Review: 3 disk-cleaning apps declutter your PC's hard drive

Old file fragments and registry detritus can slow down your Windows PC. We tested three well-known disk cleaners to see if they could help.

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Norton Utilities v14

Symantec Corp. bills its Norton Utilities package as a way to keep computers running longer by sprucing up their performance. Gone are the file-recovery tools that once made it famous. In this iteration, Norton Utilities includes tools for managing which programs get loaded when your computer starts and which services are allowed to run at start-up. The package will also clean your Registry of obsolete entries, clean your disk of junk, and defragment your disk and registry.

Beyond the need to enter a long random character key and the requirement to activate the product (a practice perpetuated by Symantec in all of its products), Norton Utilities is quick and easy to install. If you already have other Symantec products, activation is as simple as signing in to your existing account.

When Norton Utilities starts up, you have four areas in which you can take action. Under the "Optimize" tab, you can perform those cleaning functions for which the package is intended. In some cases, such as the Registry cleaning, you're presented with a list of problems the product has identified, and asked for approval to proceed.

In others, such as disk defragmentation, you simply click a button, and the process happens with little feedback or indication of progress, because this is really running the Windows built-in defragmentation utility, which also doesn't tell you much.

The "Monitor" tab lets you check your system performance (via a PassMark rating) and offers a baseline of computers against which you can compare yours. You can also monitor changes to your registry, keep track of changes to your overall system and view which processes are running at any given time.

While the performance monitoring is extensive, Norton Utilities doesn't do much to provide context, so unless you run before-and-after performance tests to see how your system may have improved under the care of Norton Utilities, the number may not tell you a great deal.

The Windows Tools tab is more than just a set of things you can do with Windows. In reality, these icons launch the tools included with Windows such as a disk defragmenter, start-up manager, disk cleaner, Internet file and cookie cleanup, and browser cache cleanup. You can do all this yourself if you look in the Accessories section of the Start menu -- basically, it's a slightly more convenient method of running those same tools.

There's also an administration tab that lets you configure Norton Utilities. You can accomplish the things you'd expect, such as when Norton Utilities should start and in which language it should run. You can create a System Restore Point (something else you can do yourself with Windows), customize the paths that Norton Utilities should use when scanning, view activity logs and set your level of privacy.

Disk cleaners

Norton Utilities

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In other words, most of what's in this version of Norton Utilities are really Windows utilities made more convenient. However, two functions -- the registry tools and the performance monitor -- are tasks you can't do with Windows as it is. By making the Windows utilities more convenient and in some cases setting them to run automatically, you're more likely to use them. And for users not used to digging around inside the Control Panel or the Accessories System folder, this could be the only way these functions will be used.

On the test machine, Norton Utilities found over 1,200 Registry entries with what the software referred to as problems. For the most part, these were entries for software that no longer existed or entries that had been superseded by software upgrades and now pointed to nonexistent locations. The registry defragmentation also found a lot to do in the test machine, and it did appear to improve performance.

The PassMark performance monitor was potentially useful, if only to validate that the changes made a difference. However, much of the performance total is devoted to video performance, and there's nothing Norton Utilities can do about that. Likewise, the CPU performance numbers are characteristics of the computer's hardware, and since Norton Utilities can't speed up your processor or make the cache or memory access faster, you're pretty much stuck with those numbers unless you want to spring for more memory or upgrade to a faster processor.

Norton Utilities is a nice means of keeping all of your system maintenance links in one place, but it delivers little that you can't already do with Windows. The two things it does bring to the table are the registry tools, which really are useful, and the performance monitor, which is interesting but not as useful as you might think.

But if having everything in one place helps you keep your system well-tuned, then this is a good approach.

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