July 27 2006 10:47 AM

Every time Microsoft releases a new operating system, the question arises, what utilities do I need for my computer? Computer utilities are small programs that help you better work with your hardware or existing software. Unlike application programs, they don't let you do anything externally such as prepare a letter or budget.


To its credit, Microsoft, with each new version of Windows and previously with DOS, has bundled in utilities you previously had to pay extra for.


Windows Me, the latest version, includes tools for restoring corrupted system files, sharing an Internet connection among multiple PCs, reattaching files that become fragmented, viewing graphics, deleting unnecessary files as well as backing up data and programs. Unfortunately, the utilities Microsoft typically provides are limited, compared with "third-party" programs, and this continues with Windows Me. That's why utilities remain popular. According to the latest numbers from the market research firm PC Data, five of the top 10 best-selling business software programs are utilities.


Utility Risks

Whether you use a PC in a business or home setting, utilities can boost your productivity. They can also be fun to experiment with. However, there's a slight risk to such experimentation. A poorly designed utility can corrupt other software. The remedy typically involves simply reinstalling the corrupted software, though infrequently it can necessitate wiping your hard disk clean and reinstalling everything. What's more, when used carelessly, some utilities can temporarily disable a computer, which is why

in organizational settings some system administrators restrict the use of utilities to advanced users.


The financial risk to using utilities is small. Most cost very little and some are free, released to the public by the developer to promote a consulting or publishing business or to show off programming virtuosity.


Utility Options

Here's a roundup of some of the utilities on the market today, common names as well as little gems you may not have yet heard.


Norton SystemWorks (www.symantec.com/sabu/sysworks): Peter Norton popularized third-party utilities back in the 1980s. After he sold the store to the utility powerhouse Symantec, his products kept their well-respected brand name but sometimes experienced the indignity of bug infestation. The latest version of Symantec's utility suite, Norton SystemWorks, seems stable. Included are top-notch tools for system maintenance, debris clean up and virus protection. The pro-version also offers both fax and drive imaging programs.


Norton Personal Firewall (www.symantec.com/nis): If you have a permanent Internet connection, whether cable, DSL or T1, you need protection against hackers, and this is a great choice. A related product, Norton Internet Security, includes both hacker and virus protection.


Norton AntiVirus (www.symantec.com/nav): Virus protection is the most vital tool missing from all versions of Windows and if you don't otherwise have access to anti-virus software, buy this.


PowerDesk (www.ontrack.com/powerdesk): One of the earliest types of utility was the file manager. Though Windows Explorer, which comes with Windows, offers everything most people need to copy, move and otherwise manage files, if you work with numerous files you can do better with PowerDesk. This program was recently sold to Ontrack, best known for its data recovery services, by its creator, Mijenix. Its two-pane view of the files on your hard disk, and its bundled tools for working with Zip-compressed files are the most useful of the many improvements over Windows Explorer.


PartitionMagic (www.powerquest.com/partitionmagic): Dividing a hard drive into "partitions" is an effective way of keeping organized if you have lots of programs and data or run multiple operating systems from one computer. This is the best collection of tools for managing these partitions. The most innovative part of the utility lets you quickly move programs, associated files and links from one partition to another.


TweakIE (www.tweakie.com): As its name implies, this small utility lets you tweak IE Microsoft Internet Explorer. Among other things, it can help you cover your tracks when surfing by instantly wiping out your history, cache and cookies lists.


RoboType (www.zdnet.com/downloads/stories/info/0,,

000OHO,.html): This free utility, distributed by PC Magazine, lets you quickly insert "boilerplate" text  including a word, phrase or even paragraph you use again and again in any program.


AI RoboForm (www.roboform.com): A free offering from Siber Systems, this program instantly fills in those pesky Web forms for you. The "AI" in the product's name stands for artificial intelligence.


XDrive (www.xdrive.com): This free Web service places a utility on your hard drive, which makes it easy to store files off-site. You simply use Windows to back up files, share them with colleagues or access them from the road.


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and also author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or www.members.home.net/reidgold.