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Utility software programs to unclutter your PC.

Utility software programs to unclutter your PC In recent year, the personal computer has become almost as common a fixture in the clinical laboratory as the microscope. PCs are used for every conceivable application and in every lab department.

Like many other MLO readers, I use a PC for word processing, database management, stastical analysis, budgeting, and scheduling. Over the last two years, I have learned to use a host of utility programs that make my job easier. A few hundred dollars, less than the cost of most major software, has brought me half a dozen programs that help my computer run faster and more efficiently while protecting data from accidental loss or corruption. I now consider utility programs more than useful--they are necessary additions to a laboratory information system manager's repertoire of computer tools.

IBM (and compatible) computers primarily utilize MS-DOS as an operating system, a combination of external disk-based programs, such as chkdsk.exe and format.exe, and interal ROM-based programs, such as copy, del, and dir. These DOS programs are designed to manage da-to-day computer activities. Unfortunately, many vital features are either missing in DOs or so cumbersome to use that they are generally ignored.

Utility programs concentrate on one or two specific functions or equip to user with a whole range of DOS substitutions. For example, those who have used a computer for more than a short time have probably experienced the sinking feeling that they just accidentally erased an important document they spent all day writing. With DOS, a file that has been deleted is irrevocably and unalterably gone. The Norton Utilities, however, include a rescue program that will undelete a file or even an entire subdirectory.

The following is a compendium of some of the more popular utilities, almost all available for under $200 each. Most can be obtained at substantial discounts. I use some of them every day, others monthly, and some, I am grateful to say, rarely. Having these programs allows me to keep my mind on T4/T8 ratios, Stats, and reagents rather than worrying about my computer.

The nationwide chain Egghead Discount Software (22011 S.E. 51 St., Issaquah, WA 98027-7004) offers most of the products described in this article at well under list price. The toll-free number is (800) EGGHEAD.

An alternative is mail order. For this, my choice is PC Connection in Marlow, N.H., at (800) 243-8088.

* Software. Software is your first and best defense against computer downtime. It's generally inexpensive, relatively easy to install and use, and a real lifesaver. My favorites follow. Addresses and telephone numbers of the software companies of products mentioned in this article, alphabetized by product name, can be found in Figure I, which includes current list prices as well.

Norton Utilities. If there's one product I wouldn't be without, it's the famous Norton Utilities, now owned by Symantec. One dark, stormy morning, your hard disk will announce, "Sorry, I no longer exist." The existential dilemma, inherent to all computers, will materialize when the CAP inspector is on the way, no one has updated the Levey--Jennings plots for a week, and you haven't backed up the system since last year.

Call on the Norton Disk Doctor, one of the Norton Utilities. The program will restore health, vitality, and files to your hard disk. Other helpful utilities include UnErase and Unremove Directory, which retrieve deleted files and subdirectories. The entire series of about a dozen programs is accessed through a single integrated pull-down menu.

Fastback Plus. Probably the most neglected part of computer housekeeping is copying important files to disks or tape. Backing up is essential because even rescue utility programs can't prevent a hard disk succumbing to some intractable disorder, heretofore unknown to even computer experts--and failing.

For an inexpensive insurance policy, try Fastback Plus, from Fifth Generation Systems. The program quickly and easily creates foolproof backups. It copies designated files to just about any format disk, including tape units and Bernoulli cartridges. As the backup proceeds, files are compressed, thus saving floppy disk space.

I perform a full backup of everything on my hard disk each month. Once a week--for particularly important projects, once a day--I make incremental backups of data files. My scheme includes rotating one set of disks at the office and one at home so that if the office disks are damaged, another set is available.

Magellan. Lotus Development Corporation's Magellan is a hard disk and file management tool for finding, viewing, and organizing all the information on your computer. It's similar to XTREE and QDOS--programs that act as shells for DOS--but it does substantially more. Magellan will win you over within minutes because of its unique and easily accessed features.

Imagine searching through 80 megabytes of your hard disk and finding files by file name or by any word in a file name in a few seconds. Once Magellan has found the file for you, it doesn't merely give you the file name but also allows you to see the contents of the file, just as if you were working in it. This is accomplished through viewers specifically designed for programs like WordStar, dBase, Lotus 1-2-3, Paradox, WordPerfect, and many more.

As you scroll through the list of file names, the screen changes to give you a quick look at each file. Once you have found the one you're looking for, you can delete, rename, copy, move, and (most important) gather data from an assortment of files--word processing files, spreadsheets, databases--and create a new, hybrid file of your choosing. Another feature lets the user edit small ASCII files (like DOS batch files). At your command, Magellan will immediately launch into the program associated with the file you are viewing.

Disk Technician Gold. Most hard disks have a few bad spots. Manufacturers of hard disks add extra space to their disks and "lock out" the faulty areas, technically known as "bad sectors," thereby giving you the size you paid for. For example, a 30-mb hard disk really contains about 33 mb, although you'll have access to only 30 of them. Without getting too technical, a bad sector might be compared with a long-playing album with scratches.

Every so often, the surface of the hard disk will develop new bad sectors. The cause may be a weak spot on the surface of the disk or even loud rock music. The problem arises when a program or a data file sits on that sector.

Disk Technician Gold from Prime Solutions is an essential ingredient in taking care of your hard disk. I run mine daily, weekly, and monthly. It looks for soft and hard errors on the hard disk, notes where the error occurs and how significant the problem is, and takes corrective action if necessary. The program runs automatically and requires no technical skill.

PC-Kwik Power Pak. Struggling along with a slow computer can be frustrating. Older-model PCs, such as XTs and ATs, benefit from speed-up software. The easiest and cheapest way to make a slow computer run faster is to use a disk caching program.

Here's how it works. The software sets aside part of the computer's memory to keep track of what you're doing. Every time you access something from the disk, the program stores it temporarily in memory. It watches your keystrokes; if you ask for the same data, you'll get it from memory rather than from the disk. In no time you will notice a dramatic improvement in the speed of your system.

The most versatile software of this type is PC-Kwik Power Pak from Multisoft. It includes a top-rated disk-caching program and a package of other sophisticated speed-up utilities as well: print spooling, screen and keyboard accelerator, and others. The manual is a delight and will teach you a great deal about how memory works in your computer.

If you have at least 1 mb of memory on the system board, a disk caching program is a perfect way to make use of memory that is otherwise unused. Whatever the clock speed of your computer, you will see a difference with the help of a disk cache.

PC-Kwik Power Disk. Fragmented files on a hard disk are like a shuffled deck of cards. All the cards are there, but it takes more time to put your finger on the right one because they're all mixed up.

Here's why: The computer is not bright. As files are deleted, open spaces are created. When you write new files to the disk, DOS sticks them wherever it finds room. You end up with files that are fragmented throughout your hard disk.

DOS keeps track of where everything is located, but one result is to slow disk access time considerably. The more you work, the more your files will be strewn about the disk. Disk-optimizing software offers fast and safe relief by defragmenting your files and directories and consolidating the scattered pieces.

Multisoft's PC-Kwik Power Disk takes an intelligent approach to optimization. It can be run from an easy-to-follow menu or from a batch file. The powerful command-line option is designed for daily reorganizing based on the level of file fragmentation, the day of the week, and whether defragmentation has taken place that day. The program is flexible, with three well-explained ways to restructure the files. Power Disk also supplies a useful hard disk diagnostic tool. With daily or even weekly organization, it can fre you of DOS fragmentation follies.

Printcache. LaserTools' startlingly fast RAM-resident print buffer, Printcache, is the most powerful and fastest printer buffer available. Basically, the program intercepts data heading for the printer and buffers it into a hard disk, DOS, EMS, or extended memory. The benefit is that you can work with other programs while Printcache is busy getting data to the printer.

Pintcache requires as little as 6K of conventional memory with no performance loss, if you're willing to forgo the pop-up menu. Installation is painless. The program works with serial and parallel printers, all the Hewlett-Packard Laser-JEts, and the HP DeskJet and compatible printers as well as with dot matrix and daisy wheel printers. Although some word processing program, such as Wordstar and WordPerfect, already print in the background (that is, while you do something else on the computer), you'll still notice a remarkable increase in speed with Printcache, especially used on a laser printer.

* Hardware. Adding accessory hardware is like having your car tuned. You can limp along, increasingly in need of that tuneup. Once it's done, however, you wonder how you lived without it.

Math coprocessor. A math coprocessor is a special chip that I find indispensable for all the number crunching I do. The chip senses when a program is performing a mathematical function and takes over the job at a significantly faster pace than you could achieve without it. All computers are capable of accepting a coprocessor. Be sure to have the vendor match the coprocessor to the machine's main processing chip (the 80286, 80386sx, 80386, and so on). Installation is best left to a qualified technician. Typical applications include DNA data analysis, spreadsheets, and other math and statistical programs. Math coprocessors are available at most computer stores.

Long-lasting battery. When your computer is shut down for the night, batteries store the essential setup information, including the hard disk type, number of floppies, and monitor type. When the batteries weaken, you'll get strange and mysterious messages.

The first symptoms may be as benign as having the time and date fall behind. Your computer may produce floppy read/write errors. Worse yet, your hard disk may refuse to boot. Rayovac makes a sealed alkaline long-term battery that is easy to install and lasts for about four or five years. On request, the company will provide Cross-reference Guide OEM 93, which will tell you whether battery model number 844, which can be accomodated by most PC's, will work in yours.

* Act now. Don't wait for an emergency to force you into buying one or more of these important programs. If you can justify purchasing only one to start, I recommend Fastback Plus. That way, if your hard disk does fail, you will know your data are safe. Second in line is Norton Utilities for its many valuable features.

Buy what you can afford; then learn to use it right away, before an emergency strikes. Somehow, the data you lose are always the data you needed most.

The author is supervisor of the flow cytometry laboratory at St. Joseph Medical Center, Burbank, Calif.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes manufacturer information
Author:Bass, Judy
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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