone between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday PT. The number is a toll call, but we also found e-mail tech support to be accurate and quick, with a 24- to 48-hour turnaround time. There's also an online knowledge base and a support wizard to walk you through the process of filing a user complaint report.