PC tools for Windows. (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Tom Campbell
This innovative box of tools manages to be both accessible to the beginner and deep enough for the power user.
Central Point's PC Tools for Windows is bigger and sleeker (and more expensive) than its DOS version. If you're ready for its fresh new feature mix, you'll find it's the Lexus of utility packages: big yet swift, elegant yet fully functional, more expensive than last year's model yet still a great value.
This Windows version of PC Tools is a distant relation of its smash-hit DOS counterpart. It contains a replacement for the Windows desktop, a File Manager replacement, a backup program, data recovery for thrashed disks or files, an antivirus utility, a system analyzer, a disk optimizer, and a BASIC-like scripting language.
There are a few extras thrown in too, such as a scheduling program originally designed to run the backup program but now of general-purpose use, customization that lets you make extensive changes to the user interface in all of the applications, and some wildly creative but undocumented screen savers.
Users of the DOS version will note that the telecommunications, database, notepad, and outliner modules are missing and presumed dead: Central Point found that either Windows had these features already or too few users took advantage of them. I miss the multiwindow notepad and the database manager.
It's within Multidesk, the program's replacement for the Windows desktop, that some of the best features are found. Multidesk knits everything together and makes good on its promise of offering an improvement over Windows' own desktop. Not only is it arguably easier to learn and use, but it's also demonstrably superior. The best features are QuickLauncher and multiple desktops. QuickLauncher lets you add program or folder names to the System menu and launch them from there, sort of like desk accessories on the Macintosh. As with the Mac, Windows is a multitasking operating system that presumably makes this approach redundant. Yet, as anyone who's ever used desk accessories on the Mac will tell you, doing things this way is so much easier than switching to the desktop to run a program that it makes perfect sense once you've given it a test drive.
Perhaps Multidesk's most innovative feature is its multiple desktops, which I find much harder to explain than to use. Instead of being limited to one desktop, you can have as many as you want. You select among these desktops by way of a floating palette (or a menu, if you don't want the palette around). The palette shows miniature yet fully functional versions of each of your custom desktops. It's sort of like groups in Program Manager, but it's abstracted to the desktop itself.
At first I thought this would be a "Who needs it?" feature, but I found myself relying on it more and more. I had already patched together a clunky approach using groups with Program Manager. When I realized this, I converted to Multidesk and didn't look back. Plus, I was able to employ some other working habits I'd planned to acquire with Windows 3.0. Multidesk's folders, which act like supergroups, can be nested, allowing me to make use of the hierarchical organization I had expected Windows to give me.
All of this presupposes a pretty complex hard disk layout, perhaps one on a network; for someone who runs only one or two applications, Multidesk is probably overkill. As someone who lives in Windows all day, I found the transition to PC Tools smooth and natural, but I wondered if it was for everyone.
Eventually I realized that almost everyone using Windows 3.1 applications probably has a pretty big hard disk because the new apps all seem to take 10, 20, or 50 megabytes, strewing complex directory structures and hundreds of files in their wake. So SmartFind was a welcome relief. It lets you search for a file on the hard disk or for text within a file. SmartFind does the expected but extends it dramatically, allowing you to use dates, file attributes, and wildcards in one unbelievably swift package.
SmartFind, and indeed all of PC Tools, worked just great on a network. And while our network is notably lax (everyone uses the same password), there are dozens of customizing and security options for those in more demanding situations. I've never encountered an easier product from the network administrator's point of view that was equally simple on a one-user system.
ScriptTools, the package's macro language, is the best such Windows script lanauge I've seen. If using batch files is your idea of automating tasks, you'll be in for the thrill of your life when you play with ScriptTools. It's a BASIC-like language with jillions of Windows-y features. With it, you can create dialog boxes, access the Clipboard, time events, maintain control over the keyboard, gain access to DLLs, execute network-related commands, and more. If you're not a programmer, you'll use ScriptTools to record scripts, as you do with Windows' own Recorder. But ScriptTools comments on your scripts, offering a matchless opportunity to teach the patient nonprogrammer how to program. I've seen a lot of Windows batch languages, and this one is tops.
PC Tools has a whole range of file-recovery programs. The installation process gives file recovery top priority. If you've bought the product because of a hard disk crash, because your hard disk's FAT has been fried, or because you want to recover a damaged dBASE file, the installation program won't copy the PC Tools files onto your hard disk until you've taken care of the problem. It promotes preventive medicine, leading you through the creation of a disaster-recovery disk and even offering a self-stick label for the disk.
In a package this big, you're sometimes lucky enough to get a fortune cookie--one of those seemingly quirky little surprises that threatens to turn into a full-time hobby. In the case of Windows 3.0, it was Solitaire. In 3.1, it was Minesweeper. In PC Tools, the screen savers seem to fall into this category. Not even mentioned on the box, in the manuals, or in the README file, they're apparent only to the sharp-eyed during installation. Nothing is said other than that you can leave them out of the installation. To see them, you need to open the Windows Control Panel, choose Desktop, and go to Screen Saver. I'll leave the rest a surprise, except to tell you that Food Fight is my favorite, even though it needs an 80486 to really do its thing.
I had a few problems with the package, all small. The manual is hideously underindexed (the box trumpets PKZip file compression and decompression, for example, but neither ZIP or PKZip are in the index). The tape backup software actually replaced the original tape backup software that came with my CMS backup without telling me, rendering the tape drive useless when I was told to reconfigure it for PC Tools. While PC Tools' tape backup software decided to remove all traces of my original tape backup software, it couldn't figure out the proper IRQ and DMA settings for my CMS tape drive, and I'd left the original manual in storage during a move. Of course, I couldn't find CMS or Colorado Mount Systems in the index when I went to look up the problem.
Still, PC Tools for Windows gives you a really big bang for the buck. Like very few other Windows products, it manages to be both accessible to the beginner and deep enough for the power user. Like even fewer multipurpose products, it does a great job with everything it sets out to do--without getting in your way.