Review: iolo System Mechanic

There's always an arms race when it comes to the jack of all trades system tool: registry cleaner, anti-spyware, defragmenter, settings control panel. Some ZDNet readers, including myself, default to a combination of the free but popular CCleaner, Ad-Aware, Spybot Search & Destroy and an antivirus program.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

There's always an arms race when it comes to the jack of all trades system tool: registry cleaner, anti-spyware, defragmenter, settings control panel. Some ZDNet readers, including myself, default to a combination of the free but popular CCleaner, Ad-Aware, Spybot Search & Destroy and an antivirus program.

But that's not the only solution.

iolo Technologies' System Mechanic for PCs (XP, Vista) promises all these things in one tool for $35 per year: registry cleaner, hard disk repairer, shortcut reconnecter, defragmenter, PC startup optimizer, application uninstaller, secure file wiper and more. Basically, it will do everything except your laundry...and true virus scans.

But is all that worth $35 a year?

To see if it was worth the money, I installed it on my home PC -- the one away from the reaches of ZDNet security -- to see just how much System Mechanic could do.

First, the stats: I'm running Windows XP SP3 on an Intel Centrino with 80GB HDD and 2GB RAM with Symantec Antivirus installed. I've defragged within the last couple of weeks and I ran full (and up-to-date) scans of Symantec, Ad-Aware 2008, Spybot Search & Destroy and CCleaner prior to installing iolo System Mechanic.

When I installed System Mechanic, updated it and loaded it for the first time, this is the screen I got. Easy to read with clear instructions and a nice "dashboard" giving me a general sense of how my system's doing.

(Small pet peeve: the non-obtrusive up-sell "Hints and Tips" window, which advertised another iolo product. Sure, it's a small company and it's a natural brand extension, but I already paid for this product, so why can't you leave my landing screen alone?)

Like anyone who keeps their machine in relatively good shape, I'm thinking, "Poor, huh?" Time to investigate.

In my haste, I clicked "Repair All" without checking what the problems were. Here's where System Mechanic first showed its charms. Instead of tearing through my hard drive like the Supernanny does naughty children, System Mechanic prompted me with a clear, concise heads-up as to what it was about to do and how that impacts me. This was System Mechanic's star attribute: it regularly, but not intrusively, made sure I knew what I was getting myself into and what that could mean down the road.

Similarly, as the program went through the process of cleaning my machine of the aforementioned clutter, it went through the list and told me what it was cleaning (and thankfully, the progress bars were accurate).

Once I did that, everything was clear and good to go, just like that.

Just kidding.

Since System Mechanic altered some startup settings and myriad other things, it required a restart. So I restarted. Once my PC booted back up, I reloaded System Mechanic (With slight disappointment, it did not load on start automatically so that I could see my progress after the System Mechanic-mandated restart. On the other hand, I appreciate not having any more of a startup traffic jam than I already have).

System Mechanic had all the dials in the green except one. What didn't it fix, and why?

The program said there was one more problem to be fixed -- something with my hard drive (though when I clicked for more information, it said there weren't any problems). In a nice touch, it told me beneath the notice that I had to restart for the changes to take effect, and provided a link.

Since I'm a patient guy (and a Windows user), I restarted for a second time. Why not? Nothing I'm not used to.

This time, my PC restarted, but before Windows XP could fully load, System Mechanic loaded in that blue-screen-DOS/command line-esque format and ran through its scan there. (For the leftover disk problem, it called on the powers of CHKDSK.)

Which brings me to my first problem with System Mechanic. While it avoids using (usually extremely inaccurate) timers on its processes, it provides no warning as to what I'm in for. So while both the quick analysis and in-depth analysis were surprisingly quick on my system (80GB HDD, for what it's worth), the pre-Windows-boot CHKDSK thing took forever.

I'm talking like an hour here. So I turned on the TV, got myself some dinner, and sat back.

When it finally finished (it caught a bad sector deep on the drive), and I continued booting to Windows XP and loaded System Mechanic, all my dials were in the green. Hooray!

Even better, my computer was noticeably faster, and it wasn't that bad to begin with. Startup to an active desktop was a bit faster, applications loaded a little faster, websites came up faster.

Great! So what did System Mechanic actually do?

Well, that's the problem. After System Mechanic fixed the problems, it didn't really go into the specifics of what it fixed. When you click on the "Reports" tab and click on "History," it just shows you a non-clickable list of fixed generalities. For example: "Optimized Internet Speed." How? What settings did it alter? And how about those fixed registry entries? Which did it repair? And that nagging hard drive problem? What the heck was it?

This is my main gripe with System Mechanic. The program is clearly good at the back-end cleaning, and provided an improvement. The UI looks good, works well, and has thoughtful notices throughout. But when it comes to seeing what it actually fixed -- specifically, the meat and potatoes of it -- you're can't find it.

For a guy who occasionally dives into the minutae of a drive's directories, or the system registry, that's disappointing.

Do I recommend System Mechanic? Well yes -- it clearly provided some in-depth improvements that I was too lazy to do, and it did it all at once. Bottom-line, I found that to be a great time-saver. For power users, though, it's another tool in one's toolbelt, and may not be worth $35 a year if you really know your way around a system. On the other hand, it's $35 -- really not much for some seriously useful software.

There is one more group that System Mechanic can be of great service: family and friends. If you're like me, and you return home every year for the holidays only to spend your time cleaning the family computers of spyware, startup clutter, and built-up junk, this is a great tool. Install it on Mom or Dad or Bro or Sis' computers (One copy of System Mechanic can be installed on three computers) and the only LCD glow you'll be basking in as you drink your egg nog is the sweet, sweet glow of a 60-inch HDTV.

The people at iolo have made a fine piece of software. With a little tweaking, it could be a knockout.

The Good

Works as advertised, very easy to use, thoughtful reminders, generally speedy and easy on the eyes.

The Bad

Lack of easily accessible and detailed fix history before, during and after scans; no warning of how long some things might take.

The Recommendation

Perfect for slow-system'ed family and friends; good for power users without a lot of time; unnecessary for those that love wallowing in Windows' intricacies.

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