Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 141 / JUNE 1992 / PAGE 6

Top PC utilities. (The Norton Utilities, PC Tools)(includes related articles) (Evaluation)
by Dan Gookin

Try to describe what utility software is, and eventually, you'll come up with a definition for what a computer does best: It makes life easier. So anything can be defined as a utility, since a computer's job is to make life easier. Everyone can use a few PC utilities for file recovery, protection, and security--and to ease the drudgery of using DOS. Yet PC utilities began their humble lives as programmer's tools, designed to simplify repetitive tasks of the PC elite.

Everything changed in 1982 when one PC enterpreneur came up with a utility that proved useful to both programmer and user; Peter Norton developed his hallowed UE.COM, the Unerase program. It could actually recover a deleted file--a file that IBM, Microsoft, and everyone else claimed was long dead. Norton packaged Unerase with six other utilities (which would all seem silly by today's standards) and sold them as The Norton Utilities. Unerase helped propel Peter Norton into an almost goodlike status among PC users the world over, and it legitimized the utility as a new must-have type of PC software.

Today, there are dozens of utilities on the market. Nothing is sold piecemeal anymore; nearly all the utilities are packaged in fancy boxes and work in some type of colorful, integrated, mouseable environment. PC utilities have become a necessity, a vital category of software like word processors, spread-sheets, and databases. The scope of what a PC utility is and does is much broader than that of the simple programmer's tools of yesterday, and the power they offer is hundreds of times beyond that of a simple speaker beeper of file sorter. Utilities are valuable programs yet easy enough for every level of PC user to handle.

Presently, there are two contenders for the PC-utility crown: The Norton Utilities, still going strong after ten years, and PC Tools, Central Point Software's power-house utility package. There's no top dog here, so this article won't attempt to give away king-of-the-mountain robes. Instead, my purpose is to examine what each package does, discuss the latest versions, and check on the status of PC utilities some ten years after their introduction.

Basic Features

Ideally, a computer's operating system should give you everything you need to run your computer, productivity software aside. In that respect, DOS falls short. Using DOS is like playing baseball with only three people to a team. The job of the PC utility is to fill in the gaps and let you play a fair game. In this light, you can say that PC utilities have two major purposes: doing things DOS doesn't do and doing things DOS already does, but doing them better.

The comparison chart shows a list of the features DOS provides plus the enhancements offered by the two top PC-utility packages. In addition to the Overview, the table is divided into six areas: File Management, Directory Managment, Disk Control, Security, Recovery, and Productivity. How PC Tools and The Norton Utilities deal with each of these areas is covered in the next few sections.

Of course, the most "missing" features belong to DOS. It's worth nothing that earlier versions of DOS had even fewer utilities (which is why DOS 5.0 is such a valuable upgrade).

Product Overview

Overall, Norton and PC Tools stack up fairly well, with PC Tools taking a giant lead only in the productivity area. Specifically, each program has both command line and integrated environments, allowing you to operate the utilities from everything from a batch file to a cozy, colorful graphic environment you can manipulate with a mouse. Both programs have online help, and both come with a handy recovery disk you can use right away if perilous conditions prevailed before you bought the utility.

Norton falls short right away by missing several Windows-specific programs that come bundled with PC Tools. Yet, PC Tools eats up 9.5 megabytes disk space--almost four times what Norton uses. PC Tools didn't get called the kitchen sink of utility programs by shipping on one disk.

File Management

File Management is the ability to control and manipulate files beyond the simple commands DOS offers. There are two ways to approach this. The first is in an integrated environment where files are displayed along with the commands that can control them. The second is the traditional way DOS lets you work with files, via the command line.

Both DOS and PC Tools come with shell program that assist in file manipulation. Both shells let you copy, rename, delete, and move files singularly or in groups. The shells also come with their own customizable menus, allowing you to install your own programs into the shell and use it as your base of operations for the entire time you're in DOS. In addition to file manipulation, PC Tools' PC Shell also acts as control center for the other utilities in the PC Tools arsenal.

Norton lacks a file-management shell. It does, however, sport an integrated environment. From the environment you can select utilities, read about their options, and customize a command line that the environment can execute for you. This isn't the same thing, however, as a file-management shell.

In the area of file tools, The Norton Utilities lives up to its ten-year reputation. There are programs to change the date and time of files, size up files for copying to a floppy disk, and locate and modify files anywhere on disk.

One major disappointment with both utilities is the lack of a move command, an alternative to copying and deleting files. DOS and PC Tools offer this in their shells but not as a command line utility. Norton skips over a move command completely, which I find disappointing. Mace Utilities, which isn't covered in this comparison has an excellent move command; see "And What of Mace?"

Directory Management

Working with directories isn't as big an area as file management. Directory management includes the ability to change the directories, perhaps using some type of graphic tree structure, plus the standard MD (Make Directory) and RD (Remove Directory) commands. Extra features include pruning and grafting, or the abilty to cut an entire subdirectory branch and paste it elsewhere in your hard disk system.

NCD, Norton's version of the CD command, is a powerful way to change quickly from directory to another without having to type in complex pathnames. But that's it! Norton offers no grafting or pruning commands, no utility for moving directories, and no unremove command for a subdirectory.

For its contribution to directory management, PC Tools has a separate program (DM, the Directory Manager), and it's very slick. DM shows you your subdirectory structure in the standard tree format, but using only directory names--no files. To the left of the display is a histogram showing you the size of the directory as compared with the size of other directories on disk. Extremely large directories are shown in red. I find this a valuable feature when working with a subdirectory structure. But on the downside, to work with files again, you have to quit DM and return to PC Shell. Moving back and forth during major disk surgery can get tiresome.

Like Norton, DM lacks an unremove directory command. But when you think about it, unremoving a directory is trivial: You can't remove a directory in the first place unless all the files in that directory have been deleted. However, having a way to get back at those files once their directory has been deleted would be a boon to overzealous pruners and grafters.

Disk Control

The most traditional disk-control utility is a sector editor, which has been around since Peter Norton's original Disk Editor program. This type of tool allows you to manipulate information anywhere on disk. It's fun and scary thing to do, through the practical value of sector editing is limited when you consider the range of other disk utilities available. PC Tools also sports a Disk Edit tool from within the PC Shell environment.

More important than editing disk sectors is defragmentation, or the consolidation of fragmented files that tend to accumulate on hard drives. This is perhaps the most important utility that DOS doesn't offer. PC Tools has its Compress program, and Norton has Speed Disk. However, I feel the best defragmentation program can be found in Mace Utilities, where the idea was pioneered; see "And What of Mace?"

Both packages offer a safe formatting program, which was designed to replace the old DOS FORMAT command. However, since DOS 5.0's FORMAT also saves unformat information, these utilities aren't as vital as they were before DOS 5.0.

Other interesting disk-control programs are contained in both packages, including some low-level disk utilities prompted by Steve Gibson's original SpinRite disk optimizer. However, I consider this type of interleave reset and revitalization program to be more for show than for any practical purpose. The true value of low-level revitalization is in doubt by many PC experts, and it's also next to impossible on some of the newer hard drives with IDE and SCSI interfaces.

One bonus features PC Tools has over Norton is a complete (and powerful) backup program: CP Backup which is also sold as a separate package. Norton's backup program, The Norton Backup, stand toe-to-toe with CP Backup, but it's only sold as a separate package.

Norton comes back punching with NDOS.COM, a replacement shell for COMMAND.COM. Based on J.P. Software's 4DOS shell, NDOS offers similar yet more powerful features ideally suited to the command line DOS user.


This is a new category of PC disk utility, something nearly as important as the data-recovery programs. Security utilities offer protection from disaster before it strikes.

The main of type security program is similar to DOS's MIRROR; it makes an image of the boot sector, FATs, and root directory and saves it elsewhere on disk. This aids in recovery from accidental reformats and allows those vital parts of the disk to be rebuilt if something goes wrong. Norton's program is named Image; PC Tools' is called Mirror. Microsoft licenses the DOS command MIRROR from Central Point Software.

Another form of security is file encryption. Both Norton and PC Tools offer a way of taking the data in one or more files and secretly encoding it. The only way to decode the file is by using a password or code key. PC Tools takes this concept one step further and allows you to create encryption directories; all files placed in those directories are automatically encrypted, and access to the directories is only possible by password.

In the era of the computer virus, antivirus utilities are popular. Both Symantec and Central Point Software distribute their own antivirus programs. However, only PC Tools comes with a virus-scanning utility, Vdefend. While it will locate some viruses, it does little in the way fo removing them (other than recommending you buy Central Point's other virus-specific software).

More important than direct virus detection, both utilities offer special disk-locking utilities that prevent unauthorized access to sensitive areas of the disk. Norton's Disk Monitor and PC Tools' Data Monitor allow you to lock out all or some sectors of a hard drive, preventing access or just monitoring sensitive areas of the disk that shouldn't be touched. For most users, this type of protection from viruses (and other nasty programs) will be enough.

Dr. Disaster

PC utilities were given birth by Peter Norton's Unerase program. Both utility packages--and now DOS--offer undelete and unformat commands. PC Tools has Undel, and Norton still retains Unerase after all these years (see "The Down-and-Dirty on Undeleting"). And thanks to the disk-imaging programs (Mirror and Image), recovery of a disk's boot sector, FAT, and root directory is also possible.

Both Norton and PC Tools also have unformatting utilities, which is no longer a big thing, since the UNFORMAT command is now a part of DOS's data-recovery repertoire. This is all traditional stuff--no new bugs under big rocks here. What is unique to both The Norton Utilities and PC Tools is their new array of file-recovery, delete-prevention, disaster-prevention utilities. This is a special type of program that stores the files DOS deletes in special directories. Recovery is then 100-percent guaranteed by simply plucking the deleted file out of the special directory. The Norton Utilities uses the Erase Protect program to pull that trick; PC Tools has Disk Monitor.

Individual files can always go south, as anyone who's worked with too large a spreadsheet or database discovers. Both PC Tools and Norton offer programs to repair errant data files for 1-2-3, dBASE, and other popular formats. Both programs are called File Fix, and both will attempt to patch up the same types of files.

When bytes start fleeing from a troublesome disk, you can use PC Tools' DiskFix program to diagnose and repair the problem. The Norton Utilities uses The Norton Disk Doctor for diagnosis, as well as wonderfully crafted (though technical) Troubleshooting Guide plus the Disk Tools utilities to eventually remedy the problem.

Five All-Purpose Hard Disk Tools

In each package, you'll find several interesting, integrated utilities whose purposes seem to overlap. This appears to be the approach for disk utilities of the future; one piece of software that deals with several related areas of data protection, diagnosis, and recovery. Between PC Tools and The Norton Utilities, five individual programs handle those duties; DiskFix, Data Monitor, Disk Monitor, Disk Doctor, and Disk Tools.

For example, PC Tool's DiskFix handles repair and disk-tuning options, while the Data Monitor program covers delete prevention, password-locking and encrypting of files in a directory, write-protecting sensitive parts of a disk, and other assorted duties.

The Norton Utilities' Disk Monitor will restrict access to sensitive areas of the disk, park your disk drive heads, and monitor other types of disk access. Disk Doctor is used to diagnose disk problems, and then Disk Tools will repair them, as well as perform other interesting duties.

I find this division of duties confusing--and not just from looking at five different programs that handle several dozen overlapping functions. A single integrated program for either PC Tools or The Norton Utilities would make more sense. Either that, or split up the duties into several dozen individual utilities. Given the bulk of PC Tools and The Norton Utilities, it would be easy to miss the valuable features offered in these handy little programs, so a new approach is bound to benefit all users.


Productivity utilities are almost totally the domain of PC Tools. Its PC Desktop program could stand by itself, right next to Borland's Sidekick. Yet Central Point Software has graciously included it with the PC Tools package.

PC Desktop features an appointment calendar, an autodialer, calculators, a database, notepads, and an outliner. A clipboard allows global cutting and pasting, and a general macro facility helps you customize PC Desktop.

Beyond the basic features of PC Desktop, you'll find extensive communications programs in various areas of the PC Tools program:

DeskConnect is a desktop-laptop communications program that is able to access files on one computer from another and exchange files between two computers (the second computer doesn't need to be a laptop).

Commute is a PC remote-control program, allowing you to access and use a computer at another location via modem. What you see on your screen is exactly what appears on the remote PC's screen. You can have password protection and host callback, and even monitor remote log-ins.

Modem communications and electronic mail are both features of the PC Desktop telecommunications allows you to dial up any other PC connected to a modem. The electronic-mail module provides an easy link to MCI Mail, Compu-Serve, and EasyLink online services. You must have a compatible modem to make this possible.

PC Desktop is also capable of handling fax communications. To do this, your system must have a compatible internal fax card.

With The Norton Utilities, productivity enhancement is provided in two areas: the Batch Enhancer, which adds more power to your batch files, and The Norton Control Center, where you can monitor and adjust various hardware settings and control your DOS environment. PC Tools lacks both of these features.

On the other hand, both packages have a system information utility. It displays a profile of your PC'c hardaware contents, plus it does benchmark testing and a wee bit of diagnosis. It's mostly for show.

Which Utility Do You Need?

I find it hard to argue against having PC Tools. It's actually four programs in one: a general package of utilities, a file manager, a backup program, plus


the PC Desktop program with its productivity features.

On the downside, the program is overwhelming. I doubt if any one user will ever master the complete package, and books on PC Tools are fat and intimidating. You could make it a lifelong endeavor to say you've used everything in the package (which has often been the case with other major applications as well).

Comparatively speaking, you'd need to buy The Norton Utilities plus The Norton Backup and The Norton Commander even to start compairing the packages across the board. (This stems from Symantec's view of PC Tools as an end-user product and its outdated and stubborn insistence that end users don't buy programs.) For basic utility needs, however, Norton more than fills the bill. If you don't want the bulk of PC Tools and don't need CP Backup or the productivity utilities of PC Desktop, then The Norton Utilities is a slimmer choice.

Another basis for your decision is whether or not you feel comfortable working inside a file-management shell. If so, then PC Tools will probably be your choice. If you prefer the DOS command line, then Norton is for you--especially given the inclusion of NDOS to replace COMMAND.COM. There's also a third option: As the scarecrow says to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, "Some people do go both ways." Personally, I use Norton on my desktop machine and PC Tools on my laptop.

Whichever utility you choose, PC utilities have grown in power and ability over the last ten years. And the bottom line is that there are plenty of options for any PC user looking to enhance DOS with some utility power.