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Ten Rules for Rebates

Before plunking down your dollars for that "after rebate" offer that seems too good to pass up, here are some things you might want to think about.  Sometimes there are offers that, while posing as a rebate, might turn out to...


Viruses, Trojans, Scams, and Spam

Not very long ago, you had to be really careless and/or really uninformed to fall victim to the various forms of digital mischief lurking in the ether. Viruses, Trojans, scams and spam were relatively easy to avoid. All you needed was a little basic information...


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Symantec's "all in one"
Norton System Works Professional

Despite some limitations under Windows XP, Symantec’s software suite is still a good choice for both experienced and beginning users- if you’re prepared to spend some time with the manual. XP users may want to weigh the benefits against the cost, as the package remains decidedly 98/ME-centric.

Looking for this software?  Get it here...

Software for system maintenance...

If you like tinkering with your computer, you’re probably familiar with the Norton line of system utility software. A long-time leader in the field, Symantec’s mix of products has enjoyed widespread popularity since the early days of PC computing.

Our first Norton package came on 5.25 format disks, and we’ve owned every version since. We’ve tried some competitors through the years, but for value and reliability we’ve always returned to Norton.

By way of a disclaimer, our long familiarity with Norton products makes it hard to be objective. There’s a certain amount of nostalgia attached, back to the days of DOS and Windows 3.1, when these tools were absolutely essential, through Windows 98, where they reached a peak of usefulness.

Although it remains a good value, Norton’s Utility package has begun to show its age, with the bulk of its contents weighted toward Windows 98 and ME installations. Regardless of the file system chosen, Windows XP users will find a significantly reduced set of features. We still recommend it (even for XP), but strongly suggest you seek out rebate enhanced or deep-discount pricing.

Your attention, please…
If you’re just starting out, Norton’s in-depth documentation serves as an excellent source for learning about your computer’s file system. The tools included are both powerful and easy to use- even for beginners. Fail to follow the instructions, though, and you could find yourself reinstalling Windows (and/or other software) just to get things back the way they were.

This is system-level software, containing tools that enable you to peer into and modify sections of your computer that normally are difficult to reach, if not impossible. Use it right and you’ll keep your system running smoothly. Use it carelessly, and you’re apt to regret ever having used it at all.

The software is not without its quirks, and Google Groups is full of posts from those who rail against it. The safest course is always to make a full system backup before trying software of this type, and always to proceed with caution.

Unlike application software, these types of programs require attention and forethought- some more so than others. You have to pay attention to the manuals, information screens, settings, and help files. You have to think about what each program is designed to do, and the effect it will have, before you run it. Otherwise, you’re almost certain to do more harm than good.

On the other hand, learning what these tools are for, as well as how and when to use them, is a good entry point for learning more about the most important parts of your computer.

A mixed bag of packages
Norton software comes in a variety of packages, each of which may be purchased separately, but the best value comes in one of the System Works collections- particularly when you can get it at a steep discount from its somewhat hefty list price. System Works contains Norton Utilities, Norton Clean Sweep, Norton Antivirus, and a version of Roxio’s GoBack system restoration software. For those who have a use for it, the addition of Norton Ghost makes the System Works Professional package the best deal of all. With Symantec’s aggressive rebate offers, you frequently can get the total package for a fraction of the price of any one of these alone.

Windows XP owners need to be aware though- not all System Works components work within the XP environment, and some of those that function in XP may perform a little differently than expected. To be fair, this is probably more about improvements in XP than a shortfall on Symantec’s part- the newer system simply doesn’t need as much assistance as 9x/ME required. Unneeded or incompatible features (including some familiar ones) don’t install to an XP system, so you’re not saddled with installed software that can’t be safely used.

Note: Complicating matters further under XP, if you’re setting up the package on a system normally used under XP’s “limited user” log in accounts, it may take some experimentation with the “run as” options to get scheduled tasks (like virus scans and updates) to run as expected.

We recently (Winter, 2003) installed System Works 2003 on our main computer, a 1 GHz PIII running Windows XP Professional. This system uses FAT32 on the partitions of a 40 GB hard drive, which (under XP) limits some automated features of the Norton set designed to work with the current standard NTFS file system. The system has 512 MB RAM, which helps to offset its “slow” (by current standards) CPU.

Here’s what we found:

Norton Utilities
The core of the package is the venerable Norton Utilities suite, a collection of diagnostic and active tools for monitoring and maintaining your system. The installer seems to assume that an XP system will have an NTFS rather than a FAT file system, and omits most FAT specific tools.

Although NTFS is by all accounts superior and far less prone to errors, it is not immune to them. If serious errors do occur, they’re more difficult to fix- and Norton’s tool set is less capable within this environment. The advanced DOS-based disk editor, for example, is designed for the various flavors of FAT. It will not work for an NTFS formatted disk.

On the other hand, disk repair is a chancy, time-consuming proposition that requires a lot of skill. The low price of hard drives, CD burners, and even DVD writers makes frequent full backups using imaging software a more practical and reliable “fail-safe” solution than attempting to repair a failed drive. Likewise, an uninterruptible power supply will go a long way toward preventing file system errors caused by inadvertent shutdowns due to power failures (a very common source of such malfunctions), and these have become downright cheap. Backups and a UPS are by far your most important system safeguards. These should be in place before any other issues are addressed. Your system isn’t properly set up without them.

Combined with the improved reliability and spaciousness of modern hard drives, proper system setup makes the “missing” features under XP less important than they used to be. Here’s what remains:

Speed Disk
Speed Disk replaces Microsoft’s Defrag, adding more control and marginally faster operation. In an XP computer with an NTFS file system, you can still automate the defragmentation process so it runs on a schedule or activates at a user-defined fragmentation level. You can use this feature with FAT32 file systems under Windows XP, but Symantec recommends against it.

If you like to experiment, Speed Disk lets you fiddle with the arrangement of files on your hard drive, putting the most frequently modified files last, for example. This can make the process take much longer, and the value’s theoretical at best. We’ve played around with this in the past, but are now content to stay with the default settings.

In our experience, Speed Disk can succeed when Defrag has failed, especially where deeply nested directory structures are involved. Under XP, it no longer attempts defragmentation of the Windows “virtual memory” swap file- but (considering how often the contents change) the value of this function has always been questionable. Whatever version of Windows is on your machine, Speed Disk is one of the best defragmentation tools around.

Disk Doctor
As Speed Disk to Defrag, Norton’s replacement for Microsoft’s ScanDisk has always been superior. Disk Doctor works where ScanDisk sometimes won’t- sorting through extremely complex folder trees. We were somewhat put off, though, by the lack of automation features when installed with XP. On the plus side, under FAT32, it’s a lot more convenient than Microsoft’s current implementation, which reverts to command line operations and requires rebooting the computer.

This feature works as expected on our system, but reportedly will only provide a graphical front end to Microsoft’s command line utility in an NTFS installation. We’re also a little bothered by the fact that a surface scan is reduced to checking unused space. For hard drive mechanical analysis, you’ll get more complete results from the free utilities provided by the hard drive manufacturer.

System Doctor
A set of user-selectable system monitors, System Doctor can be an invaluable aid for performing diagnostics, helping to identify (and sometimes automatically correct) performance bottlenecks. Properly set up, System Doctor can be used to identify or investigate existing problems, or to automate some types of maintenance chores.

Overused, it will sap resources and drain performance keeping its readouts refreshed- even on relatively fast computers. We find it best to use this feature only for specific purposes, and only when it’s needed.

One of the most powerful (and therefore dangerous) tools included in the set, Norton’s WinDoctor is potentially disastrously misleading. It appears to offer automated fixes for a host of common Windows problems, but allowing it to make its own repairs without your careful and informed supervision is a sure way to introduce new malfunctions.

Among other things, it makes changes to the system registry (a kind of central index for all the software and settings on the system). Poorly chosen changes will create problems, rather than repair them. Use this software very cautiously, and only if you’re confident of understanding all its many (sometimes hard to decipher) options.

Other Utilities / Recommendation
In addition to those listed, the package includes System Information (a more thorough discovery tool than Microsoft includes), Undelete (more extensive than the recycle bin), and a little program that serves to keep a dialup Internet connection active. Conspicuous by their absence in an XP installation, other utilities in the set include registry and swapfile tools, file comparison, and some others we can’t think of at the moment.

Following an increasingly annoying trend in current software packages, Norton System Works includes cross-marketing hooks to “partnered” extra cost web-based services.

If you have Windows 98 or ME, you probably will need Norton Utilities, and can get full use of all the package contents. For XP, it’s nice to have, but really not as useful. The core features are improvements over Microsoft’s utilities, but a reduced feature set makes it worth considerably less in Windows XP.

Like most modern software, the version on the CD isn’t always the latest in a long line of revisions. You’ll want to run Live Update with a good Internet connection before using any Norton software to ensure you have all the current patches, but it’s especially important with the Utilities.

Norton Antivirus
Anyone who’s reading this online needs good antivirus software- the Internet has made the spread of mischief-making programs quick and easy as multiple vulnerabilities make them almost unavoidable. According to most reviews we’ve seen, Norton’s is consistently the best at detecting and eliminating software designed to harm your system.

You can use cheaper software, but you’ll get pretty much what you pay for. We particularly like Norton’s frequent auto-update feature. The software checks for updates every time you go online, or every four hours while connected. Consequently, your virus definition files are almost always up to date. Current definitions are essential for software of this type, and Symantec’s a leader in the field. As far as we’re concerned, nothing’s better- and many don’t come close.

Norton Antivirus 2004 includes, besides the standard anti-virus/anti-trojan features, a scanner for various adware/scumware/spyware packages that find their way onto so many people's systems.

Among all the software described on this page, Norton Antivirus has the most perceptible effect on performance. Owners of marginal systems may want to alter the defaults to reduce the amount of drag, but we prefer to leave it all enabled. On some other installations, we’ve transformed unacceptable performance by adding more RAM to the system. 256 MB or more is a good working figure, especially for XP systems.

Note: On some systems there can be unwanted interaction between Microsoft Office and Norton Antivirus. This manifests as a malfunction in the “save as” and “print” commands in Word and Excel, resulting in a flashing title bar heralding the non-appearance of the expected dialogue. The cure is either to download the latest set of patches from Microsoft’s Office Update site, or disable Office integration in Norton Antivirus.

Note: On an XP system functioning with limited user accounts, the update features may require logging in as an administrator. Scheduled items like the virus/firewall updates may require setting up with “run-as” administrator passwords.

Norton CleanSweep
When disk space was expensive and hard drives small, every megabyte of storage was precious. Uninstall routines were unreliable, and they routinely left debris behind in the form of no longer needed files, consuming expensive hard drive real estate. This gave rise to a slew of programs like Norton CleanSweep, of which only a couple still survive. In theory (and usually in practice), such programs are more reliable and thorough than some uninstall routines, removing more discarded junk from your hard drive.

If you let it make a backup of the software to be removed, CleanSweep guards against the common problem of inadvertently removing shared dll’s, allowing you to undo an uninstall. After uninstalling software, it’s always a good idea to exercise your system to ensure the removal stayed within intended boundaries.

Although disk space preservation is no longer the compelling factor in removing software, computers just work better when they don’t have to deal with files related to unused, abandoned applications. Disk maintenance is faster, and backups become more manageable. Given a choice, we always keep our systems as lean as possible- installing only software that is going to be used, uninstalling anything that’s not.

CleanSweep works best when invoked before an installation, so it doesn’t have to “figure out” what files and changes are related to specific applications. Even when applied post-installation, though, it does a good and thorough job. The main feature, in our minds, is CleanSweep’s ability to back up all the files removed by an uninstall, including registry entries. This enables reinstallation if you change your mind. It’s particularly useful for removing factory bundled software from a new machine, preserving your option to reinstall it later without having to resort to a restoration disk.

The length of time CleanSweep retains a backup is user-selectable, so be sure it’s set to suit your purpose.

In theory, you could use the backup/restore feature to move an application to another system, or to a new location on the original. This could be invaluable for rearranging applications on partitioned drives. Success in doing so will vary with specifics- we’d recommend an imaged backup of your boot drive first, before attempting it.

CleanSweep includes an option called “Fast and Safe Cleanup”. As with all semi-automated utilities, you’ll want to review the default settings. With the system cleanup option, it may remove files you’d prefer to keep, so be sure you understand exactly what it’s set to do- before setting it in motion.

Note: CleanSweep doesn’t work for removing/backing up/restoring MS Office and some other well-known packages. Be sure to take a look at the “Read Me” file before relying on it.

Roxio GoBack
More thorough and more customizable than Microsoft’s ME/XP “restore” utility, GoBack promises to undo unforeseen effects of botched software installs, ill-considered downloads, and incompatible driver installations.

Some people swear by this software; others swear at it. We’re not ashamed to say we’ve never tried it. Last time we looked, this program was promoted as an alternative to backing up your hard drive. Although it could be useful in negating some kinds of relatively minor problems, there is no substitute for frequent system backups- especially when the problems become major.

Norton Ghost
Programs like GoBack or the Microsoft Restore utility won’t help a bit with a serious system failure. In the absence of a backup, they can be worse than useless. For full system backups to external media, nothing beats disk-imaging software. Norton Ghost is included in the System Works Professional package, and the bundled price makes it a best choice for anyone who doesn’t have this kind of program in his tool kit. We’ve always used the similar PowerQuest DriveImage, but all reviews we’ve seen rate the programs as generally equivalent.

This kind of backup works best with a removable hard drive, but is good enough with a CD writer and a little patience. Because of the size of modern hard drives, it can be a very time consuming chore. To help get the process to more manageable proportions, we recommend judicious use of PowerQuest’s Partition Magic.

Integrated Interface / Live Update
The System Works package includes a fairly slick integrated interface to all the Norton programs, even those installed separately (like Norton Personal Firewall). Unlike components of some utility suites, the Norton products share a consistent look and feel, with the most-used options readily accessible and more arcane settings buried behind links, buttons, and tabs. This can be an irritation if you’re looking for advanced settings, but the help files are detailed, informative, and sometimes the quickest way to find what you’re looking for. Considering that the software is meant for both experienced and beginning users, it’s a reasonable arrangement- even if it takes some getting used to.

The Live Update feature allows you to connect with Symantec’s web site to automatically download and install program updates and patches for all installed Norton software. Unlike the automated virus updates, this is a manually invoked feature- one that ought to be employed before using any of these programs, and periodically thereafter. Also unlike virus/firewall definitions (which require an annual subscription), Live Update is good for the life of the product. We recently installed a used copy of Norton Utilities 2000 on a newly built Windows 98 machine, and the Live Update feature ran without a hitch.

Note: Live Update installs the latest patches and revisions for your software version. It does not upgrade an older to a newer version.

Norton Personal Firewall
Oddly not included in the System Works package, Norton Personal Firewall is a stand-alone product; also available bundled with Norton Antivirus in a package called Internet Security. Is that confusing enough?

It does make sense though, since not everyone’s a candidate for Norton System Works, and the Internet Security package offers attractive pricing on the antivirus/firewall combo. For our purposes, the stand-alone version rounds out our Norton installation.

As with antivirus software, there are many firewall vendors. Norton’s is highly rated (earning frequent “best buys” from professional reviewers) and extremely easy to install and configure. It integrates nicely with the other Norton products, and is included in the Live Update process, making it convenient to keep the program up to date along with the rest of your Norton software.

We see no performance hit in running this software, but the “popup ad” blocker doesn’t seem to work consistently. No doubt, advertisers will be quick to find a way to circumvent any efforts to ignore them. Not convinced you need firewall software?
Click here…

Our recommendation
If you have 2002 versions of this software, there is little reason to upgrade. On the other hand, obtaining a good buy on the current version can be cheaper than renewing a virus/firewall update subscription.

One final caveat: If you’re apt to need technical support, you can use the online knowledge base at Symantec, or pay a steep “per incident” support fee that will rapidly exceed the cost of the software.

Symantec’s aggressive marketing and bundle rebate deals make it easy to acquire the full set of software at attractive prices. In combination with assorted retail promotions, it can be irresistible. For example, we purchased System Works 2003, Norton Personal Firewall 2003, and Intuit’s TurboTax at Amazon.com. Assuming we receive all associated rebates, we’ll get back a couple of dollars more than we paid, including shipping. It’s hard to beat a deal like that, but rebates aren’t for everyone.

If you don’t already have a Norton product, you won’t qualify for “upgrade” pricing, and if you’ve been burned once too often by non-forthcoming rebate deals you may prefer to avoid them. In that situation, you may want to look into deep discount pricing for previous version or “CD only” packages. If you go this route, avoid OEM packages: they include just 90 days of antivirus and/or firewall updates. Retail packaging includes a full year from the date of installation, essential for the antivirus/firewall products.

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