January 17, 2008


Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition. Windows Vista or XP/SP2. Symantec. $99.99.

      The first thing that longtime users of Symantec’s Norton programs will notice about the box of the new Norton SystemWorks is an absence: no date. The components of this longtime leader in the computer-tuneup field carry a 2008 designation – Norton AntiVirus 2008, for example – but the suite as a whole does not. Interesting? Yes. Meaningful? We shall see what happens to Symantec’s business model…

      What happens inside the new Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition is certainly meaningful – although, in truth, not significantly different from what this top-notch product did in 2007. The refinements here are just that; there are no significant additions to the product and no major changes in the way it works. This does not indicate stagnation, however, because the new Norton SystemWorks operates more quickly and efficiently than previous editions, and one of its refinements – which stops viruses and spyware based on code behavior, even before malware fighters have located definition specifics – is especially useful. Furthermore, there is a new emphasis in the latest Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition: it is positioned as a backup tool, not just a way of fine-tuning your computer for faster, more efficient performance. It includes Norton Save & Restore 2.0, a nifty and now-improved utility that handles backup, system-failure recovery and other functions smoothly and with minimal user effort. The one-step wizard for this utility is new (and a welcome simplification), and the backup search function has been improved to make it easier to find and recover specific files.

      Norton Save & Restore 2.0 is included only in the Premier version of the new Norton SystemWorks, which is really the only version most consumers and small businesses should consider buying. It is also the only version offering system-restore capability in case of a catastrophic crash – the worst possible computer problem, and the one against which families and small businesses should be most careful to protect themselves, despite its unlikelihood. The two less-expensive versions – Norton SystemWorks Standard, $69.99, and Norton SystemWorks Basic, $49.99 – are too bare-bones for most users. Both include One-Button Checkup, a useful feature that finds and corrects many niggling computer irritations; Norton Cleanup, to remove cookies and temporary files (although you can do that fairly easily without this software); and System Optimizer, for improving functionality through a single screen of Windows settings. The Standard version adds Norton AntiVirus 2008, a fine program that does a good job of intercepting threats to your computer or network. But really, it is only when you add the backup, restore and protective features included in Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition that there is a compelling reason to buy the product.

      The question nowadays is whether it pays to buy tuneup software at all. There is plenty of good freeware available to handle many of the functions of Symantec’s products, and there is a level of detail within SystemWorks that novice computer users will find off-putting (despite the much-improved interface of the last few years). On balance, there is a strong argument to be made that Norton SystemWorks is a worthwhile purchase, especially for home networks and small businesses, simply because it aggregates so many functions into a single package and lets you use most of them simply and efficiently. With the importance of computers today for so many homes and virtually all businesses, a $100 investment in this software – plus some time spent to learn its ins and outs – really is money well spent.

      This is not to say that Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition is without irritations. It provides protection for only one year – after that, you need new software or have to pay for further upgrades. Symantec says it runs faster than ever, buts its full scan still takes quite some time, and its memory usage – which Symantec says is 69% less than the industry average – is still significant. It also retains its annoying habit of requiring you to reboot after it downloads certain (but not all) updates. Unlike Microsoft and other software makers, Symantec does not always offer a “restart later” option for some downloads – just a box stating that you must reboot, even if you are in the middle of a project. The way around this occasional but extremely frustrating occurrence is to run Live Update at your convenience, not automatically – and accept the possibility of having to reboot every time you run it (since you will not know in advance whether the updates to be downloaded will require a reboot). This is one of the last remaining vestiges of the earlier Norton product line, which tended to run your computer rather than run on it.

      But these minuses are, all in all, small ones beside the big pluses. One really important advance in the new Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition – and the probable reason that the suite is incrementally improved rather than overhauled this year – is that the software works smoothly and easily with Windows Vista. This is no small feat: delays in widespread adoption of Vista are tied to numerous companies’ problems getting existing software to work with it, or getting new software (or upgrades) that will function properly in the new environment. Symantec has this problem licked – an impressive technical achievement, even if not one whose difficulty will be obvious to most users.

      On balance, even without the 2008 date on its box, the new Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition is indeed a suite for the new year, providing the best set of computer tuneup tools around in a seamlessly integrated package that is reasonably easy to use and very effective in protecting user data and keeping Windows machines – Vista as well as XP with Service Pack 2 – functioning at the highest possible level. It’s still the gold standard in utilities.

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