Ever since the overwhelming success of the first hard disk optimizers in the 1980s, utilities software has offered to optimize everything about your PC, right down to the optimum length of your disk cables. Systweak's Advanced System Optimizer (AS0) v3 offers a plethora of options (not really new ones, but plenty of them) for making your Windows system not so messy. The question is whether making your PC into a lab experiment for registry tweaks is worth the forty dollar gamble.
The most refreshing thing about ASO is something I'll say up front, because it's truly important. ASO does not blare red sirens and warnings at you that threaten doom and shame and all sorts of bad things should you fail to utilize every tool in its arsenal to the fullest. Imagine a screwdriver that blared a warning at you from the bottom of your toolbox if you neglected to turn a few screws with it every week. ASO is a toolkit for conditioning your PC, not for conditioning you.
If system optimization is something you truly should do periodically (and there's open debate about that), then the act of doing so should not resemble a trip to the hospital in an ambulance. ASO approaches you with the value proposition that keeping your Windows System Registry and your Web browser caches free from junk will benefit you in the long term. I tend to agree, having rescued many a Windows PC from oblivion over the past three decades mostly through the selective clearance of junk.
Installing ASO is a no-mess affair; you run the setup program, you're given the common choices of installation location and desktop icon creation, and in a moment, there's a process scanning your system for things to fix. It won't actually apply those fixes until you activate the product with a licensing key. After activation, ASO automatically performs a system restore operation. That act alone deserves a colossal "Thank you!" (For expanded views of the screenshots at right, please click on the images.)
ASO is not an anti-malware tool, and to its tremendous credit, it does not pretend to be one. Oftentimes the damage that Windows sustains through everyday operation -- and more than once, through self-inflicted wounds -- is greater than anything that a malware payload could possibly deliver. So ASO includes a tool called PC Fixer, which essentially lets the user (or the patient, if you will) peruse a list of common symptoms, until she finds one or two that accurately describe Windows' current bad behavior. Mind you, it doesn't track or diagnose bad behavior; it expects you to be smart enough to know what it is when you see it for yourself. Frankly, that's a good tack to take.
Before you start to argue that solutions to some of these common symptoms (like garbage showing up in the "Open With" list in Explorer) are easily attainable through a Google search, try this simple test at home: Dream up the worst thing that could happen to your PC today, right now. Edit it down to four words, and send them to Google. Finally, note your search results, and calculate the ratio of sites offering genuine, plausible solutions to those ills, versus the ones that are trying to capture your Web browser knowing that by searching for this malady, your system is probably at its most vulnerable. ("Click Here to Fix Everything Now!")
As veterans know, the System Registry is a beast of a database. Applying a remedy in the wrong way, or applying the wrong remedy in the right way, could trigger a discrepancy or bad behavior somewhere else. This is why ASO aggressively reminds the user (often without a way to bypass) to back up the registry before proceeding. Although Windows contains its own registry backup and restoration tool, for some bizarre reason, Microsoft buried it beneath an ancient set of dialog boxes that no one ever sees. So you could say ASO provides these same tools redundantly, but the fact that it makes them convenient actually makes them practical as well.
For most of Windows' existence, there have been toolkits and even some publications that profess the ideal of improving system performance (or, more accurately, the perception of performance) by limiting its environment to a Spartan, cold, uninteresting realm -- less like a place to get work done than the interior of a port-a-potty. Microsoft actually embraced this ideal in Windows 8, by removing what it had marketed as Vista's key feature -- the semi-transparent, 3D-accelerated desktop environment called Aero -- in favor of a flatter front end that does appear to run faster, at the expense of aesthetics.
ASO's System and Security Advisor embraces this same ideal, specifically by offering performance tips that would render the operating system something closer to Windows 95 in the name of higher performance. If the automotive world behaved the same way, the Ford Pinto and Chevy Nova would be revered above Ferrari and Maserati.
One example of a performance tip offered by ASO is, "Prevent the swapping of the kernel to disk." Windows utilizes virtual memory -- the paging of less-used memory blocks to the hard drive -- as a way to expand the addressable memory pool. In fact, using virtual memory with a solid-state hard drive (comprised of flash memory) could visibly improve performance. Theoretically, on an every day PC, keeping the kernel held in DRAM could make it execute faster. Alternatively, in intense situations where you have multiple pages open in your Web browser and two or three Office applications running simultaneously, it could actually slow down performance very noticeably.
Another set of performance tips offered under the "Security" subtopic would have you avoid security risks when sharing files by turning off file sharing. By that same token, one way to avoid unwanted solicitors at your door is to never answer your door. ("Security" is both a topic and a subtopic in ASO. Perhaps ASO could benefit from its own redundancy checker!)
Thankfully, neither of these tips are things that ASO shoves in your face as "potential vulnerabilities" that put your PC at risk until you address them (read: apply the manufacturer's pre-selected remedy). Sure, you could stop sharing, put a lock on system memory, and remove the background image from the desktop (another tip). But you're not improving the state of your computer by doing so.
While ASO presents a number of optimization tools in at least one way that's easy enough to use, there are perhaps too many alternatives to the a la carte menu. For example, "Smart PC Care" conducts a signature scan for spyware, checks for privacy issues, looks for discrepancies in the System Registry, and highlights so-called privacy exposing traces (evidence that you've ever used the Web browser, which one supposes could be considered a privacy violation waiting to happen).
By comparison, "System Protector" scans the PC for various "Internet cookies" (evidence that you've ever used a Web browser), looks for discrepancies in the System Registry, conducts a signature scan for spyware, and looks for various "infection items" (there should be a word for these things) in the file system. The latter looks more like an antivirus scan, and offers antivirus-like features such as a quarantine folder for placing suspicious items in a non-executable location.
There are a couple of problems here. By avoiding the whole "virus" word altogether, ASO is making an effort to hide the fact that it's not a full-fledged antivirus tool... when it shouldn't be hiding that fact at all. Not every toolkit needs to diagnose malware. Further, by characterizing such things as registry discrepancies and leftover cookies as "infections," the System Protector part of ASO misinforms the user as to the relative severity of problems that crop up.
While "Smart PC Care" makes the same scans, it does not do any of this false characterization of "infection." If "Smart PC Care" and "System Protector" were two competing products, I'd award the former with the prize for this reason alone, even though they actually do pretty much the same thing. The fact that both of these panels are present in the same product suggests to me that Systweak's management couldn't quite decide on which one to include, or else had two separate benefactors to appease simultaneously.
Both of these tools run relatively fast, although granted, their spyware databases are not nearly as thorough as full antivirus. Both offer detailed lists of their findings, but give the user an all-or-nothing option to clean everything or exit. So if you delete unwanted malware or cookies, you may be making changes to the registry that you actually don't want to make for security reasons. This -- coupled with the fact that the presence of any temporary files in your browser makes ASO render your PC status as "Poor" -- makes both of these do-everything tools not particularly smart.
ASO makes up for this by offering tools individually, and giving the user options within those tools to exclude certain choices for whatever reasons the user might have. The registry scans for ASO's Cleaner and Optimizer tools are relatively fast and thorough, and to their credit, do not count intentional null settings (made by Internet Explorer for security reasons) as "infections."
The first hard drive optimizers rescued PCs by rearranging files so that they were more contiguous and easier to index, thus giving drive controllers less to do and easing the burden on the read heads. Clever marketing folks realized they could apply this principle to just about everything a computer does. Thus the ideal that ASO stops one step short of actually preaching: If your desktop background were a shade of gray, or even black, Windows would find it easier to work.
Here's a fact of everyday computing that too few people realize. A computer computes all the time. Its idle state is known as "off." When you think the computer isn't really doing anything or producing any documents or data, Windows' "System Idle Process" is filling the unused time by literally spinning your PC's wheels and twiddling its thumbs, if you can imagine it having thumbs. Take a look at your Task Manager sometime, specifically at the number of cycles that System Idle Process (SIP) consumes. (You need to check "Show processes from all users" to see it.) For every cycle you take away from some process you think is eating up your system's time or resources, you simply give it to SIP.
That's not necessarily "optimization." True optimization is the elimination of useless and purposeless activity, and SIP is literally as useful as nothing can possibly get. It keeps your PC in sync, and it even runs Windows' power-saving routines so that doing "nothing" actually pays off. If SIP isn't running above 90%, then something is wrong. Giving your computer less to do doesn't really improve what it does.
On the other hand, letting system drivers take advantage of virtual memory paging can indeed improve performance, for same reason that virtual memory anywhere else in the system can improve it. ASO's System and Security Advisor gives the user the option to try this in a relatively safe way, and that's smart. It might not improve the performance of everyone's system, but if you use Windows in a confined space (for instance, Windows 8 on a rinky-dink tablet), you could use all the help you can get.
Over the years, Windows has improved the way it handles keeping third-party hardware drivers up-to-date. Still, it's not ideal, especially for PCs that don't always use major brands of hardware. As the operating system ages, it evolves, especially with new and regular patches. Those changes often mean that third-party drivers should adapt to new parameters.
This is why I like ASO's Driver Updater feature. It makes the job of maintaining non-Microsoft tools (and even a few of Microsoft's own, as I discovered) visible and actionable, instead of hidden. It backs up the old driver after uninstalling it, giving the user a way to revert to the old driver if problems crop up.
I've lost count of how many fake Web sites there are in the world that pretend to check your system for old system drivers, declare them not only ancient but "vulnerable to attack," and offer a free solution (just enter your e-mail address and Social Security Number in the convenient form). Just giving users an alternative to fruitless Google searches is a service in itself.
The reason folks don't maintain their Windows PCs the way they should is not because they're "dummies." It's because Windows alone doesn't really give them the help they need. There are a number of everyday optimizations that people could make (for instance, changing the parameters of the Internet connection to better suit a broadband line) that they would make if it wasn't so much like at-home brain surgery.
Perhaps Advanced System Optimizer's best feature is that it makes users aware of those tweaks that can be made, or at least attempted, before someone else tries to demonstrate those tweaks for them the wrong way. Also, it gives the user a safe platform to make an attempt, see if it works, and undo it if it doesn't.
That's being honest with the user, and I like that about this product, even though I'm not particularly impressed with the way it approaches the topic of removing those bad thingies that happen.
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