March 12, 2009


Norton Utilities 14.0. Windows Vista or XP. Symantec. $49.95.

     The best iteration yet of the venerable Norton Utilities computer tuneup suite, with the best-looking interface that Symantec has created for its 2009 product line, Norton Utilities 14.0 is not a product for everyone – but everyone who understands what it can do will be tremendously pleased with how efficiently it performs its functions.

     This is software that really gets into the innards of your PC, ferreting out problems that are difficult – sometimes nearly impossible – for users to handle on their own, and automating the repair of those issues with genuinely impressive speed. And style, too: this program looks good while doing what it does.      The main Norton Utilities screen offers six functions under a category called “optimize”: clean registry, clean discs, manage services, manage startup, defragment registry, defragment hard drives. Each function gets its own slick, modern icon with a brief explanation of what clicking on that icon will do. Pick one and click, and Norton Utilities goes to work with exceptional speed and excellent accuracy. “Clean registry,” for example, automates the chore of searching the enormous and complex database that is the guts of Windows operating systems – and that tends to accumulate unneeded “keys” and “values” as programs are installed, updated, reinstalled or uninstalled. Eventually, this accumulation slows down a computer and can (worst case) cause operating instability. In short order, Norton Utilities finds what doesn’t belong in the registry – in a dozen categories, from “registry integrity” to “file extensions” – and displays the problems, which a user can fix with a single click on “repair.” This works amazingly well – and includes the automatic creation of a restore point, so you can bring your computer back to its prior state if it turns out that Norton Utilities has misidentified and removed an entry that you really needed after all.

     The registry can also be defragmented for smoother, quicker operation; and Norton Utilities can analyze your hard drives and tell you whether they too have files so scattered that some housekeeping is in order. But the “optimize” category is only one part of this program. The “monitor” category lets you test, benchmark and improve system performance, keeps an eye on your registry for changes and alerts you when they occur, and lets you view and manage Windows processes.

     If your eyes are glazing over by now, you may think you are not a good candidate for Norton Utilities 14.0, because the program does require some basic understanding of how Windows computers work. Indeed, its “Windows tools” category gets more deeply into that, providing a one-stop shortcut to functions you can get to elsewhere on the computer, but not as straightforwardly: System Information, Control Panel, Windows Update, Device Manager, Windows Security Settings and more. Interestingly, for this functionality alone, the new Norton Utilities can be a worthwhile purchase for less-knowledgeable users, who are sure to need access to some of these areas from time to time and may find the often-confusing Windows interface more difficult to use than the simple, clean Norton Utilities one.

     For more-knowledgeable users, Norton Utilities 14.0 provides an “administer” category for dealing with white lists, restorations and other functions that a novice will likely not want to touch – but that experienced PC users will welcome. Like everything else in this program, these functions work quickly, easily, and highly efficiently.

     There are, though, a couple of areas for improvement even in as well-designed a piece of software as this. The main issue is program updates. Norton Utilities 14.0 includes a “Smart Update” feature that works well – but it does not integrate with other Norton applications’ Live Update, so you have to run Live Update and Smart Update separately. Given the fact that Live Update itself is annoying – it repeatedly tells you that updates are available to induce you to run it, then usually tells you that you are already up to date – adding Smart Update as a separate requirement is irritating. Furthermore, much of what Smart Update discovers may be useless for many people – multilingual process viewers, for instance. Those are small updates, only a few hundred kilobytes each, and you can deselect them if you do not want them – but if you do so, they show up again and again, every time you run Smart Update; there is no “ignore” button. It is probably best just to accept the inevitable and download all updates, including ones you will never use.

     These matters aside, Norton Utilities 14.0 is an exceptionally useful product that does its work quickly and well, is easy to use, performs some highly valuable functions, and – on top of everything else – looks good (the look of Norton AntiVirus, Norton SystemWorks and other Symantec programs would be improved by following the Norton Utilities graphic model). Norton Utilities 14.0 is not inexpensive, but it will be worth the price to anyone who hopes to keep a Windows computer operating as quickly and efficiently as it can for as long as possible.

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