System Mechanic Pro Review

by Reads (32,523)
  • Editor's Rating

    Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

      • Design
      • 6
      • Performance
      • 6
      • Total Score:
      • 6.00
      • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10
  • Pros

    • Problems list gives accurate descriptions of what the product is trying to do
    • "Details" list gives user the right not to accept questionable fixes
    • Encourages users to be more vigilant about regular system maintenance
  • Cons

    • Certain "vulnerabilities" the system tries to fix are actually security settings
    • Dog slow antivirus is non-comptitive with free alternatives
    • Performance improvements through registry optimization contra-indicated by experience

For a decade and a half, it’s been the leading commercial utilities software package not to contain the word “Norton.”  It’s what electronics store clerks everywhere hand their customers to quell their fears, and maybe to silence their questions.  But here are the real questions: Does System Mechanic Professional from Iolo really fix and speed up your PC? Does it truly add something essential to the security of your PC that you can’t find elsewhere, or that you can’t obtain with some extra everyday perseverance? We’ll explore these questions in this review.

It’s the painful truth with which we veteran Windows users have lived for about three decades now. As we install more applications, as we add on more add-ons to our Web browsers, and as we let our Documents folders overflow into the cloud and then into the stratosphere, Windows’ performance as an operating system degrades. 

It just does.  It’s not an illusion. Windows gets heavier, bulkier, and starts wearing out.Some people simply reformat their hard drives and start over.  It’s not the worst solution, if you have a day to spare reinstalling your applications rather than getting some much-needed exercise.  But most folks chalk it up to their own failings as caretakers of delicate electronic machinery.  Their refrigerators wear out, their cars wear out, and so do their computers; and from their perspective, it’s because they don’t take care of them like they should.  I’ve lost count of how many times I hear, “My Windows is so slow… What did I do wrong?”

Clever marketing has successfully capitalized on users’ collective ignorance.  There’s an entire class of programs you usually find in the closeout bin at Staples or Target.  Its entire purpose is to flash red lights and blare sirens at you, telling you something’s wrong and you must do something now!  You click on the “Click Here” button, the red light turns green, birds resume chirping in the trees, and all is well.  It’s amid this success of bargain-basement Pavlovian conditioning that identity theft runs rampant.

Straddling the fence between a useful utility software package and a conditioned response provocation tool is Iolo’s System Mechanic Pro 11.5.  Unlike a toolkit of hammers and screwdrivers in the physical world, which do not alert you to your house falling down so that you’ll be sure to use them every day, Iolo’s SMP installs (for Windows 7) a bright light in the upper right corner of your screen which glows green when things are good, or orange or red when you haven’t clicked the requisite number of tools in a while.

Overview

System Mechanic Pro is marketed on its Web site as software that will “Fix, Speed Up and Secure Your PC.”

So what is System Mechanic, really?  The Pro edition is essentially comprised of three categories of tools. Firstly, there’s an antivirus/anti-malware tool with the moniker “System Shield.” (For expanded views of the screenshots at right, please click on the images.)

Secondly, you’ll find a series of optimizers that shuffle the contents of fragmented objects in memory, as well as on hard drives and solid-state drives, purporting to speed up your system and make its operation smoother.

Thirdly, System Mechanic Pro gives you a n emergency toolkit that includes some of the tools a veteran of utilities packages from the 1980s would expect, such as the file un-deletion package Search and Recover, an unwanted startup file remover, and the secure deletion tool DriveScrubber that put Iolo on the map years ago.  There are also tools that clean up Web browser caches, and there’s something else that promises to remove “redundant programs.”

Installation is, thankfully, unremarkable.  Included on the CD is essentially a licensing agent that verifies your key, downloads the real software from the Internet, and launches the real setup program.  Your only options here, should you desire options, are not to install System Shield, DriveScrubber, or Search and Recover.  But there’s no junkware to opt out of, no unwanted third-party Web browser to decline, no prepaid long distance service to say no to, and that’s good news.

Still, I wondered, just how healthy a diagnosis would SMP give to a newborn Windows 7 machine?  So I made one (a virtual machine, of course), and installed SMP there immediately after applying the most recent Microsoft system patches.  Imagine my shock and horror when the condition of my newborn Windows 7 VM was declared “Poor.”  My memory was fragmented, my hard drive wasted, my System Registry a hopeless pile of junk.  What could I click on to make the world right again?

The Long, Long Shield

System Shield is a standard, signature-based antivirus tool.  Being signature-based means it looks for known malware that matches certain patterns that are downloaded from online periodically.  The problem with any signature-based antivirus in the modern era is that modern malware is mutable, altering itself to evade detection the way a wanted criminal dons a disguise.

In the modern era, a virus signature list is about as effective at stopping malware as an airport security officer’s Do-Not-Board list at stopping terrorism.  To be truly effective today, anti-malware should scan for behaviors — the things malware tries to do to deliver a malicious payload.  While there are hundreds of thousands of malware signatures that may be valid at any one time, there are really only a handful of classes of bad behaviors, which is why a good firewall can be the most critical component of a modern security strategy.

System Mechanic Pro does not include a firewall.  How I wish I had a blaring red beacon I could slap to the side of the box for this omission.  The basic purpose of firewall software is to block unauthorized access by any program to the Internet — the type of access that puts the “mal-” in “malware.”  Yes, there’s a “Firewall” link on the side of SMP’s main screen, but it’s just a hyperlink that triggers whatever firewall you happen to be running at the time.  I tested SMP on systems that had Windows Firewall or Comodo Firewall.  SMP’s Firewall “tool” glowed green to let me know I had a firewall, and what a good boy am I.  Since Windows 7 and Windows 8 come with Windows Firewall pre-installed and turned on, this checkmark is totally pointless.

I also tested System Shield on a virtual machine, in order to gauge its performance under extreme circumstances.  There I discovered that, if you’re pinched for memory, a full antivirus scan can become a tedious chore.  In low-memory environments (even after one lets SMP “optimize” memory), the longer these pattern-matching sequences become linearly, the longer they take to execute exponentially.  This is exactly what happens with System Shield, which on my test virtual machine with only 1 GB of RAM could take about six minutes to get to 90% completion, and over an hour to finish the remaining 10%.  And during that final hour, everything else slows to a crawl.  (“What did I do wrong?”)

Indeed, the virus scanner can become so slow that the Web browser control upon which the rendering of the SMP main screen depends (I’ll pause here a moment to give you opportunity to ponder the security implications of that little pairing) can time out and send up a warning of its own.

This is, to put it bluntly, bad news.  Microsoft Security Essentials on Windows 7 and the revamped Microsoft Defender on Windows 8 are not only free, they’re both fast and astonishingly adept.  Meanwhile, SMP’s System Shield component will only install if you turn your existing antivirus tool off first.  So for about $60, you take a gamble that SMP will be better equipped, when for one-fourth the price you can invest in an anti-malware supplement tool like Spybot Search and Destroy that covers gaps Microsoft may have missed without slowing down your system.

What Condition Your Condition Is In

Keep in mind, speeding up your system is supposed to be Iolo’s key value proposition.  Presumably, SMP keeps your PC in better operating condition when you use it regularly.

It’s absolutely true that Windows can become tangled in its own web, as an untended System Registry bogs down with thousands upon thousands of invalid entries, often as a result of folks deleting program folders manually without using the uninstaller.  Windows 98 was very susceptible to such tangles; Windows XP, a little less so.  Windows 7 and 8 do a far better job of maintaining the Registry for themselves.

But it’s also true that reducing the number of Registry inconsistencies — say, a few hundred or so invalid pointers — makes no immediately visible impact on system performance.

When I first installed SMP on my Windows 7 Ultimate-based test machines, the analysis gadget it added to each Desktop pulsed orange like Dr. McCoy’s sickbay scanner (“Jim, this man is dying!”).  Quantitatively, the number of “problems” uncovered during the initial detection seemed bewildering, including from the fresh-from-the-farm Windows 7 test machine.

Yes, updates can cause Registry issues, especially when old Windows components are patched with new ones.  But elevating the existence of an invalid Registry entry for a patched component to a “Red Alert” event comparable to a virus attack, is ridiculous.  It’s this type of overreaction to mundane discrepancies that leads sensible users not to trust the severity of those red exclamation-mark warnings when they do see them.

One of the 10 “repairable security vulnerabilities” SMP pointed out for me was the pressing issue of whether “potentially unwanted” tools such as Windows Media Center Scheduler Service and Windows Search should be allowed to start up automatically and run in the background.  Disabling them would speed up my startup time.  That’s true.  But if you’ve ever lost a document that was about something in particular, but which didn’t include that something in its filename, suddenly those precious seconds of regained startup time seem trivial compared to the hours lost perusing thousands of files one-by-one.  Windows Search is an essential tool, not a security breach waiting to happen.  And ringing the “Red Alert” klaxon until I address this critical issue does not make my PC more secure.

Here’s another dire situation:  Back in the 2000s, the most common type of Windows viruses were script files distributed as e-mail attachments.  Disabling these script files entirely would diffuse the viruses, provided of course that your business didn’t actually use .JS or .VBS or .HTA files in their intranet applications.  Today, very few do.

Most folks would not be hurt if these file extensions were disabled.  Disabling .JS files does not turn off JavaScript in your browser, but does disable one of the most common Windows exploits from 2001.  Yet take a good look at what System Mechanic Pro is suggesting be done here:  It wants to set up “dangerous file types” to “always open with Notepad.”  The theory here is that attaching potentially dangerous files to an innocuous application will diffuse the problem.

It might for a while… at least until some enterprising fellow thinks of a way to exploit Notepad to make it a malicious actor on his behalf.  Oh wait, that’s right, someone did.  In 2007, someone conceived a virus whose payload was a doppelganger Notepad with a Trojan running in the background.

If you accept the notion that it’s a security threat to leave .HTA and other script files associated with an executable runtime that you may never use, it therefore follows that replacing that association with a commonly exploitable vector is nothing short of ludicrous.  The truth is, protection against this exploitable vector already exists, and you don’t have to pay money for it.

And here it is.  Internet Explorer allows you to disable scripting for any file accessed via the Web browser, which would include other applications’ use of the Web browser as a rendering tool.  While Microsoft considers the cross-site or cross-domain scripting ability of .HTA files a sadistic form of power, it gives you a method that has been endorsed by security providers for disabling that power without the use of third-party tools.  Setting? Allow scripting of Microsoft web browser control — to Disable — or, more accurately, leaving it set to Disable –since that’s now the default — is far more effective than associating scripts with a potentially vulnerable application.  That’s right, folks, Microsoft actually already diffused the bomb.

Here’s another threat to your every day existence that SMP says you need to address right now.  It’s an “invalid file type association” linking the familiar .EXE file with nothing specific at all.  As not even a novice needs to be reminded, an .EXE file opens in Windows; it doesn’t need to be associated with anything.  Thus, there is no “Open With” list that needs to be generated for such a file.  What SMP classifies as an invalid association is actually a service that benefits your overall security.  In fact, in the absence of this open link, experts have actually suggested that you create it manually.

So if you were to blindly use SMP’s tools on automatic (the “recommended” course of action), you could actually 1) slow your use of Windows down considerably; 2) create at least two new exploitable vulnerabilities that were not there before.

Performance

After installing SMP and allowing it to perform those optimizations I deemed safe, the system scored a 701.1 on the same test, actually slowing down by a fraction.  After uninstalling SMP, it scored a 695.0.

Now, certainly the registry became cleaner and shinier, but let’s be fair.  The whole red-light/green-light business is a fantasy.  It is not a true assessment of the relative safety of your PC, any more than the number of paper towels you have at the moment is a true assessment of the cleanliness of your kitchen. 

Conclusion

I’m not saying here that a toolkit for cleaning up the untidy list of uninstallers in your registry, or un-erasing an accidentally trashed folder, isn’t useful.  It can be.  But using your PC shouldn’t be a daily game of “Deal or No Deal.”

Peace of mind can be a problem, especially when it’s marketed in a shiny, pricey box. Throwing money at your computer’s security so you can make the scary red light turn green may make you calmer, but it doesn’t necessarily secure your computer. As computer security expert Bruce Schneier has pointed out, “You can be secure even though you don’t feel secure, and you can feel secure even though you’re not really secure.”

Pros:

  • Problems list gives accurate descriptions of what the product is trying to do
  • “Details” list gives user the right not to accept questionable fixes
  • Encourages users to be more vigilant about regular system maintenan

Cons:

  • Certain “vulnerabilities” the system tries to fix are actually security settings
  • Dog slow antivirus is non-comptitive with free alternatives
  • Performance improvements through registry optimization contra-indicated by experience


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