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Do-it-yourself hardware testing may not always cure what ails your system, but diagnostic packages will help you establish a probable prognosis before you call an expert.
Only a few years ago, diagnostic utilities that tested hardware were viewed as an arcane sort of software usually stored on a dog-eared disk with a hand-written label. A computer guru could take that disk, slip it into a computer, and, by typing a few incomprehensible incantations, perform what seemed like miracles: identifying hardware failures, resolving conflicts between peripherals, and finding memory problems.
These days, even casual end-users are firing up diagnostic software to check out what's going on inside their computers. Today's users are more sophisticated and less intimidated by PCs than ever before, so a do-it-yourself attitude has spread throughout the PC world. And many IS managers, faced with budget cuts and downsizing in their own ranks, are letting them. More sophisticated than ever before, most users can diagnose many problems -- and in some cases, even repair them -- before placing calls to overworked support staff.
Diagnostic utilities are also great when you're stuck between two customer support lines and need to figure out who's really responsible for a glitch. How many times have you heard that it's the other vendor's fault when you called support, only to hear the same thing a few minutes later when you called the next help line? Nobody likes to hear that in stereo, so tools that can fairly place blame are a godsend now that vendors market PC peripherals and parts as if they were automobile accessories.
Indeed, adventurous do-it-yourselfers are dismayed to discover that adding extra hardware is about as do-it-yourself as an appendectomy. They find, for example, that they usually need to know a great deal about what's inside their PC before they can hope to install that hot new board and have it work properly.
Thanks to the growing demand, diagnostic utilities can be found nearly everywhere these days. Some are even free. Microsoft Corp.'s MSD, the often overlooked but surprisingly capable system information-gathering utility, comes as part of Windows 3.x and current releases of MS-DOS. A wealth of (mostly shareware) diagnostic utilities is also available for downloading on BBSes, on-line services, and the Internet. Some of them are impressively capable, often rivaling the best products on store shelves.
In our comparison, we looked at five commercially marketed diagnostic programs written for both DOS and Windows environments. All of them are designed primarily to test hardware; we didn't cover the huge array of file rebuilders and software diagnostics, which could warrant an entire comparison in their own right. DiagSoft Inc.'s QAPlus/Win 6.0 runs exclusively under Windows. Two others, WinSleuth Gold Plus 2.0 from E Ware (a division of Visual Cybernetics Corp.) and TouchStone Software Corp.'s WinCheckIt 2.02, are primarily Windows-based programs but rely on a few DOS-based components for functions such as information gathering and memory testing. (During our testing, WinCheckIt was revised due to a minor revision in a third-party routine. Company representatives said it is an extremely minor change and that users will find 2.02 and 2.03 identical in their operation.) The other two -- AMIDiag 4.5 from American Megatrends Inc. and the SysInfo and NDiags utilities from Symantec Corp.'s The Norton Utilities, Version 8.0, for Windows and DOS collection -- are strictly DOS based. (We also surveyed the market for Macintosh diagnostic programs, although we did not score them. See story, page 83.)
WHAT DO SAVVY USERS WANT?
Our reader survey indicates that most potential do-it-yourselfers are most interested in performing accurate problem diagnosis and getting system information. They want software that tracks down hardware malfunctions and pinpoints problems without requiring a lot of user expertise. And they want explanations of what's wrong in language that doesn't require thorough understanding of the quantum electrodynamics of their microprocessors. Most of them also say it would be nice if the software occasionally generated helpful suggestions describing what to do after the problem has been identified, which most of the programs we reviewed do only sporadically if they do it at all.
The bottom line in do-it-yourself CPU testing: Can you save the patient?
Based on our testing, it is apparent that diagnostic utilities have come a long way during the past few years but still have a long way to go. We found that they handled basic CPU identification and troubleshooting pretty well but were confused by some of today's technology and popular peripherals. None of them handled all of the fairly standard add-on hardware attached to our test-bed PC, and none passed our two tiebreakers, which required that the diagnostic programs detect a hand scanner and a 20MB Bernoulli Box. Even worse, none managed to detect the tape backup unit, a common device on today's new PCs.
They didn't do a whole lot better at finding our test malfunctions. All the products passed over our flaky SIMM as fully functional, even when the chip crashed Windows during some of the tests. We finally decided to disregard that test because it didn't help us differentiate among these products, but we still didn't find a single product that passed all four remaining malfunction tests. Our advice: You need not one but several diagnostic packages if you want to handle most PC problems.
At the same time, these products taught us a few things we didn't know. For instance, while running the diagnostics for a video problem we created, we inadvertently discovered that we had an out-of-date video driver (it caused a known problem for one of the products). Humbled -- at least for a while -- we had to update the driver and rerun the video tests.
For this comparison of diagnostic software, we used almost exactly the same test plan used for a similar comparison a year and a half ago. Judging from the results, the area of greatest improvement for these products -- and even that is only incremental -- is interface, not diagnostic capability. Traditionally a no-frills type of package designed for techies, diagnostic software is gradually adding interface niceties that appeal to end-users.
For instance, WinCheckIt, the winner of our comparison, keeps track of your system's configuration and performance, and it will show you what your PC's old configuration and statistics were, right next to its current numbers. The program even highlights what's different to help you figure out what might have happened to your PC since the last time you used it that would make it malfunction.
WinSleuth has a similar feature. You point to an entry you want to modify, delete, or add, and WinSleuth shows you helpful information in the context-sensitive description window. Then you can ask WinSleuth's Optimizer for its recommended changes.
Another easy-to-use feature that revolutionizes the way users employ diagnostic software is WinCheckIt's Setup Advisor function, which understands the requirements of more than 200 adapters and peripherals. You merely scroll through its menu and select the hardware you want to install. Setup Advisor displays the board's default configuration setting and available alternates. Once you've made your changes, you press the Analyze button and Setup Advisor compares your settings to what's available on your system, even recommending alternate settings, if necessary.
But even though the usability of these programs has markedly improved, on the technical side diagnostic software is still far from infallible. None of the packages in this comparison came close to reporting all our system components or troubleshooting all the test problems we created. About the most you can expect from one of these diagnostic packages is a leg up on predicting what might be causing your PC to crash or a peripheral to malfunction. Even that is a plus these days, though, especially when you compare the price of diagnostic software -- $79 to $179.95 -- to the cost and aggravation of calling in a repair person.
American Megatrends Inc.'s AMIDiag 4.5 is an entirely DOS-based product, and although it is OK for end-users, it is particularly good for OEMs and technical troubleshooters. Some of its features, such as customized cache controller commands and user-added diagnostic routines, involve setup procedures that go well beyond the expertise of most users, but most of the remaining operations are easy and require no special knowledge.
The package consists of the main test utility, AMIDiag, as well as several stand-alone utilities. You can run the stand-alones from AMIDiag's menu or directly from a DOS prompt. SysInfo collects information about your system, displays it on-screen, and generates a report of the information that you can then send to a printer or text file.
We were pleasantly surprised to find wrap plugs -- devices you plug into the PC to help compare the electrical signals going into one part of the PC with those coming out the other -- for serial- and parallel-port testing. AMIDiag was the only product in our test group to include these, even though most of these packages had tests that called for them. (If you buy one of the other packages, you must either buy wrap plugs separately or make them.)
We expected impressive results from AMIDiag, particularly in the system information area, because it comes from the same folks who produced the Gateway Pentium's BIOS. However, like the other products in this comparison, it did not live up to our expectations. Although it did a nice job finding problems on the PC itself, and was one of the few that got the amount of video RAM right, it performed poorly on the extra hardware and adapters. SysInfo even failed to find the Sound Blaster card, which was odd because the larger AMIDiag package tested it successfully.
The Norton Utilities, Version 8.0, for Windows and DOS
Symantec Corp. has a long-established reputation for producing superior PC utilities. The Norton Utilities, Version 8.0, for Windows and DOS consists of an extensive collection of stand-alone utilities integrated through a common menu. We looked at just two of these, SysInfo and NDiags. The rest of the package diagnoses software and file-related problems.
SysInfo is Norton's utility for gathering system information. It analyzes your system, runs a few performance tests, and displays its findings on-screen and in an optional printed report.
NDiags is the main utility for testing hardware. It is a relative newcomer, having only been added to the collection in Version 7.0. Both utilities are strictly DOS based. You can run either from a disk or the hard drive, which is great if you own several computers. Both have the look and feel of well designed, mature utilities.
Based on Norton Utilities' reputation, we expected top performance from SysInfo and NDiags. But they failed to identify some of the newer technology used in the Pentium -- such as the Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) bus --and gave us some incomplete and conflicting information regarding interrupt requests (IRQs). Still, the two together managed to identify as much of our extra hardware as any of the other utilities in the test group, and they did a nice job tracking down and reporting our test malfunctions.
One caveat: Symantec does not include wrap plugs for the serial and printer ports, even though you'll need …