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Software that makes computers easier to use; CPAs should find this list of utilities helpful for all tasks performed on hardware.

Computers are complex machines, often challenging even knowledgeable users. In response, software companies have developed a wide assortment of inexpensive software tools, called utilities, designed to make computers easier and safer to operate and more productive.

Utility software programs do a variety of important chore. Some ferret out and solve hardware and software problems. Others make loading application programs easy. Still others simplify the cumbersome job of moving or copying files from one directory to another. Some speed up and automate data backups or retrieve lost documents. A handful even secure a computer against unauthorized people or simply restrict people from gaining access to a specified set of files.

This article describes the various types of utilities that accountants might find useful when working on their own computers or on clients' systems.

Many of the program perform several utility functions; thus they are listed in more than one function category. All of the programs included in this article are available from local software retailers or through software mail-order companies.

MANAGING FILES AND PROGRAMS

DOS shells are one of the most popular utilities. They are called shells because they provide a separation from the disk operating system (DOS), the complex software that every computer needs to function. Because DOS shells all come with a simple menu to call up programs or to perform file and disk management, the user never has to ideal with DOS directly. With most shells, a simple keystroke or a mouse click triggers an order; under DOS, on the other hand, a batch of keystrokes would be required to evoke a command.

Loading a DOS shell for the first time is easy because the installation process usually is automatic. Equally easy is customizing the menu of application programs to a user's needs.

Available products: Automenu, DOS 5, DR DOS, File Director, Magellan, Norton Commander, PC Tools, Power Panel, TakeCharge!, XTree Gold.

HARDWARE DIAGNOSTICS

Occasionally accountants need to know what hardware components are inside a computer without actually removing the cover. This information is very important when installing additional hardware, such as tape backups or network cards or when an application program reports that it is out of memory.

A hardware diagnostic utility can provide a report on an assortment of technical details, offering recommended solutions to hardware and memory problems.

In addition, these programs can run series of diagnostics, checking that the hardware and software are in good working order. As a result, they often provide an early warning of an impending failure.

Available products: CheckIt, Disk Technician Pro, System Sleuth.

RECOVERING LOST DATA

Few computer accidents are more upsetting then an unintentionally erased file. Several utilities are effective in fully restoring such files. In some cases, utilities can recover a file even after an accidental hard disk format, which is a programming step that first clears the hard disk's magnetic surface and then prepares it to receive new data. Formats usually are done only when a disk is new, but a keystroke error in DOS can wipe a hard disk clean.

Most file-recovery utilities also can evaluate both the physical and data integrity of a disk without disturbing data already on the disk. In some cases, they can even reformat the disk without disturbing the existing data. And under some circumstances, they can repair an unbootable (defective) disk so that all the data it contains can be recovered.

But sometimes users not only want to erase a file but also want to be sure no one can recover it. Just as paper files can be shredded for confidentiality, so can some utilities provide certainty that erased electronic files cannot be reconstructed. This may be especially important before selling a computer

Available products: DOS 5, DR DOS, Norton Utilities, Mace utilities, PC Tools.

BOOSTING COMPUTER SPEED

Disk caches improve the data transfer rate, or the rate at which data from the hard disk are routed into the processor. Such utilities often are more effective, although much less expensive, than a new disk drive.

A cache program reads frequently used information from the hard disk and stores it in random access memory (RAM). Since data in RAM can be accessed more swiftly than data in the hard disk, a computer with a cache operates strikingly faster.

Available products: DOS 5, DR DOS, PC Tools, Super PC-Kwik.

DISK OPTIMIZERS

Sometimes computer performance can be significantly improved by simply rearranging the way data are stored on the hard disk, a job that is performed by disk-optimizing utilities.

Data are first recorded sequentially, in logically adjacent clusters. As new files are written to disk and files updated with new and amended data, the new and altered clusters are recorded in the next available free space on the disk--and that often is far from the original file. Such separation of related data is called fragmentation. It's the physical separation, and the need for the computer to gather it all together when it's requested, that slows an operation.

Disk optimizers rearrange the data so all relevant clusters are contiguous; the computer then finds the data more quickly.

One product, SpinRite, goes further. When computer hard disks are initially formatted, the computer identifies bad spots on the surface of the disk and refuses to store data on those places. But often the computer is mistaken. SpinRite is able to determine such errors and will let the computer use those places and even, in some instances, repair a bad spot on a disk. In addition, the utility tunes and aligns some mechanical components of the disk drive so the computer operates faster and is less prone to problems.

Available products: FastTrax, Norton Utilities, Mace Utilities, PC-Kwik Power Disk, PC Tools, SpinRite.

FILE COMPRESSION

Over time, even large hard disks become croweded. That's when a user must decide whether to clean out the least important programs and files or get a larger disk. Another alternative is to use a file-compression utility that squeezes files into a fraction of their original space.

In file compression, any empty space between the bits of data are eliminated and repeated data are coded so redundancies can be eliminated. This type of utility is particularly effective for storing or archiving spreadsheet and database files, which typically require a lot of space.

One disadvantage of using compressed files is a loss of speed: Each time a file is called up, it must be decompressed before use. However, some programs do this so quickly the user is hardly aware of the process. It helps, too, if the computer is an especially fast model.

There is also a slight danger when files are compressed and decompressed (also called zipping and unzipping): In some instances, a few bytes of data may be altered or lost, which is why it's always prudent to keep an unzipped copy of the original data on a floppy disk.

Available products: PKZip, Stacker.

PASSWORD PROTECTION

Computer information can be easily encoded, making it unreadable without the proper cipher to decode it. Encryption software uses a mathematical formula, or algorithm, derived from the password the user selects. Even if unauthorized people have the encryption program, it does them no good without the secret user-supplied password.

For safety's sake, it's important to make an unencrypted backup of a file and store the copy separately in case the algorithm is lost or the translation fails.

Another solution is password protection. Programs are available that provide various levels of security. Password protection sometimes is available in menu programs, DOS shell programs or individual application programs.

Available products: Code Name: Password, DiskLock, DR DOS, FastLock, Norton Utilities, PC Tools.

PRINTER HELP

When printing a long document, a user typically has to wait until the job is complete before being able to use the computer fully. That's because much of the available memory is being used to print. Print spoolers solve that problem. The data to be printed are stored on a special hard disk file or in unused RAM and fed to the printer in bursts as needed, freeing the rest of the computer for other operations.

Most network operating systems contain a print spooler.

Available product: PrintCache.

DATA BACKUP

Computer users should always back up files to ensure against data loss. But DOS's backup program is slow and lacks automatic features. In addition, DOS's backup program does not test for corrupted files or for damaged floppy disks as most other backup utilities do.

In addition, some utilities even compress the data to save space on the backup disks. Some also format empty floppy disks during backup--a big time-saver. And many automate the process, allwoing unattended backup at a specified time.

Available products: DR DOS, Fastback, Norton Backup, PC Tools.

VIRUS DETECTION

Computer viruses are small, stealthy programs that cause havoc on a computer. (For more on viruses, see "Protection Against Computer Viruses," JofA, May91, page 121.) They can reside in a computer for long periods before they manifest themselves; in the meantime, they may infect other files used in the computer.

Utilities are available to detect known viruses and recover corrupted files. However, no program can detect all of them; so while utilities are helpful, they shouldn't be relied on exclusively.

Available products: CheckIt, Cleanup, Norton Utilities, PC Tools, Scan.

KEYBOARD MACROS

Many application programs require a large number of keystrokes to evoke certain functions. A keyboard macro utility records the keystrokes for each function and codes them; the user then can call up the stored commands by typing an appropriate one-or-two-key code.

Although most modern application programs contain their own macros, many old programs lack them, so the utility is especially useful to make an old program more user-friendly.

Available product: Keyworks Advanced.

SCREEN SAVERS

Screen savers help the user to control the monitor display. Some simply blank the screen after the keyboard is not used for a designated period of time; the process prolongs the life of a screen. If a stationary image is allowed to remian on the screen day after day, it burns in, or etches, its outline into the phosphorus surface of the screen; a burned-in image resembles a continuous shadow. Many DOS shell menu programs include screen-saver options.

Some users don't like screen blanking. They're afraid they may forget the machine is on. Worse, an observer may think the machine is not on and toggle the power button, turning off the machine, which could result in data loss or even a damaged hard disk. To solve this problem, some of the more innovative screen controllers have added displays of moving images that appear on the screen after a period of time. Moving images pose no danger because they don't stay on any part of the screen long enough to burn in their images.

Available products: AfterDark, Burnout, PC Tools, Pyro!, VGA Dimmer.

SCREEN ENHANCERS

These utilities allow the user to modify the number of columns and rows displayed on the screen and change screen colors and the size, shape and blink rate of the cursor. Some even allow the user to change monitor type fonts and sizes for easier reading. A few application programs include such options.

The utilities are especially useful for lap-top computers because their screens are not as easy to read as desktop models.

Available products: Norton Utilities, PC Tools, Ultra Vision.

MEMORY MANAGERS

No DOS version before DR DOS and the just-released DOS 5.0 can handle more than 640 kilobytes of RAM; that puts a severe limit on application programs.

Utilities with memory managers get around that limitation: Some such utilities use strictly software techniques to fool DOS into handling a larger

RAM while other utilities work together with additional hardware to expand the memory.

Memory management is a very complex field. As a result, rather than try to teach users how to adjust software to maximum memory, most memory utilities not only load automatically but, after reading the configuration of the computer, also adjust themselves to prevent memory conflicts. These memory utilities also allow the computer to make optimum use of the available hardware.

Available products: Above Disc, DOS 5.0, DR DOS, QEMM-386, Turbo EMS, 386MAX.

Memory managers are available for memory-resident programs (those that can be evoked with a keystroke even while other programs are operating): Mark/Release, PopDrop.

DATA TRANSLATIONS

A computer file prepared in one application program usually can't be read by another. For example, a report prepared in WordStar isn't readable in WordPerfect or MultiMate. Some translation utilities can convert not only word processing files but also spreadsheets and databases, eliminating the need to reenter the data.

Available products: Outside In, Software Bridge.

FILE TRANSFER

File transfer utilities allow the user to move or copy files from one computer to another via a cable connection. Most of the programs show a split screen, with the files of one computer on one side and the files of the second computer on the other. These utilities have become very popular with lap-top computer users who need to interface with desktop units.

Available products: Brooklyn Bridge, Desklink, Laplink.

COMBINATION UTILITIES

Three programs--Norton Utilities, PC Tools and Mace Utilities--contain in one package many of the functions mentioned in this article.

Although they may offer more utility power than many users need, it's convenient having them available.

Users should be aware that the utilities mentioned in this article are very powerful tools. Used correctly, they can be very helpful; used incorrectly, they can cause more problems than they fix, so the manuals mutt be read thoroughly before anyone tries to use the utilities.

Safety-conscious users always should back up files. In that way, if a mistake is made, at least the stored information will not be lost.

EVELYN R. MICHAUD, CPA, CMA, is a sole practitioner in Flower Mound, Texas. She is a member of the American Institute of CPAs management advisory services computer applications subcommittee and the Texas Society of CPAs MIS planning and advisory committee. WILLIAM J. NILES, CPA, is a partner of Niles & Company, Wichita Falls, Texas. He is a member of the AICPA computer applications subcommittee and the Texas Society's MIS committee.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Niles, William J.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Words:2344
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