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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System Mechanic v8.5

System Mechanic, from Iolo Technologies LLC, is a lot more than just a disk and registry cleanup tool. Instead, this product aims to tune your entire system for peak performance. System Mechanic doesn't try to provide details over which you have no control, so you're not going to be getting reports on your video card or processor performance. It will let you optimize just about everything else on your system, far outstripping Norton Utilities in its capabilities.

Once you install System Mechanic -- which has the same annoying registration code process that's become all too common lately -- the first thing you see is a dashboard that offers a high-level view of your overall system health. The test system, with its years of debris, was rated as being in fair condition, with only its security ranking high. This was a fair assessment.

If you prefer to be the fire-it-up-and-forget-it type of user, you can tell System Mechanic to take over and clear up the problems it finds. On the other hand, you can control each detail to the extent you want and tell System Mechanic exactly what you want optimized and what you don't.

A good example of this is with System Mechanic's disk defragmenter. In addition to viewing the level of fragmentation in a graphic, you can also choose to see a report that gives you a better view of the graphical representation, and a list of fragmented files and the extent to which they suffer fragmentation. You can choose not to defragment some files if you wish.

System Mechanic also gives you near-total control over what the package does automatically. Its ActiveCare function lets you select each function you want done automatically, or you can just set the program to just do everything automatically without involving you at all. While this won't suit those of us who are too geeky to leave well enough alone, for most users, this is a valuable choice. But because you can decide exactly how much you want System Mechanic to do, it's also a real time-saver.

Still, there are some areas in which System Mechanic duplicates what you can already do with Windows. For example, the System Details feature in System Mechanic gives you the same information you can already get from Windows. System Mechanic simply makes the information slightly more convenient to find.

Some features, such as the registry tools, perform the same tasks that they do with other products, but not necessarily in the same way. For example, I had System Mechanic perform a registry cleaning, and it found only about 850 of the 1,200 or so problems that Norton Utilities had found. So I cleaned those and ran it again. It found about 350 more, making the total number of Registry fixes about the same for these two products, but it took System Mechanic two tries.

Disk cleaners

System Mechanic

Click to view larger image.

On the other hand, there are functions that, of the three products reviewed here, only System Mechanic can perform, such as memory defragmentation. The product also claims to optimize your network connection. While it doesn't explain how this is accomplished, System Mechanic did report that my Internet connection was able to deliver about 25Mbit/sec., which isn't bad, since the cable connection that Cox Communications Inc. delivers is 6Mbit/sec. However, Cox does provide greater bandwidth when needed if the network capacity is available, so it's unclear how much of this was because of optimization and how much was because of a provider with a fast network and a light load.

What is especially nice about System Mechanic is that it gives you options and, for the most part, not just another way to run Windows utilities. The options can include a hands-off approach to optimizing your computer, or it can be as hands-on as you like.

Equally important, the program doesn't waste effort on things over which it has no control. While it will tell you what you have for hardware, it doesn't bother to report performance details on things it can't fix.

However, there is one area where it shows its limitations. System Mechanic includes a utility called DriveSense that reports on the health of your disk drives so it can warn you of impending failure. But it works only with storage that's not part of a RAID array or virtualized in any way. In this test, it was unable to perform this function on the terabyte RAID 1 array in the test system, although when the original EIDE drive was attached, it worked fine.

The focus on utility and choice makes System Mechanic useful in that it does what can be done to improve the performance of your computer, it can do it automatically, and it presents itself in a way that's as clutter-free as you wish. If you want one-touch optimization, this is your path to happiness.

Even better, if you can't keep yourself from tweaking everything that's tweakable, like me, you'll be a very happy geek.

Conclusions

If all you need to do is clear up your hard disk or maybe defragment it, then you might as well start with Piriform's CCleaner and other freeware. Its products do what they say they'll do, and they're free.

Norton Utilities and System Mechanic offer more complete disk-cleaning options. Between the two, System Mechanic is the better deal. It does everything Norton Utilities does, plus a lot that Norton Utilities doesn't do. In addition, System Mechanic gives experienced users a much better level of control.

Both Norton Utilities and System Mechanic have things you need to be aware of, however. Norton Utilities is largely (but not completely) a means of running existing Windows utilities. You get a nicer interface, but the same functionality. System Mechanic gives you much more, but its DriveSense utility works only with the most basic of hard disks, so if the ability to be able to read the sensors embedded in your hard disk is important to you, check carefully to make sure you'll be able to use this function.

However, even with its limitation, System Mechanic remains the best bang for the buck, even at its full price. Norton Utilities pales by comparison, which is too bad, given its illustrious history.

Wayne Rash is a technology journalist in Washington who has been covering technology news and reviewing computers, software and technology since 1975. He can be reached at wayne@rash.org.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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