SystemSuite v5

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, March 2005
Published by: VCOM
Requires: Pentium CPU or faster, Windows 98SE/Me/NT4/2000/XP, 64MB RAM, 20-90 MB free disk space, VGA graphics or higher, Internet Explorer 5.01 or later for some features
MSRP: US$59.99

If Goldilocks (of Three Bears fame) were here today, she'd be in one hell of a quandary. Which system maintenance and security utility would she buy? One is too powerful and complex, a second is too weak and untrustworthy. Another is almost right, but too expensive. Yet another is not backed by reliable support. What's a determined little blonde to do? Well smart blondes (and everyone else who isn't a bona fide technogeek) are often best advised to consider a clear middle road in order to access a level of technical maintenance they can understand and control, while at the same time protecting themselves from the potential depredations of viruses, spyware and all sorts of other malicious attacks. SystemSuite 5 has staked out the clear middle ground and posted a sign in front your PC: "Goldilocks and all her friends are welcome—Everybody else stay OUT!"

SystemSuite began life at a company called Mijenix. It was good company, full of smart programmers and smart management. In fact, the company was interesting enough in 2000 to attract the attention of Ontrack Data International which bought Mijenix lock, stock and digital barrel. While that buying and selling was taking place however, another player called V Communications (known popularly as VCOM) was busy expanding its position in the PC utilities and security software market. After receiving what we can only assume was a really nice offer, Ontrack sold its Mijenix PC Utilities division to VCOM. Included in VCOM's purchase were three utilities called EasyUninstall, Internet Cleanup and ZipMagic, all of which have now been sold to another good company called Allume (which itself used to have another name: Aladdin Systems). Now you know who you're buying from although the real reasons why companies horse around like this are often somewhat opaque. Next question: What is SystemSuite 5?

The software is a set of essential PC utilities designed to maintain and protect your PC. The individual utilities, with three exceptions, are fully integrated and accessible through a single main interface. They're designed to improve system performance, provide a strong network and Internet firewall, protect your system against hackers and viruses, diagnose computer problems, recover lost data, protect against e-mail spam, defragment drives and the Windows registry, remove unwanted data, permanently erase data and generally help your PC run better. The three non-integrated utilities are superb. GhostSurf (which allows you to browse the web anonymously) and MailWasher (one of the best anti-spam e-mail tools we've seen) both require separate installations available from the main SystemSuite installation dialog. The third program, PowerDesk 5, is an excellent file selector and manager which adds ZIP/UnZIP functionality to context menus and is almost powerful enough to act as a replacement desktop. These programs are great additions to the SystemSuite 5 bundle but we could wish for a bit of integration into the main interface.

The Fix-It Utilities component is the single most useful PC maintenance utility we've seen in recent years. It may not be as deeply powerful as Symantec's Norton SystemWorks 2005, but it is easier to use. All of the separate functions delve deeply enough into your system to solve problems, but not so deeply as to present you with analysis results which are confounding. For example, the registry cleaner clearly flags references which are safe to delete and also provides progressive warnings about additional entries which may be safe to delete but which deserve investigation before making the decision. Other registry cleaners sometimes leave you with the impression that everything flagged is safe to delete when doing so can cause truly annoying system stability and performance problems. The One-Stop Solutions tools let you click twice and walk away without the need for any additional intervention. The results aren't quite as thorough as the primary tools, but will suffice for a large number of users.

The fully integrated NetDefense Firewall is an advanced personal firewall that is actually a customized version of the venerable and very powerful Sygate software. Back in 1996, Sygate was the go-to software solution for people who wanted to share a single Internet connection among several computers on a home network. The rudimentary Sygate firewall from those days has evolved and kept pace with competing products such as BlackIce and ZoneAlarm. The version integrated into SystemSuite's NetDefense component is very powerful, monitoring and stopping unauthorized incoming and outgoing network and Internet access. If your home or office computer is not protected by a router (which is also a hardware firewall), some sort of firewall software is absolutely necessary to prevent your computer from being compromised as long as it's connected to the Internet or an internal network. NetDefense works particularly well and does not impede or otherwise slow down network or Internet access.

The third primary component of SystemSuite 5 is the fully integrated VirusScanner Pro. The virus signature updater and detection component is based on the widely used Trend Micro engine. It's a very good implementation and Trend Micro does an excellent job of ensuring all its licensees are globally updated with virus signatures and upgrades to the detection engine. Trend Micro runs fully apace with Symantec and the other major antivirus engines in the market. I've been using SystemSuite on and off since 1998 and to the best of my knowledge Trend Micro has never missed (or messed up, or been late with) a signature update. SystemSuite's EasyUpdate feature pops a dialog to let you know when an update is available. VCOM's support pages always contain the latest virus signature update files in case you have to manually download one of them.

The rest of the integrated utility bundle consists of EasyUninstall, BootRepair Recovery, SecurErase, Recovery Commander and the three standalone programs PowerDesk 5, MailWasher and GhostSurf. The names of the integrated components are self-explanatory except perhaps for SecurErase which will permanently and completely erase an entire hard drive in a way that makes the data completely unrecoverable. It's a handy tool to have when you're in the process of discarding, selling or donating drives or complete systems.

The most interesting of the integrated components is Recovery Commander, a low level program that pops up every time you install software. Essentially, it's a replacement for Windows XP's System Restore. I've only had misfortune once or twice which resulted in the need to use System Restore and it wasn't a good experience on the second occasion. In order to check Recovery Commander's batting average without waiting endlessly for a serious system malfunction (let's face it, Windows XP is really not too bad at all), I deliberately deleted a couple of key system files along with their corresponding registry entries, then rebooted. The Recovery Commander restore CD/boot CD created when I installed the latest version of SystemSuite restored the system cleanly by replacing the key system files and (apparently) re-writing the registry entries. I tried the test a second time, setting a recovery point before deleting the files again. I rebooted and elected to roll the system back to the recovery point. Everything came back just fine. It's not a real-world situation, admittedly, but it should give you a reason to actually create a recovery disk when you first install SystemSuite.

Easy Uninstall is only of secondary interest to me. Although the component does a thorough job of completely cleaning out a program, deleting all the stuff normally left behind by the Windows uninstaller which normally works with the uninstaller supplied with all PC software, I advise you to be careful what you wish for. In one case using Easy Uninstall to remove Adobe Acrobat 5, I was unable to subsequently install the official Acrobat v7 upgrade. The reason was that all of the v5 registry entries which identified me as a legitimate owner of a previous version were completely removed by Easy Uninstall. I had to reinstall v5. The v7 upgrade worked perfectly then and did its own thorough job of removing the older version at the same time. Using Windows Add/Remove programs or the Adobe uninstaller directly to remove v5 leaves registration information intact, thereby allowing the upgrade. The message here is to be careful what you remove and to make sure you have copies of everything along with backups of serial numbers, registration keys and installation codes.

Cons: After installing SystemSuite 5 on a fully loaded Pentium 4/2.8GHz Sony Vaio running Windows XP Pro (SP2) we encountered a background task server failure on boot up. There are several task servers running in the background in Windows at any given time, so the rest of the system was not affected. SystemSuite's automatic updater stopped working however—a dangerous situation considering the number of viruses and other threats appearing every day. This particular pain in the butt (a Windows Service Pack 2 incompatibility?) is resolved either by the latest free SystemSuite 5 automatic update (which you'll have to start manually if you've encountered the problem) or by downloading the patch here. Some programs use an indirect route to the Internet from your system—Arlo Rose's "The Weather" Widget available for the very popular Konfabulator desktop program is an example. NetDefense could not detect the Widget and ask you if it should be allowed to access the Internet. We had to go into the NetDefense configuration dialog and manually add it. Other Widgets ran just fine without manual intervention. Microsoft's Security Center, supplied as part of Windows Service Pack 2, can't detect the presence of VirusScanner Pro.

Pros: I'm biased. I've been using SystemSuite since 1998 (when it was still a Mijenix product). I've stuck with it, despite the somewhat deeper technical enticements of industry-leading Symantec's Norton SystemWorks, mainly because SystemSuite continues to be genuinely easy to use and powerful enough for all of my system maintenance, firewall and antivirus needs. The new QuickStatus screen provides a reasonably useful snapshot of some key system (and SystemSuite) information. The ongoing inclusion of VCOM's PowerDesk 5 is a real bonus primarily because it's a terrific file selector and manager. It can be upgraded to v6 for $25. PowerDesk incorporates a full file compression function as well which means that ZIP/UnZIP controls and functions are built into the PowerDesk's right-click context menu. The NetDefense firewall component is vastly superior to the new Microsoft firewall and just as secure as the industry leading ZoneAlarm albeit not quite as configurable. Fast antivirus signature updates which help keep your system protected. Online technical support is quite good, with daily responses to questions from registered users. The physical installation of SystemSuite is the easiest and most trouble-free we've seen when compared to the other products in this category. SystemSuite 5 is safe, secure and easy to use. Highly recommended.

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