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SOMETIMES THE SOFTWARE MEDICINE IS WORSE THAN THE AFFLICTION

To read the computer trade press these days, you'd think that powerhouse machine on your desktop was not a mighty piece of equipment at all, but instead a fragile thing under constant and menacing threat from an army of woes ranging from system crashes to printer failures to deadly viruses.

The software industry has responded with a shelf full of products that promise you peace of mind by defending against some or all of these enemy attackers. There are some fine and effective products in this category, but there are some things to watch out for as well, especially when it comes to programs that promise to guard automatically against all forms of trouble. There's an increasing assortment of these all-purpose digital elixirs.

The first thing you need to understand about such products, exemplified by CyberMedia's much-advertised "First Aid," now in at least its third release, called "First Aid 98," is that in order to perform all these protective wonders for you, the software has to be loaded and running at all times, and this consumes processing power and may slow your computer down noticeably.

This is especially true if the program includes an anti-virus monitor that must check your computer continually to make sure some destructive code has not invaded. The first thing you will notice, for example, upon restarting your computer after installing an anti-virus program is that the boot-up takes significantly longer than before. That's because the anti-virus program is going about its business to make sure no mischievous invader has stowed away.

Most anti-virus programs check a sample of your computer's files to make sure they haven't been infected and scan your system memory to be sure nothing's amiss there. However, as fast as today's computers are, this can take a while. Indeed, you might even get the impression your computer has crashed in midboot.

Many of these all-purpose guardian programs claim they can catch and head off system or program crashes. First Aid makes this claim but, alas, it seems a dubious claim. Not that the program isn't effective in catching some crashes, some of the time. But the "P" in PC stands for personal, and the result is that nearly every computer is configured differently, presenting protective software with the insurmountable task of watching for trouble that can strike in an endless variety of ways.

There is, for example, an obscure PC utility written for Windows 3.1 called Winkey, which allows the user to select, among other things, how the Caps Lock key will function, and, if desired, to swap its location with that of the Control key. For longtime PC users accustomed to this configuration, this can be a handy switch. But CyberMedia's "First Aid 97" continually found that Winkey had crashed, and claimed it had "caught" the crash. But when First Aid was uninstalled, Winkey never had a problem.

Worse, First Aid ran into strange problems with Word for Windows 97, which, for better or worse, is the industry-standard word processing program. Every time Word was booted, First Aid would announce it had "caught" the program in midcrash. Trouble was, after that the program would not accept keystrokes. You could type them, but nothing would appear on the screen. The solution to the problem turned out to be simple enough. With First Aid uninstalled, Word ran without a hitch.

This might seem to support a condemnation of First Aid as simply not a good product, but it is probably nearer the mark to say that First Aid tries to do too much automatically and that this entire category of effort-free fix-it software is suspect.

A better solution might be a diagnostic program that the user runs from time to time. One of these, Healthy PC from Symantec, caught a serious hard disk problem with a Toshiba laptop that no other program ever noticed, certainly not First Aid.

The problem was that the physical size of the machine's hard disk was slightly smaller than the size assigned to it by Windows 95, which raised the possibility that when the disk was full or nearly full, the computer would start overwriting vital data. With the help of a utility called Partition Magic, the problem was corrected, thanks to Healthy PC.

But there are programs to beware of in this category as well, especially one called PC Doctor from a company called Watergate Software of Emeryville, Calif. All you need to know about this program is that it came pre-installed on a Fujitsu laptop that has a built-in modem, and that the "Modem Test" routine in PC Doctor failed to detect the modem.

Stay away from that program. Stick to proven names such as Symantec, which, while they can't work miracles, can do specific tasks effectively.

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