Make your computer faster, safer, easier to run – using disk utility software

Steve Morgenstern

Make Your Computer Faster, Safer, Easier to Run

Lose a file, lose an hour. Or a day. Or a client.

And unfortunately, it isn’t difficult to lose a file. Your hard-disk drive has a platter spinning at thousands of rotations per minute, with a magnetic head floating on a thin cushion of air above it. The power in your home blinks for an instant – the head comes crashing down on the rotating platter. Is your file still there?

Most problem-causing events are far less dramatic. A program fouls up when writing to disk, mistakenly grabbing some space dedicated to another file. You accidentally leave a floppy disk lying on top of your stereo speaker or telephone (there are magnets in there, remember?). Gremlins creep into your office in the middle of the night and intentionally foul up your hard drive (can you prove to me it doesn’t happen?).

Whatever the cause, there is a solution to the lost file woes – an assortment of powerful utility programs that help repair disk damage. This month we review six leading utility packages, three for IBM compatibles, three for the Macintosh. While none is a cure-all, each program offers effective solutions to a host of common disk-related problems. And each goes beyond disk repair with additional utilities to improve performance and add convenience to your computer system. In truth, any one of these packages is the basic utility software that most people need for their systems.

Better still, you no longer have to be a rocket scientist to use a disk-utility program. While most of these packages include capabilities best suited for experts, the utilities needed to recover from most file problems can be mastered in about a half hour by anyone who knows how to run a computer.

Before we discuss specific program features, though, there are two fundamental points to bear in mind:

1. Make backup copies of your valuable files. Even the most powerful file-recovery program is no substitute for a backup copy of the information, on a separate disk, stored in a safe place. In fact, for your most vital files, making two or even three backups is not an excessive precaution. And as you’ll see, some of the programs discussed here make it easy to do disk backups.

2. The best time to install disk-utility software is before you experience problems. By letting the utility analyze your drive and store crucial information when everything is running fine, you greatly increase the chances that you’ll be able to rescue your files if you run into trouble later.

With those caveats delivered, let’s look at the benefits offered by these “Swiss Army knife” software packages in four areas: file recovery, performance enhancement, file security, and convenience.


There are two basic ways to lose disk files: The computer can do it by accident or you can do it yourself. In either case, a good disk utility should help restore your files and your sanity.

The disk ate my work! On the computer side, there are all sorts of potential problems that can cause a file to disappear or be impossible to open. You may even lose access to an entire disk – you turn on the computer and the hard disk refuses to boot, or you insert a floppy and the operating system tells you it is unreadable. While these problems can result from physical damage to a disk, they occur more often when the information magnetically encoded on the disk surface is corrupted.

Operating systems reserve part of your disk for record-keeping purposes, including a listing of where on the disk your files are located. When this area is damaged, the operating system can’t find your files, even though they’re still on the disk. File-recovery utilities handle this situation by

* creating a backup copy of this record-keeping information, which they can use to restore your disk to working order if the original is disturbed; and

* scanning your disk for files, recovering all or selected files, and often rebuilding the directory and subdirectory (DOS) or Desktop folder (Mac) structure of the disk.

Sometimes an individual file gets damaged. In this case, a disk utility will try to reclaim as much of it as possible. For example, even a small flaw may cause the operating system to consider your 50-page text file entirely unreadable. By using a file-recovery utility you can reclaim the file and retype only the section that was actually damaged.

Oops! Of course, while we would like to blame every mistake on the computer, the far more embarrassing human error is all too frequently the cause of our file-loss distress. |There are three ways you can get rid of files on purpose. You can simply delete a file, you can write data over existing data, or you can format an entire drive. In these cases, you may still be able to get those files back.

First the good news. When you ask the operating system to delete a file, it doesn’t delete the information contained in that file. It simply removes the file name from your directory and makes the space occupied by the file available for the next time you save information to disk. This means that, until that space is used again, the information in your deleted file is still there. It’s a simple matter for a utility to find and recover a recently deleted file. And even if the operating system has used some of the space to save a different file, you may be able to recover a worthwhile portion of the original.

How about when you use the operating-system command to format a disk?

If it’s a hard disk, the operating system generally handles formatting the same way it handles file deletion – it makes the space available in its record-keeping section but leaves the actual information contained in those files intact on the disk. File-recovery software installed before accidentally formatting a hard disk can reclaim lost files with a near-perfect success rate as long as you follow the simple instructions.

Now the bad news: Formatting a floppy disk is a more permanent proposition. Both PC compatibles and Macs erase the data on the disk when they format a floppy. However, some DOS file utilities include a program that lets you perform a “safe format” on a floppy disk, making disk space available without immediately wiping the information off your disk. Making this your standard floppy formatting procedure is a worthwhile precaution and is no more trouble than a standard DOS format operation.

I want total control of my disk. Several utility packages include a disk editor that lets you directly manipulate the contents of your disk. This is immensely powerful – you can go anywhere on that magnetic surface and change anything. To use that kind of power, though, requires a level of technical expertise that few of us will ever want or need to acquire. However, if you’re brave or simply curious, a disk editor lets you examine a disk in minute detail and tinker with it if you dare.

I should have made a copy. You don’t need special software to make backup copies of your files – just get an extra box of disks and make the copies. The big but, of course, is that it’s a pain in the neck to keep track of what was backed up when to where, and it’s time-consuming to manually perform the copy operations. Disk-utility packages with file-backup features can make the process relatively painless.

The software will let you back up every file on the disk, or every file that has changed since the last time you backed up your files, or just those specific files you want to back up. Then it’s a simple matter of selecting where you want the backup files to go and, if you’re using floppy disks for backups, feeding the required floppies into the computer as they’re requested. If you need to retrieve a file from your backup disks, the utility software makes the process easy by listing the backed-up files and automating the recovery process.


My hard disk is slowing down. When it’s time to record information on your disk, the operating system generally looks for the next section of available space and starts writing. If the file is too big to fit in that section, the operating system looks for the next available section, which is often far from the first. This goes on until the entire file is saved, and it can really chop up a file. For instance, when you install a program on a hard disk, it can be broken up into many pieces. Now, the operating system keeps track of where all the pieces are placed, so it can find the entire file when I need it. But when there are pieces scattered in several physical locations on a hard disk, it can take far longer to load a file than it would if the entire file were in one contiguous block on the disk.

Many disk utilities include a hard-disk optimization function that neatly rearranges the files on your disk so that, to the greatest degree possible, each is stored as a single block. This offers two benefits: One, your disk operations will speed up substantially, particularly if your files are severely fragmented. When you optimize your hard disk, the loading time for any program will be cut in half. Two, if you do need to recover lost or deleted files, it is much easier for a utility to find the whole file if it is stored in one place than if sections of the file are littered across the disk.

I feel the need for speed. Your computer can read information from its memory (RAM) much more quickly than it can read info from a disk drive. A disk cache takes advantage of this fact by saving an extra copy of the information read from the hard drive in memory – the cache. The next time the system needs the same piece of information – whether it’s a data file or a section of the program itself – it looks first in the cache. Depending on the way you work and the software you use, a disk cache can save you a significant number of disk accesses and, hence, speed up your work.

You can get involved in fine-tuning the settings for a cache utility if you’re technically minded, but you certainly don’t have to. Installing and using a cache utility is basically easy and automatic, and well worth doing. Several of the DOS file packages include disk caching. The Macintosh has caching built into its operating system, with settings available on the Control Panel.



I need my privacy! How do you keep other people with access to your computer from peeking at your files? You can password-protect your work with file encryption. This utility scrambles the information on disk so it appears garbled to anyone who tries to read it without the proper password.

Another security-minded utility offers absolute file deletion. Remember that deleting a file does not actually remove the information from your hard disk. For those occasions when you want that information totally obliterated to keep prying eyes from recovering the file, several disk-utility packages let you “wipe” the file space, obliterating any trace of the deleted file by overwriting it with nonsense characters.

So many files, so little time. The day-to-day chores of living with computer disks – copying, deleting, moving, or just finding files – can often be a nuisance when undertaken through the operating system alone. Several of the packages described below (notably for PCs) include simplified systems for accomplishing these tasks, often relying on a menu structure.

Please insert the disk. Each of the Mac packages included here includes a fast floppy-disk-copying component. The Mac operating system does not copy floppy disks very efficiently, especially if your computer has a single floppy

drive. The fast-copy utilities read as much information from your disk as they can fit in your system memory, then write it out to your copy disk in a large chunk.

More, more! I’m still not satisfied. These are the essential file utilities found in the “Swiss Army knife” packages reviewed here. Many of these packages offer additional capabilities as well – some of them intriguing, others of limited value. We’ll point out the highlights of these extras in the individual software reviews that follow, without trying to cover every bell and whistle.

We’ll concentrate instead on what we consider key to this software category – a combination of power and ease of use. If a utility package can get you out of trouble, improve your system performance, and make your daily file operations easier without your becoming bogged down in technicalities or drenched in a cold sweat, we’re comfortable recommending it to you.

PHOTO : Backing up files with a well-made disk-utility package, such as PC-Tools shown here, turns a tedious but highly necessary task into an easy, point-and-choose procedure. Simply set up the utility for how often you want to back up files, choose the method of backup (full disk, just files altered since the last backup, and so on), and decide which disk you’re backing up from and which you’re backing up to.

PHOTO : Recovering accidentally deleted data files might be the most important reason to invest in a disk-utility program, such as Norton Utilities (PC version), shown here. Just let the program search a drive for all files that have been deleted. Then, the software not only tells you the names of all deleted files and their sizes but also the prognosis for recovering each file.

COPYRIGHT 1991 Freedom Technology Media Group

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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