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23 Powerful Utilities

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23 Powerful Utilities

ARTICLE DATE: 05.27.08

By Gary Berline
Buzz up!on Yahoo!
People love software utilities. The good ones are small, install with a minimum of fuss, require little effort to use, and have laser-like focus on a particular type of task that lets them do what they do very well. Many are free, and most of the rest are inexpensive. If some critical feature in a popular program is cumbersome, limited, underpowered, or missing, you'll find a utility that pinch hits for it.

ADVERTISEMENT Backup provides the best example, and few tasks are as important, which is why Windows XP and Vista include applets for the purpose. But if you want a truly easy-to-use, flexible, and powerful way to perform backups, you need a utility. If you're concerned about being able to restore a system with a dead hard drive to its exact, pre-crash state, look at drive-image backup utilities like Acronis True Image 11 Home, DriveImage XML, Norton Ghost 12.0, Paragon Drive Backup 8.5 Personal Edition, and ShadowProtect Desktop 3.1.


Needless to say, though, imaging an entire drive can take up a lot of space, and it's overkill when all you need is fallback copies of specific files and folders. For that purpose, look to products such as Genie Backup Manager Professional 8.0 and Second Copy 7. For your most critical data, you should also consider having offsite backups—you don't want a disaster to wipe out your backups as well as your originals. Services such as SOS Online Backup (we reviewed the beta version) and Xdrive fill that niche.

Utilities also come in handy for plugging holes and fixing shortcomings in operating systems—and there are plenty of both. Say you lose access to a Windows-encrypted file. Normally out of luck, but if you have Advanced Encrypting File System Data Recovery 4.1, you have a good chance of getting your information back. For anyone who has ever been frustrated by the severe limitations of Windows print-screen capability, there's Gadwin PrintScreen 4.3. RadarSync Free does for your applications what Windows Automatic updates does for your OS, TotalIdea TweakVI makes adjusting Vista configuration options vastly easier, and vLite lets you easily create a Vista installation DVD that leaves out OS components you don't need. Finally, WinUtilities 5.27 takes a lot of the work out of maintaining your Windows installation and keeping it uncluttered.

In this Internet-connected world, much of the commerce that used to happen in person or via mail occurs online, and that means we end up either attempting to manually track tens and even hundreds of set of log-in credentials—inevitably losing some—or using a single set of credentials for every site we visit, which is a serious security risk. There's no need to do either though. Products like 1-Click SignupShield Suite 5 and Roboform Pro 6.6 automatically track and enter all of your security information for online sites.

The online world has brought us plenty of other changes, too. Among them is the rise of the PDF—the defacto standard for electronic document interchange. If you need to send documents to others who may not have the program you used to create those documents, you need a PDF creator. Luckily, there are plenty out there. Among them, you'll find Adobe Acrobat 8 Standard, BullZip PDF Printer, PDF Converter Professional 4, and deskPDF Professional. All have their strength and weaknesses, but at least one of them should be able to meet your needs.

Of course, paper documents haven't gone away, to say the least. However, more and more, we want to convert those to electronic form. For that purpose, you need OCR software. While these products are really full-blown apps, not utilities, we include them here because of their tight focus on a particular task. Probably the two most powerful OCR application are ABBYY FineReader OCR Professional 9.0 and Omnipage Professional 16.

These utilities only scratch the surface, though. As we said earlier, if you're frustrated because your OS or application isn't giving you everything you need, there's probably a utility that does. For an extensive set of links to all manner of these products, check out our utility-software product guide. For reviews of the utilities mentioned here, click on the links in this introduction or in the summaries below.

DRIVE-IMAGE BACKUP

Acronis True Image 11 Home
This program's ability not just to perform drive imaging but also to back up and restore specific folders and settings makes it the most flexible backup utility I know. But users with complex systems should watch out for potential problems with the emergency restore CD.



DriveImage XML
DriveImage XML may have limited features, but it's solid drive-imaging software, and it's free.



Norton Ghost 12.0
This is a flexible, powerful drive-imaging and file-backup program with an exceptionally clear interface and lots of scheduling options, but a networking problem with its emergency CD keeps it from receiving an Editors' Choice.



Paragon Drive Backup 8.5 Personal Edition
This is a flexible, advanced drive backup and restore utility. The help file can be opaque, however, and the interface may be daunting to casual users.



ShadowProtect Desktop 3.1
This software provides the fastest and smoothest backups and restores of any drive-image utility on the market, and a Vista-based emergency disk guarantees compatibility with the widest range of backup hardware. ShadowProtect Desktop 3.1 is the best such product and worth ten times its price in terms of peace of mind and flexibility.



FILE-AND-FOLDER BACKUP

Genie Backup Manager Professional 8.0
This is a powerful, flexible, exceptionally well-designed and reliable backup powerhouse.



Second Copy 7
Long-established, deservedly popular backup system that emphasizes simplicity.



ONLINE BACKUP

SOS Online Backup (beta)
SOS Online Backup is the only online backup service I've tested that's both simple to use and powerful. Even non-geeks can painlessly back up their folders and files, but the service also gives the more technically inclined an impressively powerful set of features to play with.



Xdrive
With built-in media viewers and players, easy-to-use sharing features, and a relatively generous 5GB of free storage, Xdrive is one of your best online storage options. But it lacks many capabilities and offers a lower level of security than dedicated online backup services provide.



SYSTEM UTILITIES

Advanced Encrypting File System Data Recovery 4.1
It's way too easy to lose access to Windows-encrypted files. As long as you can remember a password for the account that did the encrypting, this product will recover those lost files, and its free trial shows exactly what it will do before you pay.



Gadwin PrintScreen 4.3
If you need to capture screenshots that include the cursor and prefer a few more options than you'll get with plain-old PrintScrn or Vista's snipping tool, Gadwin's PrintScreen is well worth the download.



RadarSync Free
Windows' Automatic Updates keeps your Microsoft software up to date; RadarSync Free does the same for everything else.



Totalidea TweakVI
More than TweakUI, this utility suite collects a huge array of Windows configuration options into a single solid interface.



vLite
Essential utility for any advanced user planning to install Vista, especially on multiple machines.



WinUtilities 5.27
WinUtilities is a highly useful set of Windows utilities, particularly when it comes to system-cleaning tasks. But it's not cheap, and it doesn't do everything.



PASSWORD MANAGERS

1-Click SignupShield Suite 5
1-Click SignupShield Suite 5 is everything you could want in a password manager and form-filler tool. While the user interface has some rough spots, the app handles login schemes the competition can't, and it generates disposable e-mail addresses for automatic sign-up.



Roboform Pro 6.6
Roboform Pro 6.6 fills Web forms and manages your innumerable passwords.



PDF CREATORS

Adobe Acrobat 8 Standard
Acrobat isn't cheap, but it's the gold standard for PDF editing.



BullZip PDF Printer
Freeware PDF creator is simple enough for casual use but also suitable for corporate-style automation.



deskPDF Professional
Basic-featured PDF creation, suitable for home use and small businesses.



PDF Converter Professional 4
This app lacks the polish of its rival, Adobe Acrobat 8 Standard, but it does have superior OCR and export features.



SCANNING/OCR SOFTWARE

ABBYY FineReader OCR Professional 9.0
Superb interface combined with high accuracy makes this an ideal OCR package, though it's outclassed in some corporate features by OmniPage.



OmniPage Professional 16
This long-established app is an OCR powerhouse, but its confusing interface means it may not be the right choice for all users.


Acronis True Image 11 Home
REVIEW DATE: 02.07.08

BOTTOM LINE:
This program's ability not just to perform drive imaging but also to back up and restore specific folders and settings makes it the most flexible backup utility I know. But users with complex systems should watch out for potential problems with the emergency restore CD.

PROS:
Backs up folders, settings, and e-mail as well as creating drive images. Supports experimenting with new software before committing changes to hard drive. Includes disk cleanup and security software.

CONS:
Linux-based emergency CD gets confused by complex systems. So-called "Secure Zone" isn't secure if hard drive fails.

COMPANY:
Acronis Inc


SPEC DATA

Price: $49.99 Direct
Type: Personal, Professional
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
Tech Support: e-mail and public forum
EDITOR RATING:


By Edward Mendelson
This software performs more backup feats than any other drive-imaging software. As with its peers, it creates images of whole drives, but it can also back up individual folders, e-mails, and program settings, and it lets you try out changes to your system before deciding whether to keep them. It's slower than our Editors' Choice product, ShadowProtect Desktop, but if you need this kind of flexibility—and you don't have a complex, multidrive system—Acronis True Image 11 Home is the program to choose.

Like its commercial challengers, True Image creates full backup images of whole drives or individual partitions. It can also create regular incremental backups automatically so that you can restore your system to the state it was in when you made the last complete drive image or when you made any incremental backup. The utility creates and restores backups more slowly than ShadowProtect Desktop, but at a speed similar to that of Norton Ghost 12.0 and Paragon Drive Backup 8.5 Personal Edition. I was impressed to see that True Image, like Paragon Personal, let me restore even my Windows system drive without requiring an emergency CD: The utility rebooted, restored the system drive from the image, and then rebooted into the restored drive.

Snap Restore, a feature unique to True Image, reboots into Windows, instantly restores the files needed to run the system, and then restores the rest of the drive in the background while you continue to work. But the background activity slowed my system so badly that simply waiting for the ordinary restore process to complete and then getting back to work probably would have been faster.

True Image and Norton Ghost also let me back up e-mail from Outlook, Outlook Express, and Windows Mail as well as folders, including My Documents. In addition, both allowed me to narrow backups to specific types of files (Word documents or Excel spreadsheets, for example). Furthermore, each has a trigger feature that launches a backup whenever a user logs on or off the system or when a specified number of megabytes gets added to the hard drive. Ghost's trigger implementation is more flexible. On the other hand, True Image let me choose to back up application settings, such as my Internet Explorer favorites. None of the other products I tested allowed me to do this. These extra features will be enough to make Acronis the first choice for many.—Next: Working with True Image

Working with True Image

True Image is divided into four task categories: basic backup and restore operations, a Try&Decide feature that lets you experiment with your system without making permanent changes, disk cleanup and copying utilities, and management tools for setting up shortcuts to backup locations you want to reuse or for keeping track of existing archives. Other than four icons representing these sets of tasks, the opening screen shows only warnings about problems that may have occurred during recent tasks. Annoyingly, unless you use the menu system, you have to go back to the opening screen to switch from one task category to another. You can jump to specific tasks using the menu, but the menu organizes the tasks in categories differently from those of the opening screen—a poor UI choice that's sure to confuse.

Boxed copies of True Image ship with a Linux-based emergency CD, but even if you downloaded the utility you can burn the emergency disc yourself using a wizard in the main program. The emergency CD should work well for most users in most situations. I used it successfully to restore images from my D-Link DNS-323 Network Attached Storage unit back to the computer booted from the CD. This is exactly what I would do if my computer's Windows system had become corrupted and I had to restore it, or if that computer's drive had failed and I had to replace it.

I was taken aback, however, when I tried to restore an image I had saved on an external drive attached by a FireWire cable. The emergency CD got confused by the multiple partitions (C: through H on the internal hard drive in the machine from which I booted the CD. The CD mistakenly assigned the drive letter G: to the external FireWire drive and failed to list the actual drive G: when enumerating the partitions on my internal hard drive.

At this point, I turned off my machine. I wasn't about to risk my system by restoring an image using software that misunderstood my hard drive's organization. I should emphasize that this problem occurred only with a FireWire external drive, not a USB drive—but it didn't happen at all with ShadowProtect Desktop or Paragon Personal. Acronis doesn't explain this, but it seems fairly clear that the Linux version the company uses for the emergency CD has weak FireWire support. This may be because some Linux versions are taking a long time to get its FireWire support up to the level of its USB support. This exact problem probably won't affect you, but I'd still hesitate to use any product that displays problems of this kind. Even if the emergency CD worked perfectly with my current hardware, I wouldn't be confident that it would still work if I had to use it on a new computer with the latest hardware. You could ignore this warning if you could be absolutely certain that your current hardware would last forever, and that you'd never have to restore a backup image to a machine with a new motherboard or a new disk technology, but that's not something you can be certain about.—Next: Try and Decide with Try&Decide

Try and Decide with Try&Decide

A True Image option will create an area on your hard drive for storing backups, but this Secure Zone facility, as the utility calls it, is misnamed: It's secure only until your hard drive fails, and then it's probably useless. You'd be better off storing backups on one or more external drives. But the terrific feature called Try&Decide lets you experiment with your system by temporarily writing disk changes to the Secure Zone area instead of directly to your system drive.

Try&Decide let me test the effect of an update to Microsoft Office before committing myself to keeping it, and I would probably turn the feature on before making any major software changes. I couldn't detect any system slowdown when I used it, and it's a superb safety net for anyone who experiments with software. If I felt really paranoid about system changes, I could even set Try&Decide to turn itself on automatically every time I booted up. Unfortunately, though, the feature does have some notable limitations. Once you commit your changes to the hard drive, you can't return your system to an earlier state. For that, you'd need to restore from a backup image, or use a dedicated drive snapshot program like Roxio BackOnTrack 3 Suite.

Also note that while using Try&Decide, you can't save backups using Secure Zone. True Image doesn't warn you about this when a backup tries to run, though; it simply alerts you that the backup failed. Even if you probe the log files, you'll learn only that the program couldn't get exclusive access to the Secure Zone area; you won't be told that you have to turn off Try&Decide. Unless you know what's wrong, you'll be alarmed to see a red banner on the program's main screen shouting that your backups have failed but giving no reason.

If you want, you can also use the Secure Zone area to store a copy of the Linux-based True Image version so it's available whenever you boot up, even if you don't have a copy of the emergency CD. When you do this, your system prompts you at boot-up to press F11 if you want to launch True Image or simply wait a few seconds to boot normally into Windows. If you turn on this feature, True Image overwrites your hard drive's Master Boot Record (MBR), a change that won't bother most home and business users, but advanced users may be reluctant. Those who have Linux and Windows installed on the same system will have to reinstall the Linux boot loader after True Image changes the MBR. Even if you use only Windows, however, you may instinctively distrust (as I do) any third-party software that makes this kind of low-level change to your drive. It's been years since I've experienced an actual problem with third-party programs that overwrite the MBR, but I feel safer if the MBR remains in the state that Windows or the computer manufacturer left it in.

Paragon Personal has a feature called Backup Capsule that, like Secure Zone, creates a special area on a drive and stores backup images as well as a copy of the program that can be used in an emergency. It has the same potential risks as Secure Zone, but at least it doesn't call itself "secure." The Paragon Personal Backup Capsule doesn't have the equivalent of Try&Decide, though.

I've used True Image's basic backup and restore functions for years without experiencing major problems, but I have mixed feelings about the vast range of features built into the most recent versions. The program used to have the same tight focus on image backup and restore that I like in ShadowProtect Desktop, but Acronis seems to have expanded the feature set without fixing basic problems like the one I encountered with the emergency CD. If you're considering True Image, I suggest you visit the official Acronis support forum at Wilders Security Forums and read some of the problem reports submitted by users.

True Image gets more kinds of backup jobs done than any of its rivals, and if you have a plain-vanilla home or SOHO system, this product will do all you need and more—provided you don't run into the kind of compatibility issues I experienced, and which also seem to be reported often on the company's own support forums. Many difficulties that users report on the forums result from simple mistakes in reading the menus, but a number of others involve problems restoring from backups, and Acronis isn't as quick as ShadowProtect in responding to or resolving these reported problems. This is a high-quality, mature program that's surprisingly flexible, but Acronis won't be ready to challenge ShadowProtect for our Editors' Choice until it focuses more on its core functions and less on the size of its feature set.

More Backup Software Reviews:


DriveImage XML
REVIEW DATE: 02.11.08

BOTTOM LINE:
DriveImage XML may have limited features, but it's solid drive-imaging software, and it's free.

PROS:
Free. Command-line interface allows running program from batch files.

CONS:
No incremental backups. Can't write to DVD. You must build your own emergency boot CD.

COMPANY:
Runtime Software


SPEC DATA

Price: $0.00 Direct
Type: Personal
Free: Yes
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
EDITOR RATING:


By Edward Mendelson
DriveImage XML does a lot less than other drive-imaging programs, but it costs nothing, and it does just as good a job as they do of the essential tasks of backing up, browsing, and restoring drive images. It does these jobs more slowly, and it can't make incremental backups (the kind that quickly supplement full backups with changes made since the initial backup), and it's only suitable for users who like building their own emergency boot CD. If you've already built a BartPE boot disk, DriveImage XML is the kind of imaging software you want. If you've never heard of BartPE and you don't know what I'm talking about, read on.

You've heard that backing up is hard to do? Not with this utility. You simply choose Backup from the main menu, select a local drive to back up (the program won't let you back up network drives), click on Next, and pick a destination (which can be any local or network drive). Like all the other products in this category, you can save the image to the same drive that you're backing up. If you opt to save to the same drive, you'll probably also want to copy the image to a safer location afterward. Though you can't save directly to DVD media, an option will split the image into multiple files suitable for copying by hand to DVDs after the backup is complete. You can't back up individual files, but I prefer whole-drive backups anyway.

DriveImage XML has one geek-level feature I like: A command-line interface lets you control the utility through an old-style batch file to fine-tune backup procedures and delete or rename existing backups. You have to write your own batch files, of course, but for experienced batch-file gurus, that's faster than using the other products' wizards. I'm not thrilled, though, that DriveImage XML won't run under Vista until you turn off User Access Control (UAC). While I dislike UAC as much as you do, it's a valuable security feature, and I'd prefer to leave it on.—Next: How DriveImage XML Works

How DriveImage XML Works

To extract files from an image, you use the browse feature from the product's main menu, which opens a tree-structured file-viewing program that looks like a ten-year-old version of Windows Explorer. I liked the toolbar that let me extract, launch, and view files. The view feature uses a Notepad-style file viewer from which you can copy text to the Windows clipboard, but I prefer the ability that competing programs give me to browse a backup image in Explorer.

Restoring an image can be tricky with DriveImage XML. You can use the program's main menu to restore partitions to your local hard drive—unless you want to restore to your system partition. In that case you have to boot to an emergency boot CD—and you have to provide that CD for yourself using the freeware, open-source BartPE (Bart Preboot Environment) devised by Bart Lagerweij and available from Nu2 Productions Website. Don't even think about trying this if you've never at least tried on a propeller beanie: Although the process isn't especially difficult, the instructions are long and complicated, and you'll need an up-to-date Windows XP installation CD—not the restore disc that came with your mail-order computer, but a full-fledged installation CD that can install XP on any machine.

I don't exactly enjoy building BartPE discs, and I've never spent the time I would need to incorporate all the add-ons preferred by BartPE experts, but I climbed the learning curve a few years ago, and I don't mind taking a few minutes to create a new CD every now and then. All I needed to do to create a BartPE disc that would let me restore a DriveImage XML image to my system was download a DriveImage XML plug-in for BartPE from the DriveImage XML Web site, install the plug-in to my existing BartPE-building environment, and burn a new CD that includes a copy of DriveImage XML. Once I booted from my new BartPE CD, I could click on the BartPE menu, open the copy of DriveImage XML already on the CD, and back up or restore any drive in my system. If reading this last paragraph makes your head hurt, DriveImage XML probably isn't for you. If, on the other hand, it sounds old hat, you should definitely consider it.

DriveImage XML is a long-established and reliable program that's more or less certain to work without fuss or failures. I value my data enough to prefer a program with more options and the ability to make incremental backups, but if I had to use DriveImage XML instead of its competition, I certainly wouldn't complain. But then again, I'm not frightened by BartPE.

More Backup Software Reviews:


Norton Ghost 12.0
REVIEW DATE: 02.08.08

BOTTOM LINE:
This is a flexible, powerful drive-imaging and file-backup program with an exceptionally clear interface and lots of scheduling options, but a networking problem with its emergency CD keeps it from receiving an Editors' Choice.

PROS:
Simple interface with a unique calendar view of past and scheduled backups. Backs up drives and files with ultra-flexible scheduling options, including backups when a specified application launches.

CONS:
Emergency disc couldn't see network on test systems.

COMPANY:
Symantec Corporation


SPEC DATA

Price: $69.99 Direct
Type: Business, Personal, Professional
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
Tech Support: phone and email
EDITOR RATING:


By Edward Mendelson
This software inherits the name of the original Ghost (the first widely used drive-imaging software released by Binary Research in 1996) but none of the code, so I wouldn't buy it based on its ancestry. On the other hand, I might recommend buying Norton Ghost 12.0 because it has the best interface of any drive-imaging competitor, and it's the only product of its kind that won't frighten a completely nontechnical user. I admire many things about it, especially the capability it gives you to have specific events trigger a backup, but I encountered enough glitches to keep me from preferring it to our Editors' Choice product, ShadowProtect Desktop 3.1.

Like all its commercial rivals, Norton Ghost can create full backups of your drives, supplemented by scheduled incremental backups that include only changes made since the last full backup. What's more, the utility can save backup images on local or network drives or on writable DVDs. Like Acronis True Image 11 Home, it can also back up specific folders or file types, a convenience that could make Norton Ghost and True Image Home vie for first choice among users who want to maintain both full drive backups and smaller file backups. Those are perfectly reasonable options for backing up, though I think up-to-date drive backups are sufficient.

When I loaded Norton Ghost's emergency boot CD, I expected to have as good an experience as I had had with the ShadowProtect Desktop emergency CD, because both products make use of the up-to-date hardware support built into Windows Vista. Unfortunately, the networking setup on the emergency CD never found my network from any of the three attached test systems, so I couldn't restore my system from my Network Attached Storage. None of the emergency CDs of the other products I was testing at the same time had this problem, which, for me, rules out Norton Ghost as a backup solution. Though many users have reported no problems, others have related similar difficulties. If you back up to a network location, you may want to try Norton Ghost before you buy it.—Next: Norton Ghost: What I Liked

Norton Ghost: What I Liked

One of things I do like about the utility is its lucid, spacious interface, which makes every option easily accessible without cluttering the screen. Norton Ghost uses the standard left-panel toolbar and large right-panel information window to lay out its features. This is more or less the way its competitors do things, too, but Ghost is especially well organized. Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised in a few areas, such as a calendar view that showed me the dates on which I had already made backups and the dates on which future backups were scheduled.

What impressed me most was an option that starts an incremental backup when specific events occur on the computer, such as a user logging on or off, a particular application being launched, or a certain amount of data being added to the drive. It's similar to a capability in True Image Home, but Norton Ghost gives you many more triggers. This feature is probably most useful in corporate settings with acres of storage space, but other users might want it as an easy way to link a backup set with specific events rather than particular times (which Norton Ghost also lets you do).

I also liked the way Norton Ghost implements its other tools. A feature that copies backup images from one location to another let me take an image I had saved to a network drive and make a copy elsewhere. Another option will break up an existing image into smaller-size chunks that can fit onto DVDs—a nice touch.

I also like the way Norton Ghost uses an internal file browser for browsing and extracting files from image backups. With other commercial products, you browse through image backups by opening them as "virtual drives" in Windows Explorer so that each backup that you open gets a drive letter of its own. If you need to browse through more than one backup, it's easy to get confused over which one is currently "Drive D" and which one is "Drive E." With Norton, you use a special-purpose file manager that always displays exactly which backup image you're viewing—but you also get the option of clicking on a toolbar if you want to open the image in Explorer, where you can use all the conveniences available in the right-click menu.—Next: Norton Ghost: What I Didn't Like

Norton Ghost: What I Didn't Like

What I didn't especially like about Norton Ghost was its slowness in writing backups to DVDs, especially compared with the speedy ShadowProtect. And when I first installed the boxed Norton Ghost CD under Vista, I was taken aback by the number of error messages the program threw at me regarding its inability to "connect" to the system—not very illuminating information for nontechnical users. The messages, and the errors that caused them, disappeared after I ran the Live Update feature to update the program on the CD to the latest version, but it was unsettling to find that the version on the CD had so much trouble with Windows Vista, which had already been released when this version of Ghost was released.

I'm also bothered by the many problem reports circulating on the Internet about failures in the program that Symantec's minimally expert tech support staff wasn't able to solve. I've learned to rely on online forums for tech support because they serve as repositories of users' experiences and real-world solutions, and I was struck by the fact that Symantec doesn't sponsor an online support forum for Norton Ghost. A Web search brought me to a lively but unofficial Ghost-users' mutual-support forum at radified.com, but the site showed no trace of participation from Symantec. The contrast between Symantec's total lack of an online forum on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the official support forum for ShadowProtect Desktop (with its almost instant responses by the vendor's own experts) was striking.

Symantec is currently working on what I'm told is a minor upgrade, Norton Ghost 14.0 (the company is skipping number 13 to avoid associating a program that's supposed to make you feel secure with an "unlucky" number). Maybe it will fix the networking problem that, for me, ruled out buying this version of the product. Norton Ghost 12.0 has lots of things to like, but if you've been considering it, you may want to wait until we find out what's improved in the next version.

More Backup Software Reviews:


Paragon Drive Backup 8.5 Personal Edition
REVIEW DATE: 02.06.08

BOTTOM LINE:
This is a flexible, advanced drive backup and restore utility. The help file can be opaque, however, and the interface may be daunting to casual users.

PROS:
Reliable drive-image backups and restores. Easy management of multiple archives for restoring old files. Powerful, reliable Linux-based emergency boot CD.

CONS:
Confusing help file; interface suitable for experts only.

COMPANY:
Paragon Software Group


SPEC DATA

Price: $49.95 Direct
Type: Business, Personal, Professional
EDITOR RATING:


By Edward Mendelson
Don't be fooled by "Personal" in the name of this powerful drive-imaging software. Paragon Drive Backup 8.5 Personal Edition looks as if it's designed for personal use by the kind of people who manage enterprise IT systems. You may prefer this package if you're comfortable with menus that let you back up your hard drive's Master Boot Record and aren't terrified by an option to back up the first track, or if you want to manage multiple backup images from a single archive menu. And if you're a techie needing to restore your system from the program's Linux-based emergency boot CD, you'll thrill to the knowledge that you can open a command line and perform advanced surgery on your drives and files using Linux's most arcane tools. Home and SOHO users who don't want to be bothered with technical details, however, should probably choose something else for their personal drive-imaging product. As a fairly experienced user, I could happily live with this product for drive backups, but I'll stick with ShadowProtect Desktop 3.1 (our Editors' Choice) for its superior speed and easy-to-use Vista-based emergency CD.

In its feature set, Paragon Drive Backup Personal falls between the needle-sharp focus of ShadowProtect Desktop and the Swiss-Army-knife approach of Acronis True Image 11 Home. Paragon creates and restores backup images of partitions or whole drives, but it doesn't offer True Image Home's ability to back up individual files or settings. Like the competition, Drive Backup Personal uses a two-pane interface, with a list of tools and tasks in a left-hand toolbar, and on the right a larger window for managing drives and backup images. I was impressed to see that I could back up my system without even installing the utility, simply by inserting the emergency CD while Windows was running and choosing the option to run the software directly from the CD without rebooting. I also liked having the option to shut down my system automatically after completing a backup—an ideal feature for anyone who likes to back up a system at the end of the day.—Next: Unhelpful Help

Unhelpful Help

Like its commercial rivals, Drive Backup Personal uses a wizard for creating backup and restore jobs, but the wizard has a split personality that bothers me a bit. I like that it keeps things simple by hiding encryption and other advanced options unless you check a box marked "Change backup settings" on the first menu.

On the other hand, users who want simple choices will be shocked when they get to the scary-looking menu where they must choose whether to back up individual partitions or the entire drive. This menu's tree-structured view of the drive includes options to back up the first track and Master Boot Record. You can ignore those choices, but non-techies could use a bit of explanatory text—or at least something in a help file.

Unfortunately, you can't access the program's help while using the backup wizard. And even when you return from the wizard to the main tabbed interface, the help system remains hard to use because it's on a tab of its own, so to read it you have to switch away from the menu with which you need help.

Worst of all, though the text looks a bit like English, it certainly doesn't read that way. This sentence is fairly typical: "To synthesize a new property modified archive based on the existed backup images of the selected disk/partition with the Synthetic Backup Wizard, simply do the following." (Don't you love that "simply"?) I think this is about merging (synthesizing) two backup images made from the same drive using different settings, but the whole Synthetic Backup feature isn't even included in the Personal edition, so the help screens about it merely added to the confusion, rather than helping to resolve it.—Next: Paragon in Action

Paragon in Action

The product backed up my test system more slowly than the commercial competitors did, and it created an image that was about 20 percent larger than either of those created by True Image Home and ShadowProtect Desktop. Drive Backup Personal supports a feature called Backup Capsule, which, like the True Image Home Secure Zone, carves out a hidden partition on your hard drive and uses it for storing backups. I don't much care for this capability: I want my backups stored on a separate drive in case my main drive becomes physically damaged or unreadable. If you don't have another drive, however, the Backup Capsule is safer than nothing.

Drive Backup Personal uses the Backup Capsule area for backups only; it doesn't match the Try&Decide feature in True Image Home, which lets you experiment with system changes before committing them to your system. As with True Image Home, Drive Backup Personal includes an option that stores a reduced copy of itself on the Backup Capsule, allowing you to boot into the reduced program and restore a damaged Windows system to a previous version. This boot-into-the-restore-program feature overwrites the Master Boot Record (MBR) of your hard drive, and I have reservations about that. It's been years since I've experienced an actual problem with third-party programs that overwrite the MBR, but I feel safer if the MBR remains in the state that Windows or the computer manufacturer left it in.

You can make two different types of emergency boot discs with Drive Backup Personal: a simple MS-DOS-based one that you can burn by choosing an option in the Drive Backup program, and a full-fledged Linux-based emergency disc that you can download as a disc image from the Paragon Web site and then burn to a CD. The DOS-based CD launches a program that performs basic restore and disk-management options on your internal hard drive but can't access backups on external drives or a network. This is the same program that gets stored on the Backup Capsule for emergency use. The DOS program listed a nonexistent drive B: on my test system as a possible source of archives, and when I selected that drive by mistake, the program locked up.

I was a lot more impressed with the full-fledged Linux-based disc, which managed external drives without getting confused by multiple partitions on the internal drive the way the True Image Home Linux-based disc did. You'll need some experience with networking and an understanding of basic Linux to use all the features on the full-fledged Paragon emergency CD, and some of the disc's menus—especially in its networking setup—aren't for the fainthearted.

I was very impressed with Paragon Drive Backup 8.5 Personal Edition, and I think any system administrator would be glad to have a copy of its Linux-based emergency CD. While it may be a bit intimidating for less-savvy users, this highly reliable and powerful utility is a good choice for those who need advanced capabilities. It's a close second to our Editors' Choice, the more broadly appealing ShadowProtect Desktop.

More Backup Software Reviews:


ShadowProtect Desktop 3.1
REVIEW DATE: 01.30.08

BOTTOM LINE:
This software provides the fastest and smoothest backups and restores of any drive-image utility on the market, and a Vista-based emergency disk guarantees compatibility with the widest range of backup hardware. ShadowProtect Desktop 3.1 is the best such product and worth ten times its price in terms of peace of mind and flexibility.

PROS:
Fast, reliable image backups to local and network drives. Easy restores, even to different hardware. Plentiful scheduling and security options. Can mount images in VMware Workstation or Microsoft Virtual PC.

CONS:
Can't back up specific groups of files.

COMPANY:
StorageCraft Technology Corporation


SPEC DATA

Price: $79.00 Direct
Type: Business, Personal, Professional
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
Tech Support: email and public forum
EDITOR RATING:


By Edward Mendelson
What I want from backup software is simple: It should work perfectly and fast—and that's exactly what ShadowProtect Desktop 3.1 did on my tests. Maybe the reason this utility is so good at backing up hard drives and restoring whole systems, individual drives, and individual files is that it doesn't try to do anything else. The utility lacks some of the fancy features trumpeted by its commercial competitors, like Acronis True Image 11 Home and Paragon Drive Backup 8.5 Personal Edition, but I prefer it over all the alternatives, because it does what it's designed to do with unparalleled speed and reliability. And its interface, while not as spectacular as its performance, is clear enough to get the job done.

ShadowProtect Desktop creates full and incremental backup images, either on schedule or on demand, and can save them to internal and external hard disks, CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray media, network drives, and Network Attached Storage (NAS) units. It restores images to your hard drive—or to a different machine—when you need to revive a nonworking system or simply want to go back to an earlier version of a mildly messed-up one.

ShadowProtect Desktop performs the same basic functions as True Image Home and Paragon Drive Backup, but it's breathtakingly fast compared with its rivals. It's also the only program of its kind that creates writable backup images. In Windows Explorer I was able to open a backed-up drive image, modify files, run a virus remover on them, or use any other software to manipulate them—and then save the image in its modified form. Rival products, by contrast, can open backed-up images strictly as read-only drives, so you can copy files out but can't change anything inside. Best of all, ShadowProtect Desktop simply works without surprises no matter what hardware I use.—Next: Interfacing with ShadowProtect

Interfacing with ShadowProtect

The interface is standard for this software category—a sidebar on the left for choosing basic tasks and a large panel on the right for viewing backup operations in progress, studying a map of your drives, and giving access to other features. This product isn't for complete beginners, but you don't need to be an expert, either. Setting up a scheduled automated backup routine takes only a few seconds. For my hard drive, I used the wizard interface to schedule monthly image backups and daily incremental backups that saved to a D-Link DNS-323 NAS unit. Every few weeks I also make full backups to a small stack of writable DVDs and a USB-attached external drive.

ShadowProtect Desktop ships on a CD that can install the utility in Windows. The same disc can also work as a bootable emergency CD when I need to restore a drive from a backed-up image, retrieve files from a stored image, or simply retrieve files from a machine that won't boot from Windows. The software uses a reduced version of Vista (the Vista Pre-boot Environment, or Vista PE) for its bootable disc, which means that the emergency CD can access every kind drive Vista can. This makes for much smoother operations than the Linux-based emergency CD used by True Image Home, which was confused by my complex system. Also, when backing up and restoring a Windows-based system, I'm simply more comfortable with an emergency CD based on Vista rather than Linux—even Paragon Drive Backup's excellent Linux-based emergency disc.

Unlike True Image Home, ShadowProtect Desktop doesn't come with software that creates a bootable emergency CD for you if you don't have the original, but registered users can download a burnable ISO image from StorageCraft's Web site and create a bootable CD at any time. Nor will you find a feature like "Secure Zone" or "Backup Capsule," offered by True Image Home and Paragon Drive Backup, that will store a backup to the drive being backed up. But such zones won't protect your data if your drive suffers a physical failure. ShadowProtect Desktop will let you save the images from one partition to another partition on the same physical drive, which is handy. But the app is really designed for storing backup images on separate media that you can safely store. After all, if your machine gets nuked, you'll probably lose both partitions. Still, if you merely overwrite a key file by accident, having a local backup is useful, too.—Next: Hardware Independent Restoration: Very Cool

Hardware Independent Restoration: Very Cool

The software's most impressive unique feature is its Hardware Independent Restore (HIR), which runs only from the emergency CD. With HIR, you can take an image made on one computer, restore it to another that has entirely different hardware, and be confident that the restored image will boot. You'll probably need to install sound and network drivers for the new system, but you'll be able to boot—a feat you'll rarely manage when you transfer an existing system to a very different machine. Also, you'll be able to use all your existing software and settings without going to the trouble of installing all your programs again.

This feature takes most of the headaches out of upgrading to a new computer. I tested the capability by restoring my normal system to a VMware Workstation virtual machine, and the process was amazingly smooth. It took only 20 minutes to restore a copy of my system and probably would have taken even less time to perform the same trick with real hardware.

I was pleased and surprised to find out that with the two most widely used virtual-computer programs, VMware Workstation and Microsoft's freely downloadable Virtual PC 2007, I didn't even need a copy of ShadowProtect to boot a drive image—provided, of course, that the image was an image of a bootable drive. I could simply select the drive image as a new machine in VMware Workstation or Virtual PC, wait a few moments, and the image would boot up as a virtual machine. It sounds complicated, but it required only a few mouse clicks.

To try out this feature, I opened VMware Workstation, clicked on "Open an Existing VM," and selected a ShadowProtect image of a bootable drive from the backups stored on my network-attached storage device. VMware took less than a minute to create all the additional files needed to launch the image as a virtual machine, displayed a few unimportant warning messages, and booted the image file.

Other features I like in ShadowProtect Desktop include an Image Management tool that lets me split a large image into smaller files to simplify file transfer and that lets me combine a full backup and a sequence of incremental backups into a single file that reflects the state of my system on the date of the last incremental backup. This kind of fine-tuning isn't available on rival products.

The product isn't absolutely perfect—for example, you can't carry out every task from the keyboard: I had to use the mouse to click on the filename the software suggested for a backup image before the program would let me rename it. Also, the utility tends to be conservative in estimating the time needed to complete a backup: It told me that a backup to DVD would take 2 hours and then completed the task in 15 minutes. But those were the worst faults I could find.

What matters to me most is that the software is fast, reliable, and—for even moderately experienced users—almost effortless. The support forum at StorageCraft's Web site reports impressively few problems, and a StorageCraft engineer always responds within a few hours with either a way to fix a problem or with a promise to get it fixed in the next update. ShadowProtect makes me feel more secure about my system than I ever did before. I wouldn't run my computers without it, and I think you shouldn't either.

More Backup Software Reviews:


Genie Backup Manager Pro 8.0
REVIEW DATE: 03.14.08

BOTTOM LINE:
This is a powerful, flexible, exceptionally well-designed and reliable backup powerhouse.

PROS:
Extremely deep feature set. Useful preset (but easily customizable) backup strategies. Emergency boot CD can restore a corrupted Windows system. Can create backup sets as executable programs that can run without installing the backup software.

CONS:
No secure FTP.

COMPANY:
Genie-Soft Corp.


SPEC DATA

Price: $69.95 Direct
Type: Business, Personal, Professional
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
Tech Support: Online forum and email
EDITOR RATING:


By Edward Mendelson
Genie Backup Manager Pro 8.0 is a heavy-duty backup and restore program that performs almost any file-storage and rescue task you can imagine—and makes you feel as if you're in control of a gigantic, powerful machine when you're running it. Compared with the hang-glider simplicity of a program like Second Copy 7, or the minimalism of NTI Shadow, this $69.95 utility feels like a jumbo jet. The ride's comfortable and secure, the control panel is filled with options, but an autopilot does most of the work for you.

In most cases, expert users won't need this option, because Genie's proprietary-looking backup format is actually a standard ZIP archive with with a .GBP extension instead of the standard .ZIP extension. Techincally-minded users can rename the .GBP files as .ZIP files and restore the backed-up files stored in the ZIP archive, but nervous and non-technical users will probably feel more comfortable using the Genie program itself to restore files.

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The program let me create automated, scheduled backup jobs and provided thoughtful options—like, for instance, the one that automatically adds the date and time to the filename of the backup. Another option screen I appreciated let me choose backup locations ranging from local drives through writable DVDs to FTP sites to Genie's subscription-based online backup service. My only disappointment was the absence of Secure FTP support.

In deciding what to back up, I could choose from prebuilt categories, including My Documents, Outlook, or Windows Mail data, Windows fonts, and the Windows Registry. I could also, of course, choose any combination of folders and exclude files older than a user-specified date or larger than a user-specified size. A plug-in feature let me choose from among dozens of programs whose settings Genie could back up and restore.

For example, if I checked off the plug-in for Windows Scheduled Tasks, the backup job would include those tasks and let me restore them on my own machine or any other machine. If I checked off the Firefox Profiles plug-in, the backup would include all my Firefox user data and interface choices. A few Firefox plug-ins come with Genie Backup Manager itself, and you can download others from Genie's Web site. I wish this feature was more extensive than it is—say, that it could back up my default Microsoft Word document template—but it's still better than anything the competition offers.—Next: Beyond the Basics

Beyond the Basics

Among the other advanced options I liked was one that let me make incremental backups with rollback. Once you've done a full backup, you can save time and storage space by running scheduled incremental backups, which copy only files that have been newly created or altered since the last backup,. The rollback feature preserves earlier versions of files rather than overwriting them with the latest version each time you run a backup, giving you a way to retrieve previous versions of documents, which you can't do with a "normal" backup.

I also admired the unique Swift Restore option, which creates an executable backup file that restores itself without the need of the backup utility. I could run a backup file made with Swift Restore on a machine different from the original, restoring the backed-up files and settings to the other machine without installing Genie Backup Manager. This gets around the one drawback of the program, caused by its proprietary backup format: To restore ordinary backups, as opposed to Swift Restore files, either you need to have the emergency boot CD, or the target machine needs to have a copy of Genie Backup Manager installed. That's not a problem with home and office systems, but it could put you in a bad position if you back up your laptop to a thumb drive and need to restore your files to a new machine on the road.

Genie's restores are just as customizable as its backups. When I restored my backed-up Windows Mail messages, the program let me choose between merging my backed-up mail messages with my existing ones or simply overwriting my current messages. If my original mail file had become corrupted, I would have chosen the latter, but since I had merely deleted a few messages by mistake, I chose the merge option, which worked perfectly.

The program includes an advanced feature for creating an emergency restore disk. One option on the main menu first creates a bootable CD or DVD that you can use to bring up your system when Windows won't boot. Next it walks you through a disaster-recovery backup that saves the full set of your Windows and program files on removable media or on any external or network hard drive so that you can restore those files after booting from the emergency disk. You don't have to worry whether your system can write to writable CDs or DVDs, because the program includes its own drivers to guarantee that writable backups are possible.

The disaster-recovery feature is so carefully designed, it even warned me that I hadn't installed the latest drivers for my removable-disk system—something I might not otherwise have noticed for months. The disaster recovery backup I made of my new Vista setup filled 6GB on my Network Storage Device and let me easily restore a fried system. Note that this feature is not the same as the image-backup programs I reviewed recently, which can restore an entire hard drive (including the low-level files), not just the Windows operating system itself.

Over the years, many well-written utility programs have impressed me by adding new and useful features, but few have impressed me as much as Genie Backup Manager Pro 8.0. I was equally impressed with the helpful online forum the vendor maintains for technical questions and problem-solving.

I still prefer to use drive-imaging software to back up my main system, but Genie Backup Manager Pro 8.0 may be a better way to go when you want to back up a limited number of files instead of making full-system images—for example, when you back up to DVDs, thumb drives, or other relatively small-capacity media instead of a NAS device. I can imagine choosing a minimalist program like Second Copy 7 instead of a gigantic program like this one. But even if I wanted only a few features, I would probably lean toward the Genie software because its feature depth , and the vendor's obviously extensive testing give me the confidence I want in backups. For a file backup program, I don't know of a better choice than Genie Backup Manager Pro.

More Backup Software Reviews:


Second Copy 7
REVIEW DATE: 03.10.08

BOTTOM LINE:
Long-established, deservedly popular backup system that emphasizes simplicity.

PROS:
Simple, highly reliable backups with plenty of options for local, network, or FTP-based backup operations.

CONS:
Somewhat complicated setup for destinations when creating multiple backup profiles. Interface takes some getting used to.

COMPANY:
Centered Systems


SPEC DATA

Price: $29.95 Direct
Type: Business, Personal
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
EDITOR RATING:


By Edward Mendelson
Buzz up!on Yahoo!
Second Copy 7 is a simple and elegant backup program with a friendly interface, fully automated operations, an option to preserve multiple versions your files, and enough options to keep tech-savvy users happy. If you search the Internet, you'll find that a lot of other people like it, too, and earlier versions of Second Copy have been reliably backing up files for more than ten years. If you're new to Second Copy, you may be bothered, as I was initially, by a few puzzling quirks, but once I got used to them, I liked almost everything I tried in Second Copy 7.

The program comes in a 2MB download—that's thimble-sized compared with most other software—and installs quickly. Using a wizard, I created a backup "Profile" that would back up the My Documents folder on my system every time I modified a file, and also preserve two prior versions of each file. The only small complication was that I needed to specify two different directories for the backups of the current version of the file and for the backups of the prior versions. I could have specified that Second Copy make its backups every few minutes or hours or days, but I preferred the option to make backups as soon as I saved a new version of the file. After making my first backup Profile, I went on to make a few more Profiles that saved different folders on different schedules, and I organized the Profiles into tabbed folders on Second Copy's interface.

I was impressed by Second Copy's range of backup options. I could choose to move files into the backup location instead of merely copying them, or I could choose an option that synchronizes the source and backup directories. I also had the option to make the program copy all files in a directory every time it ran a Profile instead of copying only new and changed files. I could have told the program to save my backups in a compressed Zip archive, or to save them in encrypted copies, but I preferred the program's default backup method. This method simply saves copies of my files in their original format under their original name but in a backup directory, so that the backups of my Word files are Word files, and the backups of my text files are text files.—Next: Restoring Files

Restoring Files

Using this method meant I could quickly restore my files simply by copying them from the backup folder to their original location. Since I specified a network drive as my backup location, this meant I could restore my files from another computer on the network as well—and that there was no need to run a special restore program to get them back. I could also have specified a thumb drive or any other external drive as a backup location and used the backed-up copies on any other machine I chose.

I like the way Second Copy doesn't use proprietary formats or drivers for anything. It lets you back up to a writable CD or DVD if your system is already set up so that you can copy files from Explorer to a writable CD or DVD, and it doesn't complicate your system by loading its own special drivers. I also like the way Second Copy runs quietly from the taskbar tray when I close its main window. I was impressed to see an advanced option that let me set up a backup profile that worked only when my laptop was docked or undocked—all I had to do was check off the Windows hardware profile (docked or undocked) that had to be active before the backup would run.

One feature I would have tested if I could was the option to back up files to an FTP server. However, all the FTP servers to which I have access use the Secure FTP protocol, and I was disappointed to see that Second Copy 7 doesn't support Secure FTP. Also, there's no open forum at the vendor's Web site, and you have to rely on e-mail support.

To restore files from a backup destination to the source, you should normally use Windows Explorer to copy the files you want. Second Copy has its own built-in Restore function, but it restores every file from the destination folder to the source folder without giving you an option to pick and choose, so you should use it only when restoring files from a backup location to a new computer, or after a major crash on your old one. The file list displayed by the Restore function misleadingly lets you highlight one or more files—but you can't pop up a menu and remove the files from the restore list or do anything else with a highlighted file.

At first I was confused when this file list didn't appear when I told the program to restore a profile. That was because the backed-up files and the source files were still identical, so the Restore function couldn't do anything—and the program didn't want to waste my time with an empty window. Nevertheless, I would have preferred an option to see a message saying "Nothing to do" or something similar, instead of seeing nothing at all. When I mentioned this, the techs at Centered Systems agreed that an option like this was a good idea, and you can expect to see it in a future version.

Second Copy is small, simple, flexible, and reliable. That's all I ask from a file backup program, and I don't think you need much more. I would have liked to have Secure FTP support so that I could use the FTP backup option, and I would have liked a little more automated help in setting up backup destinations for multiple versions. I didn't miss the kind of high-tech interface provided by more modern-looking programs such as Memeo AutoBackup Premium. Backup should be as straightforward and simple as possible, and Second Copy comes close to that ideal.

More Backup Software Reviews:


SOS Online Backup (beta)
REVIEW DATE: 04.22.08

BOTTOM LINE:
SOS Online Backup is the only online backup service I've tested that's both simple to use and powerful. Even non-geeks can painlessly back up their folders and files, but the service also gives the more technically inclined an impressively powerful set of features to play with.

PROS:
Pleasing, simple software interface. Open-file backup. Backs up unlimited number of PCs. Unlimited version saving. Can pause and resume backups. Supports network drives. Strong encryption all around.

CONS:
Pricier than the competition. No unlimited storage plan. The help system needs improvement.

COMPANY:
SOS Online Backup


SPEC DATA

Price: $19.95 Direct
Type: Business, Personal, Professional
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
Tech Support: chat
EDITOR RATING:


By Michael Muchmore
On my tests of the latest iterations of well-known online backup services, I was surprised to find that no one product delivered both an easy-to-use interface and advanced capabilities. Then I got to SOS Online Backup. Neil J. Rubenking looked at a beta version in 2006 and liked it enough to give it an Editors' Choice award, citing its continuous backup, even of open files. I tested a prerelease version of the 4.0 software, which adds a local backup option, a mail-in hard drive service for huge backups, and a new, simpler pricing scheme. The improvements, on top of its already-strong online backup capabilities, keep it on top. Readers won't be able to access the service until May 1, but those interested in online backup should be sure to check out the new version of the service when it launches.

Pricing, although reasonable, is a bit steeper than that of others. The no-cost version gives you just 200MB, and you must pay $19.95 for 2GB. By comparison, IDrive and Mozy give you 2GB of storage free. You pay $29.95 a year for 5GB and $49.95 yearly for 15GB (most services offer "unlimited" storage at around that price point). The installer software requires Microsoft .NET Framework; it's Windows-only, as most of these services currently are. SOS reps have told me that a Mac version would appear in late 2008.

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Signing up for the trial service simply requires your name, e-mail, password, and phone number. You also choose here whether you want UltraSafe, which means the SOS staff will have no access to your encryption key—so if you lose it, your files are gone. The software is an 18.4MB download, and the program didn't run automatically on completion of its installation: I had to find it in the Start | Programs list. I hope this minor oversight will be addressed before the service comes out of beta testing.

Choosing What to Back Up and When

The first time you run SOS, you see its attractive interface (a picture of the sky). Once you enter your username/password, you see four big option buttons, one in each corner: Backup Online, Backup Locally, Restore Online, and Restore Locally. On choosing Backup Online, a wizard guides you through picking folders and files for backup and scheduling. A tree view of your hard drive folders appears, with check boxes for inclusion and a Common Files & Folders choice for My Documents, My Pictures, Desktop, and Favorites on top. Clicking on a folder fills the list to its right with its files, which can also be checked or unchecked for inclusion in the backup. This is how backup selection should work! The window also shows you whether you've exceeded your plan's storage limit.

For even more backup goodness, you can right-click on any file to enable "LiveProtect," which tells SOS to back up any changes to a selected file immediately. Files protected this way will appear in green font in the services folder tree view. Back in the wizard, the full tree even includes network drives (though I didn't see them when using a VPN). Most online backup services, such as Carbonite and MozyHome Online Backup, reserve network drive support for their corporate customers. SOS adds a right-click choice to all entries in Windows Explorer (Protect with SOS) to let you back up just a single file or folder--another plus to check off on my list.

Choosing when to back up is also simple, and much more logical than some of the services I've tested. You can set it for hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly automatic backups, and when you choose any of these, the appropriate adjustments appear. The only thing missing is the ability to pick blackout times when you don't want uploading to take place, and the choice of weekdays or weekends only--but these aren't major lacks. SOS doesn't offer constant background backup the way HP Upline does, and for incremental backups, going even more frequently than hourly might be good. But if you're really concerned about immediate file backup, you can use LiveProtect.

You have the option to have the program send you an e-mail report on each backup completion, if you wish. The last step in the backup wizard is to choose what type of Internet connection you've got, and you're off. A summary of your settings appears in the last page of the wizard. You can always hit Back to change anything. If all looks good, then you're ready to start backing up.

Double-clicking the animated tray icon brings up the most informative progress window I've seen in any backup service--an example of SOS's combination of simplicity with powerful control and deep information. You can pause and resume backup activity, and see where in the process of encrypting and uploading each file is. One ding here: The service would often report far fewer backup packages remaining to upload than were the case. Mine said "There are 6 backup packages left to transfer," when in fact there were more than 90. Also, the dialog doesn't tell you how much time is left until completion.

When I disconnected my Internet connection for several minutes, SOS picked right up where it left off, uploading the same file package it had been in the middle of uploading at the disconnection. After the full backup has been uploaded, subsequent sessions use two-level delta-ing. At the first level, only changed files will be uploaded, and at the second level, only the changed bits of the changed files will be uploaded. This makes for much more efficient use of your Internet connection. Indeed, after working on an initial upload of my huge Outlook mail file for about an hour, closing the program prompted a very quick backup session. By contrast, MozyHome had to start processing this file from scratch after an interruption.—Next: Local and Shipped Backup

Local and Shipped Backup

SOS is one of the few online backup services that also offers local backup. Choosing folders and files to back up locally is nearly identical to doing so for online backup. The schedule options for local backup are the same as in the online wizard, described above. An Advanced button lets you exclude files, like hidden and system files, or you can specify extensions for exclusion.

I find it a little odd that the default location for local backup is right on the hard disk where the program lives. I prefer HP Upline's handling of this, with clear options for CD, DVD, network drive, and external drive for local backup locations. SOS can't burn CDs directly (you must save the backup on your hard drive first and then use third-party burning software), but the company is planning updates that will add this capability.

SOS also goes beyond this, with a mail-in service that enables you to protect really huge amounts of data. Physical Media Upload, a new option in the latest version of SOS Online, lets you create a backup set on a local drive (either a hard drive or a DVD) and then mail that to SOS for the company to add to your online storage. SOS claims that this is practical for large backups over 30GB. You can even order a 200GB hard drive from SOS for 50 bucks for this purpose.—Next: Restoring

Restoring

Restoring with your local SOS software is as simple as backup creation is. Just choose the Restore Online button and you're off and running with an easy-to-follow wizard. The wizard lets you search for the file you want to restore, choosing a date, a file type, and entering all or part of the filename in a search box. If you leave these parameters blank, the wizard will show you the entire directory tree of your backup. Choose a drive location where you want the restored files to land and you're in business.

An informative recovery progress dialog shows you which file is coming through the pipe and what stage of the process (decryption or download) it's in. When I disconnected from the Internet, the "Finished recovering" message appeared, stating that some files were unrecovered. When a recovery session completes, the message helpfully offers an Open Folder button--and there are your files. Sweet!

Unlike Carbonite and some of the others, SOS maintains no "virtual drive" on your PC. I prefer it this way. Why clutter up your My Computer folder? When you want to restore from online backup, just go to the online backup program or site. When restoring files with multiple versions from the SOS program, a drop-down list shows each version. In Web restore (see next paragraph), versioning worked somewhat strangely for me, showing up as multiple entries with the same name.

If you're away from home and can't install SOS, you can go to SOS's home page and click on Access My Files. This brings up a simple log-in, showing icons for your backed-up PCs and giving you the option to manage your file shares. It's simple to navigate to the files and folders you want, and you even see all saved versions of the file, but it's only one file at a time; you can't do a full restore from the Web interface in one shot, or even restore an entire folder. To do those things, you need to download the software client. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. You're likely to need a full restore only if you're on a PC that you're allowed to install programs on, and you get all the encryption security when you use the software.

File sharing is available only from the Web interface, via the standard name, e-mail address, password, and message entry form. After you've shared files, you can easily "unshare" them; if you don't, they'll be available forever.—Next: Getting Help

Getting Help

Help is one area in which SOS could stand some improvement. I'd like to see more Help buttons throughout the SOS interface, intuitive as it is. Online Help is presented in Q&A form rather than as an organized help system. What's more, there's no search for Help topics, only for Knowledgebase issues. When I searched for LiveProtect, trying to learn how the feature worked, my result was "No issues were found." Chat support wasn't much better. When I asked about LiveProtect, support sent me a lot of boilerplate on the whole process of selecting files for backup, but no relevant information about LiveProtect.

Yet while the help isn't perfect, at no point in testing SOS did I say to myself, "What am I supposed to do now?" Or "What's the program doing now?" This is how it should be, but the other backup services I've tested gave me such moments of confusion. So while the help isn't perfect, I think SOS users are less likely to need it than those using the competition.

SOS Online Backup has one of the most modern-looking and easy-to-use interfaces of the bunch, along with one of the richest feature sets. The ability to save infinite versions, to protect an unlimited number of PCs, and to support network drive backup set SOS apart. It's not quite perfect yet, but SOS has just about everything I look for in a remote backup service—and some more—in an extremely clear and appealing interface. When it launches on May 1, it's the service I'll be using.

More Backup Software Reviews:


Xdrive
REVIEW DATE: 05.20.08

BOTTOM LINE:
With built-in media viewers and players, easy-to-use sharing features, and a relatively generous 5GB of free storage, Xdrive is one of your best online storage options. But it lacks many capabilities and offers a lower level of security than dedicated online backup services provide.

PROS:
Free 5GB of storage. File sharing. Easy backup wizard. Mobile site. Plays audio files. Backs up Multiple PCs at no extra cost. Mac-compatible.

CONS:
Doesn't use SSL by default. Data not encrypted on server. No bandwidth-usage control. No live support. Limited backup capabilities.

COMPANY:
Xdrive Inc.


SPEC DATA

Price: $0.00 Direct
Type: Personal
Free: Yes
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
EDITOR RATING:


By Michael Muchmore
Xdrive's raison d'être is providing Web storage and shared folders for media files—much like such services as Box.net and Windows Live SkyDrive—and it's one of the richest offerings in the online storage game. An AOL-owned company, Xdrive offers a generous 5GB of free storage, and its innovative Adobe AIR–based desktop client software lets you use drag-and-drop for backing up from your PC's folders. Another advantage provided by this client is that the service now works with Macintosh PCs. Xdrive's desktop client also offers automated backup that attempts to compete with dedicated backup services, but it falls a bit short in that area. Upgrading to the first non-free level gets you 50GB for a reasonable $9.95 monthly or $99.50 yearly—better than Box.net's 5GB for $7.95 a month.

When you sign up for the free account, you're asked for your name and address, which is more than most free services require. You must also have (or register for) an AIM screen name. Xdrive has three interface choices: the Web-based Classic, Desktop Lite, and a full-fledged app called Xdrive Desktop. When you first log in, the Classic and Lite interface choices are highlighted. Both are geared toward organizing your digital media collection. Xdrive Desktop Lite, still in beta, is a desktop application that relies on Adobe AIR, which you'll have to install separately. A third choice at the bottom of the log-in page is a full-fledged application called Xdrive Desktop, required for users who want automated backup.

Xdrive: Classic View

The Web interface is a fine example of a rich Internet application. Its large, well-designed icons give easy access to common tasks such as uploading, downloading, creating new folders, moving, renaming, sharing, and deleting files. Four tabs at the top divide the interface into four views: the standard Xdrive view, with folder trees and file lists; Photos, showing thumbnail views of your pix; Music, which includes a nice-looking player and playlist builder; and Bookmarks, which lets you import and export your browser favorites and add notes to each—a handy way to have your bookmarks available from any Web connection.

You can create multiple levels of new subfolders in Xdrive: I gave up after seven subfolder levels—probably more than enough for any digital media consumer. Newcomer FreeDrive doesn't have that capability but makes up for it with a video player right on your page. Windows Live SkyDrive does offer multiple folder levels, but I find the tree presentation in Xdrive more intuitive than SkyDrive's folder views, as there's no way to see if a SkyDrive folder has a subfolder without clicking on it.

The Upload dialog offers two choices: Basic and Accelerator Plus. The former is Web-based, while the latter requires a small Java program download that's very quick to install. Accelerator Plus allows you to upload multiple files simultaneously, and the company claims that it's twice as fast as Basic. It doesn't, however, add drag-and-drop capability (for this, you'll need Xdrive Desktop Lite or Xdrive Desktop). I ran into a problem with the Basic uploader, which popped up an error message claiming that my files weren't valid upload candidates. This happened for any type of file I wanted to upload. I had no such problem with Accelerator Plus, which is clearly the route the service wants you to take. I did find uploads remarkably fast with this uploader.

You can also have Xdrive store your e-mail attachments. You just sign up with your POP or IMAP server name, username, and password; Xdrive then intercepts and stores all mail attachments. Another whiz-bang Xdrive feature, Skip the Download, lets you transfer from a Web site directly to Xdrive, without involving your PC as an intermediary. Finally, there's Autocopy: With this feature, you can tell Xdrive to watch your My Pictures and My Music folders and automatically keep your online storage synced up with files you add to those folders. It would be nice if you could designate other folders of your choice for this treatment, but it's a start.

Xdrive has strong file-sharing options. It lets you send a link for individual files, which take the recipient to a page with a preview capability (for pictures) and download link. Sharing individual files doesn't require any sign-up, but to share a folder your recipient will need to have an Xdrive account.—Next: Xdrive Desktop Lite

Xdrive Desktop Lite

Xdrive Desktop Lite's well-designed, blue-hued window makes uploading and downloading files to and from your online storage almost a part of your desktop. That's the simplest approach of any such app that I've seen, aside from OmniDrive, which actually integrates with Windows Explorer so that it looks like any other file folder on your computer. But some may even find Xdrive's method preferable to using what looks like a local folder, which might cause confusion. The upper panel of Lite shows your Xdrive folders, and the lower shows local ones.

Xdrive Desktop Lite sports but two tabs along the top, for browsing and sharing files. and the Browse tab has a left sidebar with icons for My Documents, My Music, My Photos, My Videos, and transfers (showing the most recent up- or downloads). The drag-and-drop worked beautifully for me with both files and entire folders from the local PC. The Share tab has three sub-tabs, which let you make files available by e-mail, through a public URL, or with embeddable HTML code.

Xdrive Lite is more than just a bunch of online folders: Like the Web interface, it does a decent job of playing audio files and displays full-size pictures. But to this it adds drag-and-drop—but only from your desktop to Xdrive, not the other way. You can, however, drag Xdrive files to Lite's lower panel, which duplicates your local machine's folders. One thing I miss in this interface is a search capability, which the Web interface has.—Next: Xdrive Desktop

Xdrive Desktop

The beefiest client option, the Xdrive Desktop client is an 8.7MB download, and setting it up requires a system restart. After this, a one-page Web start guide opens and tells you that an actual X: drive will appear on your system, and that you can use drag-and-drop to back up and restore files and folders. Xdrive Desktop lets you perform automated backups, including incremental backups—uploading only changed files, which will save you some Internet bandwidth. Unfortunately, it lacks a lot of the security and backup niceties found in offerings like Carbonite, Mozy, and IDrive.

It doesn't, for example, offer right-click options in Windows Explorer for immediate backup or restoration, watch for changed files, or work in the background while your PC is idle. And files aren't encrypted before or after being uploaded to Xdrive's servers, though you can choose to transmit them using SSL encryption. Other services offer very strong encryption on the server; with some of those, decryption can only be done at your PC with your password.

When you're getting 5GB free, you have to give up something up—like human support. Those who pay for the service do get phone support, from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Eastern time, and 24/7 chat support. For free accounts, support comes only in the form of an online help guide and FAQs. But the service is so easy to use this probably won't be an issue for most users.

Xdrive's free 5GB of storage is commendable, and its interface choices are category-leading. Those who want extra storage, sharing capability, and media playing will do well to avail themselves of Xdrive, but for serious backup solutions, look elsewhere.

More Backup Software Reviews:


Advanced Encrypting File System Data Recovery 4.1
REVIEW DATE: 05.14.08

BOTTOM LINE:
It's way too easy to lose access to Windows-encrypted files. As long as you can remember a password for the account that did the encrypting, this product will recover those lost files, and its free trial shows exactly what it will do before you pay.

PROS:
Recovers Windows-encrypted files. Free trial shows exactly what it can recover.

CONS:
You must have the password for the locked-out account.

COMPANY:
ElcomSoft Co Ltd


SPEC DATA

Price: $99.00 Direct
Type: Personal
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
EDITOR RATING:


By Neil J. Rubenking
Locking your car to keep the street punks from stealing it is smart. But when you lock the keys inside it, that's a whole different security problem. In the same way, Windows handily encrypts private files, but many common events can leave you locked out as well. If you've just plain forgotten the password, you're screwed. Had you previously backed up your encryption credentials, you could regain access to your files, but few users have the foresight and technical skill to do this. Don't worry: ElcomSoft's Advanced Encrypting File System Data Recovery (AEFSDR) can get you out of this jam.

The Problem

Windows NT4, 2000, XP, and Vista, as well as Windows Server 2003 and 2008, support the Encrypting File System for any disks formatted as NTFS (the default). To encrypt a file or folder you right-click on it, choose Properties, and click the Advanced button in the Attributes area. Then check the box "Encrypt contents to secure data" and click OK, twice. If it's a folder, specify whether you also want to encrypt its contents and subfolders. Easy! When you're logged in, you won't notice any difference, except that Windows Explorer displays the filenames in green text. But any other user who tries to open one of those files will get "Access denied."

The problem is that it's just too easy to lose access to these files. If you delete an account and then remember that you left some files encrypted, you're out of luck. Re-creating the account with the same username and password won't bring back the same account, so the files stay encrypted. If you completely reinstall Windows to solve some drastic problem, you'll lose access to encrypted files (though a repair-reinstall that retains existing user accounts should be okay). If your computer dies and you put the drive into another machine to recover what data you can, oops—those encrypted files won't yield their secrets. And, according to ElcomSoft's Vladimir Katalov, even if none of these bad things happen, just one damaged Registry entry could corrupt Windows certificate storage and block your access to encrypted files.

Windows Vista at least recognizes the possible danger. The first time you use file encryption, it offers to back up your encryption credentials and even walks you through the process. XP doesn't offer a similar warning, but if you change the password for an account other than the active one, it warns that this account will lose access to EFS-encrypted files. Alas, many users breeze past these warnings.—Next: The Solution

The Solution

For each account that uses encryption, Windows creates a key file on disk, and each encrypted file links to the key file of the user account that enabled encryption. AEFSDR scans the system's drives to make a list of these key files. It also scans for encrypted files and internally matches the encrypted files with the key files it found.

Matching up the files isn't enough. AEFSDR also needs the appropriate password to decrypt the files. The password itself isn't stored in the key, but a "hash" function can identify whether a given password is the correct one for a key. If you're not sure which password was used or if files were encrypted by multiple accounts, just enter all of the passwords that might be correct and AEFDSR will try them all. If none of them work, you're out of luck. AEFDSR won't crack them for you.

On the plus side, a malefactor who steals your computer can't use it to break your encryption. Unless, that is, you left your password on a sticky note or used a dreadfully weak password like "password." AEFDSR does include a last-ditch option to check the found keys against a list of some hundred-odd common passwords. If you've totally lost your password you can give this a try. According to the help system, this can significantly slow the process of decrypting the keys in Vista and Windows Server 2008, but hey—if it works, you're saved.—Next: Testing File Recovery with AEFSDR

Testing File Recovery with AEFSDR

I encrypted some files using a secondary user account, then logged back into my main account and deleted the secondary account. As expected, I couldn't access the encrypted files. When I launched the trial version of AEFSDR, it started off with a wizard that automatically scanned the system for keys, scanned for encrypted files, and prompted me to enter any relevant usernames and passwords. I made sure to enter the correct password. The last screen of the wizard correctly listed the files I had encrypted and identified them all as available for decryption.

When I tried to continue and decrypt the files, the program asked for some cold cash. Until you purchase and register it, AEFDSR will decrypt only the first 512 bytes of each file. Just to see what would happen, I saved the partially decrypted files and checked them out using a byte-level editor. Yes indeed, the first 512 bytes of one file visibly represented a JPG file header, but all subsequent bytes were replaced by zeroes. This is quite impressive, even so. Without spending a penny I identified the files that could be recovered and even partially recovered them. If there's nothing the app can help you with, you don't have to pay. I like that. I registered the product and repeated the whole process, ending with successful recovery of all the encrypted files.

Next I mounted a virtual drive belonging to a different virtual machine in my test system, simulating what happens when you have to mount the hard drive from a broken computer. Here again the program worked smoothly. It identified the encrypted files and, once I supplied a password, decrypted them.

AEFSDR can't solve every file encryption problem. If an employee gets hit on the head with a flowerpot and forgets all his passwords, there's nothing the program can do. If a disgruntled employee deliberately locks up important files before quitting, ouch! But if one of the common events mentioned earlier locks you out of your encrypted files, AEFSDR can jimmy the lock. Best of all you, can see exactly what it will do before deciding whether to pay for it.

More Security Software Reviews:


Gadwin PrintScreen 4.3
REVIEW DATE: 05.16.08

BOTTOM LINE:
If you need to capture screenshots that include the cursor and prefer a few more options than you'll get with plain-old PrintScrn or Vista's snipping tool, Gadwin's PrintScreen is well worth the download.

PROS:
Free. Has more screen-capture options than Windows XP or Vista.

CONS:
Some unnecessary configuration options may put off new users.

COMPANY:
Gadwin Systems Inc


SPEC DATA

Price: $0.00
Type: Personal
Free: Yes
EDITOR RATING:


By Sarah Pike
Describing something never packs the punch of showing a picture, which is why screenshots accompany every application and Web-site review in PC Magazine. When relatives or friends call for tech support and can't or won't screen-share, I always request a screenshot rather than asking them to describe everything on their screens, or to read error messages to me. Who has the time?

And in turn, when I send someone directions for some computing task, I nearly always include screenshots, with the cursor positioned where the newbie needs to click. It's the cursor that's the problem: Windows XP and Vista can shoot screens for you—pressing the PrintScrn key captures everything showing on the desktop to the clipboard; you can then paste it into MS Paint to crop, mark up, and otherwise edit the image. Vista even includes a slightly more advanced screen-capture utility called the Snipping Tool, from which you can capture either the entire screen, any open window, or a cursor-drag selection, and then mark it up. But neither method will allow you to capture the cursor. Gadwin's freeware screen-capture app, PrintScreen 4.3 does, so, in my book, it wins.

PrintScreen is a very lightweight download—less than 3MB—and it's a quick-and-easy installation. Configuring it is a bit more complicated, and new users will probably want to play around with the options before settling.

Gadwin follows a classic scheme, offering a basic tool completely free of charge and a more advanced application for-pay: PrintScreen Professional ($24.95) adds markup tools and basic image editing for captures, similar to those in TechSmith's popular SnagIt utility, which costs $39.95. But the combination of the freeware PrintScreen and your favorite image editor should do the trick in most cases.

In addition to choosing whether PrintScreen should capture the cursor, you can select the source of your screenshot (current window, full screen, and so on), the file format (BMP, JPEG, GIF, PNG, or TIFF), the destination (file, clipboard, an image editor, and so on), as well as a number of other useful options. After using the PrintScrn button–Paint combo for years, all these options made me hyperventilate a little, but after experimenting with them, I'm a complete convert. This is a great little utility.

More Software Utility Reviews:


RadarSync Free
REVIEW DATE: 05.14.08

BOTTOM LINE:
Windows' Automatic Updates keeps your Microsoft software up to date; RadarSync Free does the same for everything else. At least it tries to. Some of the updates don't work, and some get detected again after installation.

PROS:
Identifies and downloads updates for non-Microsoft programs and drivers. Offers detailed information about available updates. Optional toolbar offers links, Web tools, games, more.

CONS:
Not all found updates install correctly. Program sometimes recommends updates that have already been installed. Lacks an option to suppress problem updates in future scans.

COMPANY:
RadarSync Ltd


SPEC DATA

Price: $0.00 Direct
Type: Personal
Free: Yes
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
EDITOR RATING:


By Neil J. Rubenking
Malware writers love finding bugs in Windows that let them sneak malicious code onto computers—it's like enlisting Windows as an unwitting accomplice to their crime. Naturally, Microsoft plugs these holes as quickly as possible once they're discovered. That's why the average user ought to keep Automatic Updates turned on: to receive any new patches for Windows or Microsoft Office applications as soon as possible. But malefactors can attack through other vectors. They've been known to exploit vulnerabilities in Adobe Reader, Firefox, QuickTime, RealPlayer, and many others. To protect your system's security, you should keep all your programs up to date, and RadarSync Free is designed to help you do just that.

When you launch RadarSync's system scan, it checks your computer's drivers and applications against a database of known current versions, listing any for which a newer version is available. In the past, that's all the free edition did: You had to download the updates yourself. But with this latest release, free for all commercial or noncommercial uses, RadarSync downloads the updates for you. The only real differences are that the paid edition offers priority tech support and a feature that automatically scans for new updates in the background. In either version, an optional RadarSync toolbar for Internet Explorer includes a button to launch the update scanner and numerous other unrelated features.

For each out-of-date item, RadarSync displays a link to detailed information about the company, the item's version number (your version and the current version), a revision history, and even information about competing products. You can download one item at a time from the detail view, but it's more convenient to download them all at once. The download process naturally takes quite a while if the system needs many large updates, but fortunately, it's fully automatic.

As each download finishes, RadarSync displays a balloon notification above its tray icon. You can click the balloon to launch the specified update. But because RadarSync can't tell which updates have been installed already, it's smarter to wait for the whole process to finish and then install the updates one at a time so you don't accidentally try to install the same one twice. Clicking the Action link next to an item lets you install, redownload, or delete that item; there's also an option to get the same detailed information that was offered in the scan results screen. Just work your way down the list installing and then deleting each update. When finished, run the full scan again to make sure everything is up to date. Simple! By default, RadarSync offers to save a System Restore point before each update installation. You can turn off this feature if you wish, but I'd recommend setting it to make the offer just once per session.—Next: Imperfect Performance

Imperfect Performance

I installed RadarSync Free on several real-world systems running Vista and XP. Right away, I noticed some oddities in its user interface. A number of the found items had long names that differed only at the very end, and the end was cut off in the display. I enlarged the program's window to give them more room, but the window contents didn't expand to fill the space. I managed to view the names by widening the column in the list, which pushed the Action column out of view—awkward! Also, the label for the all-important button that downloads all found updates misspells "download" as "downlods"; I hope there are no misspellings in the program's source code!

On my main working system (running Windows Vista), RadarSync found 18 items needing an update. I chose to download all of them. When these items finished downloading, I started working through them and immediately ran into problems. The installer for HP PhotoSmart Essentials refused to install, reporting a newer version already in place, so I abandoned this install. I attempted to install a new driver for the Intel G965 Express chipset family, only to be told that the computer "does not meet the minimum requirements." An update for VMware Player reported (correctly) that VMware Workstation, not VMware Player, is installed on this system. A mouse driver update couldn't proceed because, it said, the existing driver was fully up to date. Still, quite a few of the updates seemed to install correctly. I did everything I could, rebooted, and ran the scan again.

Imagine my surprise at finding 16 of the 18 items still listed as needing a newer version. Of these, 11 were drivers for various Intel components, all of which seemed to install correctly the first time around. Trillian, an IM aggregator from Cerulean Studios, appeared in the update list even though I updated it (with apparent success) the first time around. And of course, those that failed the first time showed up in the list again. I went through the entire process of scanning and installing twice more, but the app still claimed that those 16 items needed an update.

There's no way to tell RadarSync Free that it should ignore specific drivers or applications in future scans. If a newly released update for some other program or driver shows up in the list during a future scan, I'll have to wade through those same 16 "duds" to find it. What's more, I'd have to remember that the 16 were duds or else go through the hassle of reinstalling them (and having them fail) all over again. I did use the program's built-in mechanism to report the installers that failed for one reason or another. But there's no mechanism to deal with updates that appear in the list, even after you've installed them. Maybe the company needs to think about patching its own app!

One other event sapped my faith in the program's capabilities: I know for a fact that there's a version of RoboForm newer than what's installed on this system; it told me so itself. RadarSync didn't detect this well-known program as being out of date. I have to wonder how many other outdated programs weren't reported as such.—Next: Small Successes

Small Successes

On a Windows XP test system without many installed programs, RadarSync identified updates for Firefox and Windows Media Player. I installed them, rescanned, and got a lovely message that my computer was in good shape. That's what I want to see! My children's system, running Vista, also reached the "good shape" stage after I installed the handful of updates that RadarSync requested.

Ironically, another system couldn't run RadarSync at all until I installed—an update! After I updated the Windows .NET Framework and completed the installation, RadarSync identified a full two dozen outdated drivers and programs. A couple of them seemed to be dead links; the app never managed to download the update installers. Most of the rest installed okay. But as with my main Vista system, some installers didn't work, and some seemed to work but reappeared in subsequent scans.—Next: Do-All Toolbar

Do-All Toolbar

If you accept the default settings, RadarSync installs a toolbar in your browser (Internet Explorer or Firefox).[05/22/08 Editor's Note: Originally this review incorrectly stated that the program does not support Firefox.] It also offers to install a free trial of the Carbonite online backup service, which I ignored since it's not part of RadarSync. The ostensible purpose of the toolbar is to keep that Scan button in front of the user, thereby encouraging frequent scans for updates. But the toolbar includes so many unrelated features that just finding the Scan button can be hard.

The toolbar's search box returns Google-based results plus some additional sponsored links. Apparently, the income from those links helps the company stay afloat as it gives away its product. Three buttons offer direct access to RadarSync's download pages for Freeware, Web Apps, and Open Source products. The Tools button opens a menu of online tools such as DNS lookup and WHOIS lookup, a very extensive set of free online virus scanners, and more. If you're looking for entertainment, the Gadgets button brings down a menu of games and other amusements, such as a calorie counter and a unit converter.

There's also a built-in Internet radio player, a new-mail notifier, a pop-up blocker, and a local weather indicator. In fact, your Internet Explorer window has to be over 1,200 pixels wide just to display all of the toolbar components that are enabled by default. Fortunately there's an option to shrink the toolbar by omitting button labels, and you can turn off any components that you never use. Or uninstall it completely: RadarSync Free works just fine with no toolbar installed.

RadarSync Free will almost certainly find some updates that your system needs. It's also likely to find some that don't work, and it may miss other out-of-date programs or drivers. I'd expect it to do more if I were paying for it. But since it's free, by all means take advantage of the help it can give.

More Software Utility Reviews:


Totalidea TweakVI
REVIEW DATE: 08.16.07

BOTTOM LINE:
More than TweakUI, this utility suite collects a huge array of Windows configuration options into a single solid interface.

PROS:
Installs intelligently. Provides scads of system information. Makes configuration highly accessible.

CONS:
Costly yearly subscription.

COMPANY:
Totalidea Software


SPEC DATA

Price: $0.00
Type: Business, Personal, Professional
Free: Yes
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista
Tech Support: None for Basic; Web only (FAQ and form) for other edfitions
EDITOR RATING:


By Neil Randall
Windows users are waiting—not very patiently—for a Vista version of TweakUI, the much-loved Windows configuration utility that Microsoft has made freely available since Windows 95. This impressive utility provides under-the-hood access to many Windows settings. Nature and the software industry both abhor a vacuum, so the arrival on the scene of Totalidea Software's TweakVI should come as no surprise. What might surprise users, however, is that Totalidea's utility package not only performs many of the same tasks as TweakUI, but it goes significantly beyond what TweakUI has traditionally offered.

Getting started with the app is a snap; it's got a very smart installer, one that realizes—unlike most software—that a program (especially a system utility package) should make sure you can recover your existing system configuration if anything goes wrong. To that end, one of the installation options is to place three special icons—Standby, Shutdown, and Restart—on the desktop and/or the Quick Launch bar. Though they operate precisely as Windows' corresponding commands do, having them readily available can be useful. If you've got a crowded Quick Launch bar, however, having three extra icons on the Quick Launch bar can make that problem worse, so your mileage may vary. But I've taught enough newbies how to use Vista to know that clicking the Start button, then finding the little right-arrow beside the lock icon on the bottom row of the Start menu, and then choosing the appropriate "end session" option isn't a good interface design. Clicking an icon on the desktop or the Quick Launch bar is considerably easier.

TweakVI's main window features a column of buttons on the left, each of which—when clicked—calls up a subset of buttons on the right. Clicking any of these opens a separate window that contains numerous configuration options. Utilities displayed with a red X icon are available only by purchasing a subscription to the Premium or Ultra editions, which we'll return to in a moment. This review focuses only on the free Basic version because it corresponds most directly to Microsoft's TweakUI—and because even the free version turns out to be a worthy addition to your system toolkit.

The System Information and Tweaks area lets you see and/or configure system information, hard drive details, the CPU, and Vista's boot manager. In fact, choosing the latter opens NeoSmart Technologies' EasyBCD, an independently available program for working with Vista's bootloader, thereby, showing that Totalidea isn't averse to including a proven utility instead of writing its own. The CPU section lets you tweak the system cache to force core processes to remain in physical memory instead of being shunted off to virtual memory, and to optimize the cache according to your system's RAM. Vista itself lets you adjust the size of its virtual memory, of course (from the Advanced tab of the System Properties dialog box), but it's essentially just a brute-force method of making the paging file larger or smaller. TweakVI gives you more control over what actually gets moved to the paging file. When I loaded a couple dozen programs in my Vista installation and populated them with large data files (particularly graphics files), I saw quite clearly how this makes a real difference: Alt-Tabbing from program to program was faster, and redrawing the screen of a graphics program after having let it sit unused for several hours took only about half as long.

What's great about the app is that you don't need too much technical know-how to get tweaking: You can choose a default tweak by selecting the CPU type from a list and clicking Enable CPU Cache Tweak (these default tweaks, which are found throughout the app, make optimizing your system easy). From this section you can also tweak your CD/DVD drive caches and disable Autorun, which is a useful idea if you want to insert a CD/DVD but don't want Vista to try to load it immediately. The hard drive tweaks let you enable the defragmentation of boot files (placing them next to each other for faster start-ups), disable NTFS's feature that creates a time stamp for the last access of folders and files, and more. The idea, again, is to speed up the system.

One especially useful feature in the System Information section is access to the CD keys for your Windows and Office software—excellent if you lose the cases your software came in, or if, like me, you can't always find the case your media came in. With TweakVI, selecting this option displays the key on your screen, and you can copy it to the clipboard for pasting into the Office setup routine when asked. Along the same lines, you can back up your Office XP/2003/2007 product activation files so that, if you reinstall later after losing or wiping away your current Windows or Office installation, you don't have to reactivate. Obviously, neither feature may be used to circumvent the Microsoft EULA for the software.—Next: Tons More Tweaks

Tons More Tweaks

In the Miscellaneous Tweaks section, you can change your system-folder settings, such as the location of your Documents and Settings, Favorites, and Templates folders, and you can hide specific Control Panel applets from the Control Panel window. Further, you can disable Add/Remove Programs and or just the Add Programs or Change/Remove programs options, a highly useful option if you want to keep full control over precisely what software gets installed to your PC. If you've ever had to help colleagues, friends, or family members recover from all the spyware and other questionable programs they've installed because they insist on clicking Yes on every dialog box that offers them something new, you'll immediately see the benefits here—especially if they're using your computer while doing all this yea-saying (Vista would do well to let you disable these features easily, but it doesn't).

The Miscellaneous section is also the place to go if you want to adjust options found in Vista's Display Properties dialog box, ranging from Appearance and Background through the Font Size selection feature. From here you can control the number of rows and columns in Windows' Alt-Tab program switching feature. It's here that you'll also find what Totalidea calls "nice but useless stuff": interface animations, fading, menu shadows, and so on. A grab bag of Media Player and Windows Defender tweaks rounds out the possibilities here.

Two sections remain: Visual Tweaks and Internet Tweaks. The former collects all the configuration options available in various Windows dialog boxes, ranging from the Appearance button in Display Properties through the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog accessible from the taskbar. Internet Tweaks contains a huge array of settings for Microsoft Outlook and Windows Mail, Internet Explorer, and Firefox, collecting those available in the Properties dialog boxes for those features and adding capabilities such as disabling specific menu items and preventing changes to various features across these programs. One option I found surprisingly useful was the ability to have the Outlook icon appear on the system tray instead of the taskbar when Outlook is minimized—my taskbar already gets crowded enough.

As you can tell by this point, TweakVI provides some customization elements you won't find in Windows itself, but it mostly serves to collect inside one user interface the huge array of customization options found throughout Windows. These are the kinds of personalization choices many people don't even know they already have—simply because they're typically buried inside preferences dialogs—and for that reason alone the TweakVI package holds value. More to the point, the choices are generally well explained, both on the configuration screen and in the Help windows, so you're not likely to run into trouble. If you do manage to make your system something you wish it weren't, reverting to Windows defaults from within the TweakVI screens is quite easy.

So what do you get in the Premium and Ultimate Edition subscriptions ($39.99 and $59.99 per year, respectively)? Both paid editions add, among many other things, features for automatic shutdown, password generation, and managing software installation and system updates. The Ultimate edition adds a disk doctor feature as well as a utility for protecting folders and dealing with virtual drives and page files (again, among many others).

Even with the Basic (free) version, TweakVI offers considerably more configuration possibilities than Microsoft's own TweakUI. Choose one of the paid editions and you have an entire suite of OS configuration tools. In other words, this package isn't really a competitor to TweakUI at all, but rather a significantly better tool all around.

More Utility System Reviews:


vLite
REVIEW DATE: 04.08.08

BOTTOM LINE:
Essential utility for any advanced user planning to install Vista, especially on multiple machines.

PROS:
Easily creates slimmed-down Vista installation DVDs with options for streamlined installations.

CONS:
Some known conflicts with some security apps running in XP.

COMPANY:
Dino Nuhagic


SPEC DATA

Price: $0.00 Direct
Type: Business, Personal, Professional
Free: Yes
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
Tech Support: online forum
EDITOR RATING:


By Edward Mendelson
If there's ever been an operating system that could use some slimming down, it's Windows Vista. Enter vLite, a donation-supported software tool by Dino Nuhagic that lets you create a Vista installation DVD that leaves out drivers and programs you don't want, installs Vista so that it begins with settings and options that you do want, and lets you install Vista without responding to any prompts. It does this by automating procedures that are thoroughly documented by Microsoft, but which normally require hours of work modifying installation files by hand. I used vLite to create a slimmed-down automated Vista installation DVD that let me get a new system up and running faster and more efficiently than the DVD that I bought from Microsoft. As long as you make these changes only to your own copy of Vista, and you don't distribute the resulting DVD, this seems to be a perfectly legal way of automating changes that Microsoft supports anyway.

To run vLite, you copy all the files from your original Vista installation DVD to a directory on your hard drive. Then vLite selectively removes components you don't need, integrates hotfixes, tweaks, third-party drivers, and, if you want, Vista Service Pack 1 into the original files. The app then creates a new DVD that can install a stripped-down copy of Vista, without the annoying prompts that you need to answer during an ordinary install. After taking a few minutes to create a customized Vista install DVD for use on a new laptop, I ended up with a version of Vista that boots noticeably faster than a normal setup, never bothers me with the Vista welcome screen, and spares me many annoyances, like error reporting. I can't be sure that it performs any faster than a normal setup in day-to-day operations, but it saved me plenty of annoyances during installation.

vLite isn't a tool for beginners, but it's easy enough to navigate for anyone who has had some experience installing Windows. The worst mistake I made was a time-wasting one: I pressed the Apply button from the first menu rather than pressing it only on the last one and had to wait while the program modified the Vista install files with the changes I asked for on the first menu. But I could have held off until the last menu and let the program make all the changes in one operation, instead of waiting while it made the changes I asked for in each separate menu.—Next: Step-by-Step >

vLite: Step-by-Step

Here's what I did with vLite: After copying the contents of my original Vista installation disk to a folder on my hard drive. I selected the folder in vLite's opening screen. (You'll need 3GB to store the original files—which vLite reduced by half by the time I was finished.) After selecting the directory with the source files, I then chose which categories of tasks I wanted vLite to perform. The first category was slipstreaming (that is, integrating) Service Pack 1, a feature I didn't test because I already had a copy of Vista with SP1 built in. The next category was integrating hotfixes, and I selected all the half-dozen hotfixes that the current version of vLite offers to integrate.

Next I removed Windows components that I don't need, including printer and graphics drivers I know I'll never use, and a few of the dozens of programs that come with Vista. Component removal is a powerful tool to be used with care, because you can remove a component you think isn't essential and find out later that some other program needs it. Fortunately, vLite warns you about which other programs won't work or will require extra steps if you remove one of these components. For example, vLite lets you know that if you remove Windows Defender, you won't be able to manage start-up programs from the Performance control panel. I safely removed the movie-making and DVD-making programs, smart-card support, error reporting, and other features that weigh down Vista—and I had no problems with the reduced system that resulted from these changes.

A Tweaks menu let me make changes beforehand that I normally waste time making after installing Windows. For example, I enabled "Classic View" for the Control Panel and turned on the display of extensions for known file types, saving me a trip to the Folder Options Control Panel applet after installing. But my favorite feature was the Unattended menu that let me install Vista without answering any prompts at all. This menu included options to set the time zone, create an administrator password, and enter the product key in advance—all automatically, so that I could launch the Vista setup program and come back half an hour later to a completely installed system.

After making all my changes, and waiting a few minutes while vLite modified the Vista install files that I had copied to my hard disk, I told vLite to burn an installation DVD for me. I could have chosen the option to create an ISO image that I could later burn to a DVD from any third-party disk-writing software, but vLite saved me the extra step by burning the DVD directly to disc—a much appreciated extra.

The vLite program, which modifies Vista installation files, can run under either XP or Vista. But although it worked perfectly for me under Vista, vLite crashed with a blue screen when I ran it under XP. The cause—a known problem described on the official vLite support forum—occurs only under XP because of an interaction between some (but not all) antivirus programs and the NTFS file system. I ran into this difficulty when using XP with ZoneAlarm Pro installed but had no trouble at all running vLite under Vista, also with ZoneAlarm Pro installed.

If you've already got Vista installed, you don't need vLite, but if you're planning to install (or reinstall) Vista in the future, you'll like the way it cuts down the size and annoyance of Vista installations. And, if you've already got Vista installed and feel that it's sluggish, you might just want to start over with a pared-down vLite install of the notably bloated OS. Finally, while you're looking at vLite, you might also check out the same author's nLite at nliteos.com, which does the same kind of tricks with Windows XP.

More Software Utility Reviews:


WinUtilities 5.27
REVIEW DATE: 08.17.07

BOTTOM LINE:
WinUtilities is a highly useful set of Windows utilities, particularly when it comes to system-cleaning tasks. But it's not cheap, and it doesn't do everything.

PROS:
Vista-compatible. Offers full file shredding and disk wiping. Provides easy access to built-in Windows utilities as well as its own.

CONS:
Doesn't include disk doctoring, anti-malware, or a full range of Windows-tweaking utilities. Many included utilities are already built into Vista.

COMPANY:
YL Software


SPEC DATA

Price: $39.99
Type: Business, Personal
Free: No
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
Tech Support: Online ticket only; available for registered users and throughout 30-day evaluation period
EDITOR RATING:


By Neil Randall
There's lots of maintenance I ought attend to on my PC, but somehow I never seem to find the time. Failing to back up the system is the classic example of neglect, but it's far from the only one. Use Windows (Vista or XP) for any length of time and the hard drives, the Registry, and the browser history and cookies areas all get filled with junk that makes little difference on a file-by-file basis but, when thousands of files are taken into account, can hinder performance. Not only that, but stuff collects that you probably don't want lying around, including files that you've deleted from your hard drives but are actually still accessible to anyone who knows how to bring them back into play. Yes, you can take care of each of these details either through Windows' built-in utilities, or by downloading and running utilities specific to each task. If you're like me, however, and just don't have the time and energy to keep up with all that, you're much better off with a collection of utilities instead, one that keeps you focused on the variety of things that need doing. That's where WinUtilities comes in.

The latest version of WinUtilities applies the package's strong batch of system-cleaning and control tools to Windows Vista. Of particular note is the Disk Cleaner portion of the package, which was originally a standalone app called Vista Disk Cleaner, but which has since been rolled into the full suite. Indeed, the entire suite now boasts Vista compatibility, an important consideration with any utilities package. After all, the last thing you want with a new OS is to assume that your old utilities will work right. They might, but you simply can't know, so it's best to wait for compatibility reassurance.

The package has much to offer. Disk Cleaner gets rid of temporary files and folders, cookies and browser history, duplicate files, and links that are no longer valid. It can even locate zero-length files so that they no longer clog up your file lists. One nice touch in the search for junk files is the ability to view the files from within the Disk Cleaner interface so that you can determine whether they really are expendable. Once you've made the decision, you can choose to delete them permanently, send them to the Recycle Bin, or move them to a folder you create just for the purpose of storing them. I always use the last of these options and then use the system for several days to see if I need to restore any of them. In another nice touch, by default the program automatically creates a System Restore point before making any changes, so if something goes truly wrong, you can get your system back up and running.

Don't expect to notice a huge savings in drive space or system speed after using Disk Cleaner, unless your system is already choked for hard drive space. On a system with large hard drives and gigabytes of available space, cleaning a disk increases system efficiency in a small way. But if you're constantly battling for drive space, running Disk Cleaner can free up enough to make a difference. In my tests on a system with a very fast processor and drive space to spare, cleaning the disk resulted in a barely noticeable difference in performance. I had a very different experience with my other test system, which is older and has a slower processor, only 512MB of RAM, and hard drives that frequently remind me that I'm running low on space. On this clunker, Disk Cleaner freed up a couple of crucial gigabytes on the drive and eliminated much of the system's lethargy.

Another useful tool available from the System Cleaners option is the Registry Cleaner. The Registry holds an enormous amount of low-level information about your system and is responsible for what happens when you start Windows and launch programs, so you want to handle it with kid gloves. Manual edits of the Registry are always possible using Windows' venerable RegEdit utility, but there's no way you'll catch everything that's going on inside. Registry Cleaner looks for and lets you delete entries that no longer apply to your system but have remained in the Registry. As always, when dealing with Registry changes, you should back up the Registry before actually doing anything. WinUtilities includes a Registry Backup tool for this purpose, and it also creates a Restore Point before making any changes, so in case anything goes wrong you'll be able to recover.

The third cleaning tool in this package is the History Cleaner, which handles all those items you can delete from within the Internet Options dialog box in Control Panel, as well as your system's document history, log-on history, search history, and more. It also tracks application histories, including Office recent file lists, your Skype call history, FTP sites visited, Firefox cookies and histories, and, again, much more. None of the application histories are checked by default, but they're easy enough to select before clicking Erase Now. This cleaner doesn't create a System Restore point, unlike the other two in the package, but that seems reasonable enough, given the sort of information that's being deleted.—Next: Get Clean, Stay Clean

Get Clean, Stay Clean

course, cleaning your system once is a good thing, but cleaning it regularly is considerably better. For that reason, the package contains a Task Scheduler (also available from the System Cleaners screen) for setting up automated processes for the three cleaners, as well as for automatically shutting down or putting the system into hibernation and launching other programs. Windows has its own task scheduler, but again, having everything in one place has its advantages, especially when the scheduler is directly tied to the processes (such as cleaning hard drives) that users routinely forget.

Once past the System Cleaners, WinUtilities offers a variety of other tools. The System Optimizers section includes the Duplicate File Finder, which gives you a variety of options for controlling how the program determines what files are actually duplicated. This app is particularly useful for systems with relatively small hard drives. I usually just add a new drive if I find myself with only 30GB to 40GB left, but with this app in hand, you might be able to delay that cash outlay for a bit longer. The Shortcuts Fixer does what the name suggests and is extremely welcome if you start moving things around your drive—but there are some things it can't fix, including a manual move of your Office installation (then again, very little can). The Memory Optimizer attempts to free system memory to let programs run more effectively, letting you request as much memory as you need free.

When I tested this utility, I found that it worked better with Win XP systems than with Vista systems, but it proved useful on both systems when it came to clearing up memory in order to load a large graphics file. Mind you, working with the graphics file quickly clogged the memory up again, but I expected that—graphics manipulation always does that. Still, it was worth implementing even for the limited period in which it helped. Another worthwhile option is to load the Memory Optimizer when Windows boots, to get your system off on the best foot possible.

The remaining utilities, for the most part, are collections of programs similar to those scattered around Windows' settings dialogs. The Process Manager, for example, basically offers an expanded version of the Processes tab in the Windows Task Manager, while System Information is similar to the system information viewer within Windows—although the Report button in WinUtilities opens a browser window showing extensive details about each item. The Windows Tools button opens a screen from which you can access the built-in Windows utilities themselves, everything from Computer Management to the DirectX Diagnostic Tool. In other words, WinUtilities doesn't attempt to hide the built-in Windows utilities from you, but rather makes them more accessible to you.

Three utilities under the File Tools button complete this package. Here you'll find a file splitter, which lets you break large files into smaller files which can then be merged back together (a useful utility when e-mailing large files, certainly), and a utility that password-protects EXE files so that they can be launched only by someone who knows the password. In addition, you get a file shredder, with options for a single pass or any of the following: DOD 5223-22M, NSA, or Guttman. The last, with 35 overwriting passes, comes as close as you'll get to ensuring that a file is wiped for good. You can delete individual files, entire folders, the Recycle Bin, or all the free space on each drive. For your own protection, complete wipes are an excellent idea.

Among worthwhile utilities, WinUtilities shines. Some of these, to be sure, are only variations on the utilities that already ship with Windows, so you may hesitate to pay for them again (Vista ain't cheap), but the Windows interface buries them so far inside the dialog boxes and menus that they're not easy to find. Here, they're all up front, and they all sport simple interfaces and an informative Help system. Others, such as disk cleaning and wiping, go well beyond Windows' own offerings. Paying $40 (or $70 for five PCs) is actually a reasonable deal, because just knowing that you ought to take care of your system is not enough. With this app, maintenance is considerably easier.

More Utility Suite Reviews:


1-Click SignupShield Suite 5
REVIEW DATE: 05.22.08

BOTTOM LINE:
1-Click SignupShield Suite 5 is everything you could want in a password manager and form-filler tool. While the user interface has some rough spots, the app handles login schemes the competition can't, and it generates disposable e-mail addresses for automatic sign-up.

PROS:
Automatically records/fills username/password pairs. Handles multipage logins. Updates on password change. Includes form filler, automated sign-up. Can generate disposable e-mail addresses.

CONS:
User interface awkward in spots, includes typos. Subscription fee for disposable addresses after first year.

COMPANY:
Protecteer LLC


SPEC DATA

Price: $34.95 Direct
Type: Personal, Professional
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
EDITOR RATING:


By Neil J. Rubenking
The modern Internet user is awash in a sea of passwords. Want to comment on a blog post? Log in first. Update your MySpace page? There's another username and password to remember. And of course financial and other sensitive sites require proper authentication. Using the same password for multiple sites is a no-no, since a breach at one site would put all the others at risk. But who can remember dozens of different passwords? Protecteer's 1-Click SignupShield Suite 5 cuts through this muddle by securely storing all your passwords and automatically entering them as needed.

Like RoboForm Pro 6, 1-Click SignupShield Suite 5 (I'll call it SUS) automatically notices when you visit a secure site and offers to record the log-in information. IdentitySafe (a feature of both Norton Internet Security 2008 and Norton 360 version 2) does the same, as does the password management software provided with the IronKey Personal secure USB drive. But SUS takes the concept significantly further. Unlike the competition, SUS can handle modern multipage sign-in systems. It notices when you change a password and offers to update its information with the new password. It can even automate the process of signing up for access to a new site. Like IronKey, RoboForm, and IdentitySafe, it will automatically fill in Web forms with a variety of personal information.

You can purchase SUS in three different forms: a U3-compatible version (which I reviewed) to install on your U3-equipped USB key, a plain portable version for use on any USB key, or a desktop-only version to manage your passwords without portability. For complete portability, I installed the free U3 version of Firefox on the same key and configured SUS to launch that browser by default—how convenient!

The first step is defining your master password. Obviously it has to be something nobody will guess but that you can manage to remember—after all, it protects all of your other passwords. If you forget it, though, there's nothing Protecteer can do to get it back—there's no way to recover, no back door. You do get the option to store a password hint that will display after you answer a secret question.

Once your login credentials are stored inside SUS, you can log in without any worry about a keylogger capturing them—there are no keystrokes to capture. If you're using a public computer, using SUS's on-screen keyboard even lets you evade keyloggers that could nab the master password. You can also configure the utility to log you out automatically after a specified number of minutes. Anyone trying to use SUS after that will have to first enter the master password.—Next: Automatic Password Memory

Automatic Password Memory

Once you've installed SUS, you'll want to log into every password-protected site you frequent, thereby giving the program a chance to memorize your credentials. It'll take a while, but you only have to do it once per site. When SUS detects that you're logging in—even when the login process spans multiple pages—it pops up a window that offers to save the credentials. You can configure the program to save automatically, without asking, but I'd rather have a choice.

I spent an afternoon logging into almost 90 secure sites. SUS handled every single one, including several that use multipage logins and a couple that use a separate authentication dialog. In a few cases, I had to log in two or three times before SUS caught all of the necessary information. I was concerned by a number of spelling errors in the program's own windows—for example "you have saved crednetials for this site", "enter same passowd as above", and "multipe pages." That kind of sloppiness worries me, since a similar error in the program's code could have dire effects. But as far as I can tell, these typos are strictly cosmetic.

After logging in, I changed my password on several of the sites. In each case, SUS correctly observed the password change and offered to update its stored information. When I signed up for access to a new site, the software stored the information I entered but (quite reasonably) couldn't immediately automate the sign-in process. I had to log out and then log in normally before it could record everything necessary for automatic login.—Next: Memory Retrieval

Memory Retrieval

When you revisit a log-in page for which SUS has credentials stored, the utility fills in the username, password, and any other necessary data automatically. All you have to do is click a button to complete the process. But SUS can make it even simpler than that. Instead of navigating to the secure site, just click on the 1-Click Sign-In button in the SUS toolbar, choose the site from the list, and use the Sign-In button. SUS will navigate to the site and sign in on its own.

RoboForm includes a similar feature in the form of a menu that you can organize into folders—for example, you might put all of your Web-based e-mail logins into one folder, credit card sites into another, and discussion forums into a third. IdentitySafe and IronKey just offer a simple menu with no options for organization. SUS's approach is a bit different. Protecteer's app displays a window listing all of the sites for which you've stored credentials. You can either scroll through the list or just start typing a few letters from the site you're seeking. As you type, the list shrinks to only include URLs containing what you've typed. For example, after typing go you might see just google.com, dingoes8mybaby.com and chicagotribune.com.

You can also choose Manage Saved Data from the program's tray menu. This brings up the same list of sites, and selecting Sign-In will launch the browser, navigate to the site, and log in—unless, that is, you've chosen to have SUS launch the U3-based version of Firefox by default. According to sources at Protecteer, this is due to a limitation in the U3 system. The workaround is simple—just use 1-Click Sign-In after the browser opens, or launch the browser manually.—Next: Automatic Form Fill-In

Automatic Form Fill-In

The program can also pull personal information from a form you've filled in manually, but you're better off spending a few minutes to enter your personal details directly into the program. Like RoboForm and Identity Safe, SUS lets you define multiple profiles (IronKey is limited to one set of personal data). Each profile starts with full address info plus day, evening, mobile and fax numbers. You can add a preferred e-mail address or instruct SUS to create a disposable one—more about that feature later. For your shipping and billing addresses, the program copies from your basic contact data by default, but you can modify the information if necessary.

On the Wallet page, you can list any number of credit cards. The stored information includes the issuing bank name and the security code, as well as the card number and expiration date. You can also specify a different billing address for each card. SUS will use whichever card you select on this screen when filling in forms automatically; you don't get a choice at fill-in time. There's also a somewhat awkward option to enter bank account and Invoice numbers here.

To round out the profile data, you enter your date of birth, driver's license number, gender, and social security number. There's also an option to add custom fields. By default, SUS applies the saved data to a Web form when you click the Fill-In button on the toolbar, though you can configure the utility to fill forms automatically as soon as it sees them. As with most of the program's features, this one includes a link to a test-run page at protecteer.com, so you can try out your settings without committing to anything.—Next: Automatic Sign-Up

Automatic Sign-Up

Signing up for access to a new secure Web site generally requires more than just the personal data you've stored for general form-filling. SUS goes beyond RoboForm, Ironkey, and IdentitySafe by providing support for automating this process. It can automatically generate a random password and username (or insert your favorite username) and either fill in your preferred e-mail address or generate a disposable one specific to the site. You can even set it to answer to over a dozen predefined security questions or any number of custom security questions.

The password generator will create a password of whatever length you specify. You can set it to allow, require, or omit numerals and allow, require, or omit punctuation; you can also choose to allow or require use of both upper- and lower-case letters. These settings are global, though. If the generated password doesn't meet a given site's policies, you'll have to open the program's settings and make necessary changes.

IdentitySafe doesn't offer password generation, and IronKey only lets you choose length and whether or not to use non-alphabetic characters. RoboForm, on the other hand, lets you specify settings to match a site's password policy more flexibly than SUS can. With RoboForm, you can include a specific list of allowed punctuation, specify a minimum number of numerals, create hexadecimal passwords, and even exclude characters, like the digit 1 and lowercase letter l, that look to similar. These settings are all conveniently at hand when you request a random password from RoboForm.

I used SUS to automatically sign up for access to several shopping and discussion Web sites, and it was completely successful. As noted, I did have to log out and then log into the site normally in order to create a full 1-Click Sign-In record, but that was no big effort.—Next: Disposable E-mail Addresses

Disposable E-mail Addresses

When you sign up for access to a Web site that requires an e-mail address, you're taking a certain risk. The site may spam you, sell your address to spammers, or have its data stolen by hackers who then sell the addresses to spammers. SUS offers an ingenious solution in its Disposable Email Address function. Whenever you use the program's automatic sign-up or form-filling feature, it can create a DEA specific to the site. All mail sent to that address is forwarded automatically to your real address. If you start getting spam through a particular DEA you can simply disable it (and, as a bonus, you know to be wary of the associated site).

For each DEA, the domain portion (the part after the @ sign) includes a user-defined prefix plus the domain of Protecteer's DEA-managing servers—for example @myprefix.susw.com. The name portion of an automatically-generated DEA is the name of the corresponding Web site plus a random number, like boingboing.net.1234. You can also request a DEA starting with whatever name you like, but you must register it with SUS before use. You can't just randomly make up Sally.1234@myprefix.susw.com.

There are a few minor drawbacks. If you reply to a message received through a DEA, the recipient gets your real e-mail address. If you were trying to hide that real address, well, the secret is out in the open. And it's conceivable that a secure site might reject your e-mail because the From address doesn't match the address associated with your account. According to Protecteer, an earlier version managed outgoing e-mail and routed such replies through the DEA system, thereby protecting your real address. But this kind of address spoofing was rejected by some ISPs and even reported as malicious, so the developers removed that feature. Note also that, although you get a permanent non-expiring license for SUS itself, continued DEA support costs $14.95 yearly after the first year.—Next: Mobility and More

Mobility and More

By installing the Firefox browser on my U3-compatible USB drive I made my passwords and personal information completely portable. To verify portability, I plugged the drive into several other computers running XP and Vista. The U3 launch pad started SUS as soon as I inserted the drive, and, in each case, I was able to connect with my secure sites automatically and have SUS fill in Web forms without my assistance, just the same as at my main computer. Browsing traces such as history, cookies, and cache remained on the USB drive, not on the host system. RoboForm offers similar functionality, U3 support and all, under the name RoboForm2Go. IronKey is intrinsically portable; IdentitySafe stays on the system you installed it on.

What if I lose the USB drive? Assuming I chose a strong master password, whoever finds it won't be able to get my personal information. However, I would lose all my stored passwords—definitely a bad thing! Fortunately, the product includes an option to create an encrypted backup of its data files on your home system and restore the backup as needed. You can install SUS on a new key, restore your backed-up data, and be ready to go again right away. IronKey and RoboForm have similar backup-and-restore abilities. RoboForm goes further and lets you print out all of your login information, perhaps to store in your safe-deposit box.

The Fraud Alert feature attempts to warn you about sites that might be counterfeits. It specifically alerts you to sites that take authentication credentials on a non-secure page, whose certificate can't be validated, and whose URL is an IP address rather than a normal domain name. Once you've saved a password for a site, that destination becomes trusted, by default. In my testing, a handful of sites, among them Netflix.com, got zinged because SUS couldn't verify their certificates. But over a third of the sites I tried used a non-secure page for login, causing SUS to warn "It is not a common practice for a Web site to provide an unsecured connection for submitting sensitive personal information." The sites tagged with this warning included PCMag.com (oops), MySpace, Orbitz, Travelocity, and American Express, among others. Clearly it is a common practice, just not a good practice.

The Editors' Choice winning 1-Click SignupShield Suite 5 is a comprehensive solution for securely storing and automatically entering username and password information for Web sites; it handles modern multi-page sign-in forms that the competition can't. SUS's Web-form fill-in goes further than the similar feature in competing products, and it has an unusual ability to automate the process of signing up for a new secure site. The user interface is a bit rough in spots and includes some typos, but the program does its job thoroughly and flexibly. 1-Click SignupShield Suite 5 is the best password manager we've tested.

More Software Utility Reviews:


Adobe Acrobat 8 Standard
REVIEW DATE: 08.17.07

BOTTOM LINE:
Acrobat isn't cheap, but it's the gold standard for PDF editing.

PROS:
Flexible, feature-packed PDF creation, editing, commenting, and import-export. Can translate an entire Web site into a single multipage PDF. Can create and embed an index in PDF files for fast searching.

CONS:
Feature-packed interface makes some tools hard to find. More-costly Professional version required for creating fillable PDF forms. OCR module has problems with older documents.

COMPANY:
Adobe Systems


SPEC DATA

Price: $299.00 Direct
Type: Business, Personal, Professional
Free: No
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
EDITOR RATING:


By Edward Mendelson
The PDF format is an open standard, but Adobe invented it, and Adobe's Acrobat still does more and better things with PDF files than anything else. You will pay more for Adobe Acrobat 8 Standard than for rival products, but you get a highly polished product that's guaranteed to produce high-quality results.

Even with Acrobat 8 Standard, you don't get all the features built into Acrobat 8 Professional—including the ability to create fillable PDF forms or to remove parts of PDF documents that you need to keep secret—but you do get Microsoft Office toolbars that create PDF files directly from Office applications, along with tools in Acrobat itself that edit, merge, annotate, optimize, and otherwise improve PDF files. Finally, there's even an Optical Character Reading module that converts scanned images into PDF files.

With this eighth major version, Adobe has refined the Acrobat interface so the most widely used features are accessible from a toolbar with drop-down menus leading to options for creating, combining, exporting, securing, digitally signing, reviewing, and commenting on PDF files. The features that impress me most include the ability to build a PDF from multiple PDF files, with an option to choose only specific pages from each file; and an option to create a "security envelope" that lets you e-mail one or more files in a password- or certificate-protected package.

Acrobat's Create PDF menu includes options for creating a PDF from a Web address. Using this feature you can make a single PDF containing anything from a single page to all the content from a multipage site. The results of this "Web capture" feature are sometimes better than what you get when "printing" to PDF format directly from the Web browser, but unfortunately, they can also be worse. The Web-capture feature correctly translates form fields in the original HTML page into active form fields in the captured PDF, which is good. What's bad is that the Web-capture feature gets confused by button bars on a page, so the button bar at the top of the page at PCMag.com gets translated into a vertical column of buttons when Acrobat captures the Web page. This is all the more frustrating, given that the button bar appears correctly when you "print" the same page to PDF through the browser's print dialog.

Acrobat exports PDF files to Microsoft Word and other standard formats, but don't expect perfect results. The formatting of the output Word file inevitably differs from the formatting in the PDF file, and one annoying gotcha is that Acrobat exports PDF "Sticky Notes" to Word comments but doesn't export the PDF comments that Acrobat lets you make when you highlight text. This is especially confusing, because Acrobat's option to "Include Comments" causes Acrobat to include in an output Word file the annotations that Acrobat labels as Sticky Notes but not the annotations that it labels as Comments.

An option to scan images to searchable PDF files via OCR works well with images scanned from office documents and modern magazines and books. You probably won't care that Adobe's OCR works less well with books a century or more old; for them you'll get better results with Nuance's PDF Converter 4 Professional or from Abbyy's ABBYY PDF Transformer 2.0 Pro. I sometimes work with PDF files that contain a thousand pages, so I rely on Acrobat's ability to create an index to the current file, which it embeds within the file for lightning-fast text searches.

Despite minor problems, Adobe's Acrobat 8 still strikes me as the gold standard of PDF editing and creation, and it's the PDF product I use more often than any other. If you or your company can afford it, you won't regret buying a PDF creator from the company that created PDF.

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BullZip PDF Printer
REVIEW DATE: 08.17.07

BOTTOM LINE:
Freeware PDF creator is simple enough for casual use but also suitable for corporate-style automation.

PROS:
Simple PDF creation. Advanced settings for security and display via dialog box, options program, or from command line.

CONS:
Can't control display options for PDF output.

COMPANY:
Bullzip.com


SPEC DATA

Price: $0.00 Direct
Type: Business, Personal, Professional
Free: Yes
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
Tech Support: online forum
EDITOR RATING:


By Edward Mendelson
Freeware PDF creators are so plentiful that you can spend long hours testing and comparing them until you find exactly the one you need. After doing exactly that, I kept BullZip PDF Printer on my hard drive and deleted the rest. The application is simple, fast, straightforward, and free (the company does accept PayPal donations, however). From any application, print to the BullZip printer driver, and a tabbed dialog box appears. If you simply click on OK, the driver creates a PDF file in your My Documents folder with the same filename as the original. But if you decide to explore the tabs, you can specify the security and display settings for the PDF file, apply a watermark, and append the output to the top or bottom of another PDF file. Don't expect anything more than the most minimal PDF-creation features from this program, but you get high-quality PDF output, and, best of all, you get it free.

Different PDF creators can produce slightly different results, and the best quality comes from programs that use either Adobe PostScript, as Acrobat does, or the long-established freeware PostScript clone called Ghostscript, which is used by BullZip. What I liked most about BullZip was its combination of a no-fuss interface with Ghostscript's high-quality output. In contrast, Acrobat's Distiller interface produces the same level of output quality, but requires a lot more in-your-face fuss when creating individual files.

BullZip comes with a separate Options program that lets you change all the program's default settings. Using settings you specify in the options dialog, the program can automatically build any setting that includes a text string (such as an output filename for a PDF, or metadata fields such as document author or title). This means that that the output PDF filename can automatically include the date or time, your user name, the title of the document, the filename of the original (with or without extensions such as .DOC or .XLS), and other information.

Unlike many other basic PDF Creators, BullZip doesn't let you specify the zoom level used when Adobe Reader opens a PDF file for viewing. This is a minor limitation, though, since anyone can change the level while viewing a PDF, and few PDF authors will care about specifying the initial level. BullZip also doesn't give you the kind of conversion features that translate Microsoft Word comments into PDF annotation, but if you want that kind of feature, you should look at a commercial package such as Acrobat or PDF Converter Professional.

BullZip also lacks the ability to save separate profiles for different sets of output options. Instead, the software lets you create multiple PDF "printers" with different names, each one with a different set of options. The effect is the same, but I prefer BullZip's method, because from the standard Windows print dialog's list of installed printers, I can select the specific PDF printer with the options I want instead of having to hunt down the list of Profiles from an options dialog, as in other programs.

A link on the BullZip Web site lets you download the latest version of Ghostscript directly from the Ghostscript server. In contrast, many other freeware PDF programs insist on downloading and installing an outdated release even if you already have a later one.

Unlike most other free and low-cost PDF creators, you can control BullZip from the Windows command prompt, which means it's suitable for automated corporate and other advanced applications that run without intervention. The program is constantly updated in response to requests on its online support forum, and anything it can't do now is something it's likely to be able to do soon. If you don't need to attach comments or require other collaboration features in your PDF files, BullZip PDF Printer gets the job done efficiently, with quality equal to the best, and it costs nothing to use.

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deskPDF Professional
REVIEW DATE: 08.23.07

BOTTOM LINE:
Basic-featured PDF creation, suitable for home use and small businesses.

PROS:
Straightforward PDF creation through a Microsoft Office toolbar button or a desktop icon. Easy access to display and security settings. Converts Office file comments to PDF annotations. Easy to set output defaults. Can write raw PostScript output.

CONS:
Unintuitive interface for merging two files.

COMPANY:
Docudesk


SPEC DATA

Price: $29.95 Street
Type: Business, Personal, Professional
Free: No
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
Tech Support: Website knowledgebase
EDITOR RATING:


By Edward Mendelson
DeskPDF Professional offers an almost ideal combination of basic features and clever conveniences. It's one step up from freeware programs like BullZip PDF Printer and far below the level of annotation, management, OCR, and indexing features in Acrobat (with its strong indexing ability) or PDF Converter Professional (with its high-powered OCR), but it includes the features that most personal and small-business users need. You can create PDFs the usual way, by printing from the standard Windows print dialog, but you also get a deskPDF button in Microsoft Office applications and a Convert with deskPDF icon on your desktop. Simply drag any standard Windows document to that icon to begin creating a PDF.

The software's best feature is the single dialog box that consolidates all your PDF creation options in one place. In addition to the usual options for specifying a filename and folder, the utility offers a choice of PDF output quality, and a check box lets you send the PDF as an e-mail attachment. This is also the place to specify 40-bit or 128-bit encryption and privacy settings. The panel lets you determine, too, how the file will display, giving you options for setting zoom levels, adding watermarks, and more—features that other programs, such as Adobe Acrobat, bury deep in their menus. Finally, you can save multiple settings as profiles that you can reuse for future jobs—another welcome convenience.

Despite its low price, deskPDF Professional includes some high-level features: You can convert Office document annotations into PDF comments, for example, and merge multiple PDF files, although the latter feature isn't exactly intuitive. You use it by saving a PDF with the same name as the file you want to merge the PDF into, and the program prompts you to replace the original file or append or "prepend" the new file to the existing one. The dialog box and help facility aren't fully clear about whether "prepend" means that the new file will be tacked onto the beginning of the existing one (which is what happens) or the reverse. Some users might prefer to use a new filename for the combination, but at least the job gets done. The menu-driven methods in PDF Converter Pro and Adobe Acrobat get the job done more cleanly and flexibly, however.

Sure, deskPDF won't overwhelm you with its feature set, but the application doesn't cost much, and its single-dialog-box operation has a Zen-like minimalism that other programs can't match. If you need to do anything more with PDF files than create or merge them, you'll need a higher-end product such as PDF Converter Professional or Adobe Acrobat. But if you're like most users, deskPDF gives you all you need.

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PDF Converter Professional 4
REVIEW DATE: 08.23.07

BOTTOM LINE:
This app lacks the polish of its rival, Adobe Acrobat 8 Standard, but it does have superior OCR and export features.

PROS:
Converts PDF files to Microsoft Office and WordPerfect documents. Exceptionally accurate OCR on image-only PDFs. Advanced PDF editing and form filling. Can permanently remove sensitive data from PDFs.

CONS:
Some menus and operations are not intuitive. Can create indexes only in separate files, not embedded in PDFs. No warning if you have an old copy without the data-removal feature.

COMPANY:
Nuance Communications Inc


SPEC DATA

Price: $99.95 Direct
Type: Business, Personal, Professional
Free: No
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
Tech Support: Phone; website form
EDITOR RATING:


By Edward Mendelson
PDFs are here to stay. The question is: Do you really need to shell out $299 for Adobe Acrobat 8 Standard Or is there a cheaper alternative that can do the job just as well (or at least well enough)? The answer is a qualified yes. PDF Converter Professional 4 costs just $99 and packs in features that you won't find in Adobe's more expensive Acrobat 8 Standard. It may be all the PDF software you'll ever need—complete with OCR technology that does a better job of extracting text from image-only PDF files than Acrobat's technology can manage. The program isn't as polished as Acrobat, and a disturbing bug caused a PDF page to disappear in my testing, but it caused no lasting damage, so that shouldn't stop you from considering this software.

Topping the program's main window is a smorgasbord of toolbars with icons for creating, editing, and managing files. Easy-to-navigate menus let you combine files, touch up text, add comments or highlighting, resize images, rearrange pages by moving thumbnail images, and perform other standard PDF editing tasks, similar to those offered by Acrobat. The bug that bit me during testing appeared when I added a comment to a PDF page, then opened the program's navigation panel, which lists all the comments: At that moment, the comment page turned blank except for the comment icon. I got the page back by closing the file without saving and reopening the copy on the hard drive, but the experience was unnerving.

The application's Organizer Panel toolbar leads to something you won't find in Acrobat and may not want at all: a gallery of clip-art images containing religious-themed drawings, smiley faces, silly animal cartoons, and frilly borders. Those who don't want them can block them from appearing in the program's catalog and can import their own instead, using almost any standard image format.

An automatically installed plug-in module provides a redaction feature that lets you completely remove sensitive material from a PDF instead of merely covering it with black bands that hackers can easily uncover. This feature, which can be crucial in corporate and government offices, isn't included in Adobe Acrobat Standard: If you want it in an Adobe product, you'll have to step up to Acrobat Professional. In PDF Converter Professional, if you don't find the Redact markup item on the Document menu, you've got an older copy of the program, and you'll need to ask Nuance's tech support for a download that adds the module. Unfortunately, the Check for Updates menu item won't alert you that you're missing anything (though it will alert you to future updates of the program itself).

When I tested creating PDF files from standard documents, I was pleasantly surprised by the package's flexibility and ease of use. A PDF Create! Assistant item on the start menu launches a dialog in which you can select one or more documents to convert into a single PDF or multiple ones, and you can combine spreadsheets, word-processing files, image files, and any other printable file into a single PDF. You can't create a PDF from a Web URL using the program's menus, although you can print a PDF from your browser to the program's PDF-creating printer driver. The basic way to create a PDF is to use the Print menu, but you're not really printing to paper, you're printing to a PDF file. Customizable profiles let you save settings that control image quality, security, and other features. Like most competing software, this program adds toolbars to Microsoft Office so you can create PDFs directly from Word, Excel, and other applications, with results equal in quality to PDFs created from Acrobat and the best freeware products, such as BullZip PDF Printer.

You'll find similar flexibility when converting PDF files to standard output formats. Like Acrobat, Converter Professional can save PDF files in Microsoft Word format, including Office 2007 formats—and many law and government offices will be glad to find that, unlike Acrobat, this utility can also export to WordPerfect format.

An even bigger plus in Converter Professional is its OCR engine, which is essentially the same as that in OmniPage 15. When translating standard business documents to PDF formats, I found that Converter Professional performed on a par with Acrobat. The OmniPage engine in Converter Professional excelled, though, when faced with a really hard OCR task, such as transforming a PDF of a scanned 19th-century book into a text-searchable PDF and then exporting the PDF to a Word file. Acrobat simply gave up on many pages, creating images rather than text; by contrast, Converter Professional output text for the entire book, even if some of it was marred by OCR misreadings. Starting with an 18MB scanned book (downloaded from Google Books), Converter Professional produced a 15MB Word file, whereas Acrobat produced a whopping 250MB file stuffed with pages of images. You won't find OCR at all in low-cost products such as deskPDF and certainly not in freeware products.

Unfortunately, this software lags behind Adobe's latest versions of Acrobat Standard and Professional in PDF indexing. Like earlier versions of Acrobat, PDF Converter Professional can create a separate index file for one or more PDFs, but, unlike the latest Acrobat Standard, it can't embed an index into a PDF to provide fast searching without requiring a separate file. If you need the convenience of embedded indexes, stay with Adobe Standard or move up to Acrobat Professional. Otherwise, PDF Converter Professional is a worthy and lower-priced alternative, and you'll get superior OCR.

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Abbyy FineReader OCR Professional 9.0
REVIEW DATE: 05.15.08

BOTTOM LINE:
Superb interface combined with high accuracy makes this an ideal OCR package, though it's outclassed in some corporate features by OmniPage.

PROS:
Accurate output. Convenient, intuitive proofreading. Clearest interface of any comparable product.

CONS:
Not as accurate as OmniPage in reproducing complex page layouts.

COMPANY:
Abbyy Software House


SPEC DATA

Price: $399.99 Direct
Type: Business, Personal, Enterprise, Professional
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP
Tech Support: phone, email
EDITOR RATING:


By Edward Mendelson
Abbyy FineReader Professional 9.0 ($399.99, direct) is a relative newcomer in the world of optical character recognition (OCR). In some significant ways, it has an edge over its long-established competitor OmniPage Professional, though in other ways, OmniPage remains the leader. The one you'll prefer depends on the way you work.

I use OCR mostly to take scanned copies of old books and fuzzy Xerox copies of old newspaper articles and turn them into editable text, and I spend a lot of time making corrections and changes to the OCR output inside my OCR software. For that purpose, Abbyy FineReader is the almost unquestionable first choice. Corporate customers tends to use OCR software to cram stacks of paper documents into digital storage, without taking time to make sure that the software didn't misread a comma as a period. For those customers, who are more concerned with automation, FineReader gets the job done, but OmniPage does it more efficiently and flexibly. If you're trying to decide which high-end OCR product to choose, read on and see whether your needs are closer to mine or to those of a corporate IT manager.

Unlike OmniPage, with its confusing start-up options, FineReader makes a terrific first impression. I found the interface almost ideal in its combination of straightforward clarity for basic tasks and clear explanations of complex tasks. I began by choosing from a set of built-in QuickTasks that automatically perform operations, such as scanning from a document to Microsoft Word, Excel, or PDF, or converting a PDF file to an editable Word file. I first chose to convert a scanned PDF file to Word, and, within seconds, Word popped open with a moderately accurate representation of the fuzzily photographed text from a 1930s newspaper. OmniPage, by comparison, was able to perform a comparable feat only when I changed an obscure setting deep in its Options dialog so that it extracted text from an image in the PDF file instead of embedding the image itself into the Word file—something that FineReader was smart enough to do without being told.

FineReader proved generally more informative than OmniPage about its operations. For example, when the programs analyzed a scanned or imported image of a page to decide which parts were text and which pictures, both did an equally good job. But FineReader numbered the text boxes so that I could see at a glance whether it had got the sequence of text regions right, while OmniPage made me push a toolbar button before it would display the same numbers. FineReader seems to have been designed from the start for today's fast computers, whereas OmniPage is weighed down by design decisions that made more sense when computers were slower and programs didn't take time to display some information unless the user insisted on seeing it.

In this test of their automated features, I was struck by the fact that FineReader and OmniPage made roughly the same number of mistakes in reading the scanned newspaper text but were tripped up by different words. Neither one was notably superior to the other. OCR is an inexact science, and every program produces slightly different results. Yet when I tested the two programs' manual proofreading and error-correcting features, I found that making corrections was far easier with FineReader than with OmniPage.

Here's how I used the manual correction features: FineReader's left-hand task pane starts out with two big buttons labeled Scan and Open. I chose Scan, and the dialog I got—which showed me all the options most useful in scanning for OCR—was much easier to manage than the corresponding OmniPage menu. After scanning a page, FineReader marked all the regions of the page it thought it could read. I tabbed through the regions, removing the regions I didn't need, and clicked the large "Read Document" button to start OCR.

After FineReader performed its OCR, I started the spell-checker, and here's where FineReader proved its worth. For one thing, I liked the spell-checking dialog's small window showing the text I was checking. And I especially liked that FineReader also displayed three other panes. One of these three panes displayed a reduced view of the whole page, with a dotted rectangle showing me the region I was checking. Another pane showed an enlarged view of the area around the text I was proofreading, with the current text highlighted so I could see it clearly in the context of adjacent text. The third pane showed the editable text the program had already extracted from the document through OCR. If I saw a mistake the program hadn't flagged, or if I wanted to correct a lot of errors at once, I could simply switch to the panel with the editable text, and then switch back to the proofreading window. Or, if the proofreading window highlighted a doubtful word and I also noticed other errors, I could move the proofreading window as much as I liked and make multiple changes. OmniPage's far more awkward interface doesn't offer conveniences of this sort.

One other advantage of FineReader's proofreading pane was that it suggested a more useful list of possible alternative readings than OmniPage did, and it didn't clutter the list of alternatives with useless numbers like the ones in the OmniPage screen. Proofreading an OCR document is never fun because it requires a lot of close attention to tiny details, but FineReader made the experience far less frustrating than OmniPage does.

I was also grateful for FineReader's intelligently designed interface, which puts as many options as possible on a large-scale toolbar that resembles the Ribbon in Microsoft Office 2007. In OmniPage, many options were hidden in drop-down menus that made me play hide-and-seek before I found the one I wanted. In FineReader, large buttons displayed the options I needed most, and small buttons displayed the ones used less often.

One other convenience in FineReader's text-editing pane is its use of word-processing-like menus to apply quick formatting to text. I could easily select all or part of a document and apply fonts and point sizes, or choose a set of formatting attributes from a Style menu and apply the same style to other parts of the document. Like OmniPage, FineReader exports Word documents with more stylistic information that I want, but I was able to cut down the clutter of formatting details in FineReader's own editor before dealing with Word's more complicated style and format menus. —Next: FineReader: On the Other Hand…

FineReader: On the Other Hand…

Abbyy's app includes automation features similar to, but not nearly as powerful as, those in OmniPage. I found I could use any of Abbyy's built-in automated operations to convert scanned or image files into documents or PDFs, and I could build my own sequences. But I didn't have the flexibility that OmniPage Professional gave me to acquire files from FTP sites or "watched folders"—although I could choose an option that automatically e-mails the output. Similar features are available in FineReader's $599.99 Corporate Edition, but I didn't test those. (FineReader's Corporate edition costs $100 more than OmniPage's Professional Edition, but FineReader's Professional Edition costs $100 less than OmniPage's.)

I've been emphasizing all the ways that FineReader does things right, but it's important to remember that OmniPage does some things better than FineReader does. It's a matter not just of the deeper feature-set in OmniPage's automated operations, but also of OmniPage's superior skill at making sense of the layout in complicated pages from magazines and design-heavy press-releases—and at reproducing those layouts in its output. This feature doesn't factor into the kind of use I put an OCR program to (I want to extract just the text, not the layout, from scanned documents), but it obviously matters to many potential users, especially those in the world of graphic design.

In the end, both products perform text-extracting OCR more or less equally well, although it's impossible to predict, with any specific document, whether one will produce slightly better results than the other. FineReader is miles ahead on interface design and bug-free performance—two areas in which OmniPage has a lot of catching up to do. OmniPage is noticeably, but not spectacularly, better in reproducing complex layouts. What matters most to me in OCR is text extraction and trouble-free operation, and that means FineReader is the program I'll continue to use. But if you know your needs are different from mine, you owe it to yourself to try both.

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OmniPage Professional 16
REVIEW DATE: 05.15.08

BOTTOM LINE:
This long-established app is an OCR powerhouse, but its confusing interface means it may not be the right choice for all users.

PROS:
Accurate output, especially in complex layouts. Highly flexible automated workflows.

CONS:
Confusing, complex, and sometimes annoying interface. Program occasionally ignores what you want it to do.

COMPANY:
Nuance Communications Inc


EDITOR RATING:


By Edward Mendelson
OmniPage began performing optical character recognition (OCR) on documents in 1988, so it has had 20 years of experience converting complex documents into editable formats. The latest version, OmniPage Professional 16 ($499, direct), shows that experience in its often startling ability to preserve the layout of scanned documents in its OCR-processed files. Unfortunately, OmniPage's long history is also reflected in an interface cluttered with traces of an ancient, clunky design that no one would inflict on users today, and in program code that's cluttered with needlessly frustrating procedures.

Compared with its chief rival, Abbyy FineReader Professional Edition, OmniPage Professional produced results essentially equal in textual accuracy and often superior in layout accuracy. But OmniPage also developed many more annoyances on the road to delivering those results. Everyone who uses OCR uses it in different ways, and you may prefer OmniPage, especially if your goal is to process a large number of documents automatically as conveniently as possible—and not worry too much about tweaking individual files.

My problems began the moment I installed OmniPage, before I even tried to run it. Installing it activated the InstallShield Update Manager, which suggested that I use my Internet connection to check for updates. When I did so the Update Manager told me an update for OmniPage Pro was available and offered to load it. After downloading a 170MB update file, the installer tried to update OmniPage, but the attempt prompted an error message about a corrupt CAB file. I canceled, rebooted, and tried again—only to get the same error message. I finally figured out that I needed to launch a completely different updater program from OmniPage's Help menu. I had to follow the instructions extremely carefully (making sure to remember to choose Download, not Install), but I finally got the update in place. When I asked the vendor, the techs said they had never heard of this problem; they promised to look into it, but I haven't heard anything back yet.

After that, things got easier. OmniPage first had me choose between three views called Classic, Flexible, and QuickConvert. There are long-winded descriptions of each, but they boil down to this: Classic is for those familiar with OmniPage, Flexible is for advanced users, and QuickConvert is recommended for new users. Although I've used many earlier OmniPage versions, I chose QuickConvert in order to see what new users would be experience. The program didn't take me directly to the QuickConvert interface but displayed a pop-up menu of how-to guides instead, which helpfully told me which buttons to press while using the program. At this point, I finally got started with a menu that let me choose whether to load image files or scan in color, grayscale, or black-and-white—but didn't tell me which one was better. Abbyy FineReader, by contrast, told me directly that grayscale was best for OCR. When I explored other menus, I learned that OmniPage defaults to color scanning, but the directions never say why.

Other choices OmniPage let me make included an output format from various text- and word-processing and PDF formats, and an output folder. I could also choose among Plain Text, Formatted Text, True Page, and Flowing Page options—and I had to study the help file to figure out that the difference between the last two was that True Page inserts multicolumn text into text boxes, while Flowing Page doesn't. I ignored a button at the foot of the menu labeled All Options—and, as you'll see, this was a mistake. I then scanned in a stack of invoices and automatically saved the results to PDF format. I was deeply impressed by the accuracy of the resulting layouts. Where Abbyy FineReader made unimportant mistakes in interpreting line breaks and other fine detail, OmniPage got almost everything right. The only fault I noticed in OmniPage was that it sometimes misinterpreted large, decorative initial letter on logos as images instead of as letters.—Next: Omnipage Impresses

Omnipage Impresses

When I switched from Quick Convert view to the more advanced Flexible View, OmniPage showed its real strengths. Here I could define Workflows—automated sequences of tasks I could customize for specific kinds of documents. I could use the presupplied workflows, or create new ones through an exceptionally clear and helpful wizard. I created a workflow that opens files in a specific folder, automatically performs OCR and proofreading, and prompts me to accept or reject readings of doubtful words.

My customized workflow was even powerful enough to redact or highlight any text I specified, bookmark the affected pages, and then save the output in any file format supported—all automatically. These automation features correspond to similar features in FineReader, but FineReader doesn't have the option to redact or highlight selected text. I'm not sure I would trust an OCR program to find every instance of text I wanted redacted, but it's good to be able to perform some of the work automatically.

Other impressive aspects of the workflow feature included the ability to acquire files either via FTP or from a "watched folder," which would trigger the workflow whenever a file was saved into it. I also admired the program's ability to send output automatically via FTP. None of these features are available in FineReader.—Next: OmniPage Disappoints

OmniPage Disappoints

Less-automated tasks requiring a lot of interaction with the program were less impressive. My first problem began when I tried to get OmniPage to perform OCR on PDF archives of newspapers and magazines from the mid-20th century. These PDFs contain an image of the original article, with brief text above and below the image, giving the article's title and date. When I told OmniPage to perform OCR on these PDFs, I was repeatedly frustrated to find that it generated a Word document containing the brief text above and below the article image in the PDF file—and left the article image still embedded in the Word document, instead of extracting the article's text. So I went back to OmniPage and carefully drew text boxes in the article image where I wanted to the program to extract text, and tried again—with exactly the same frustrating result. The program completely ignored the text boxes that I had drawn on the image and simply embedded the whole image into the Word document output.

After calling the vendor, I finally found the solution: It was hidden in that All Options button that I had ignored the first time around. That button opens a dialog with six tabs. On the Process tab, under PDF, there was a check box "Open as image"—and when I checked this box, the program extracted the text I wanted. Maybe you could have figured this out by yourself, but I didn't. When I complained to the vendor that the program should have figured out that I wanted to OCR the text of the image when I drew text boxes on it, the techs agreed that this was a fault in their interface and promised to fix it in the next point release, but they couldn't say when that would happen.

By contrast, Abbyy FineReader instantly performed OCR on the same article image and created a Word document that contained the text of the article—exactly what I wanted.

Other annoyances in the OmniPage interface emerged when I proofread scanned documents. The Proofreading function uses a dialog box in which a small portion of the output text is displayed, with doubtful text highlighted. Unlike FineReader, OmniPage provides only a tiny preview image of the text you're correcting, which makes the task unnecessarily difficult.

That wasn't the only annoyance. If I saw an error to the left or right of a highlighted word, I couldn't correct it until I made a change in the highlighted word—even if the highlighted word was actually correct! So I sometimes had to introduce a deliberate error in order to correct an existing error, then go back and correct the deliberate error. Yet another irritation was the way the program displayed alternative spellings with numbers next to them, but offered no way to select the alternative by typing the number. The vendor explained that this was a legacy of an interface feature that worked in earlier versions. I pointed out that the only function of the numbers in the current version was to cause a user to waste keystrokes by typing them, and the vendor agreed. This too will be fixed in a future version.

Another problem was that OmniPage doesn't use the standard keyboard interface in which Alt-F opens the top-line File menu. Instead I had to tap the Alt key, then the F key—and I had to use a similar two-keystroke routine to open all the top-line menus, instead of the combined Alt-letter keystrokes that work in every other Windows app I've ever used. This was a simple design fault. Presumably a bug was responsible for the times when the mouse cursor would sometimes disappear when I moved the mouse into the OmniPage window.

Despite the glitches, OmniPage impressed with its sheer range of features. I also admired its pure textual accuracy and the way it handles layouts—in fact, here it has a very slight edge over FineReader. But for the kind of work I do, which requires a great deal of manual interaction with the proofreading windows, FineReader is far easier to use than OmniPage. Corporate users who work with highly complex documents—and those who need automatic handling—will find that OmniPage provides features that FineReader doesn't. Both apps offer strong OCR abilities. The one that suits you best depends on what kind of user you are.

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Copyright (c) 2008Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.

23 Powerful Utilities - Reviews by PC Magazine
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