Test-driving ‘free scan’ tune-up suites

Fred Langa

Even on well-maintained systems, free system scanners might find hundreds of “problems,” as I discovered from a test of three products from well-known companies.

These suites typically offer to fix system problems — for a fee — but are these problems real or just scare tactics to drum up sales?

Long-time LangaList Plus readers know I’m a firm believer in PC maintenance. I regularly use various tune-up/cleanup tools on my PCs, and I know the good ones really do help keep systems clean, fast, and stable.

But some tune-up/cleanup tools seem to raise more questions than they answer. Consider this note from Windows Secrets paid subscriber Norman C. Freitas:

  • “I recently installed Corel’s WinZip System Utilities. Its free PC scan reported:

    “’2,447 privacy traces detected, 529 registry issues found, 32 junk items detected, 6 outdated drivers found, and Registry Optimization recommended.’

    “I am hesitant to pay to activate the software to ‘fix’ the reported problems without additional information. Help!”

I don’t blame Norman — I’d want more information, too.

To find out what free scanners would tell me about my PC, I ran my personal, daily-use system through a series of informal test drives. What kinds of problems (if any) would Corel’s WinZip System Utilities and some other tune-up suites report on a machine I knew was already well-maintained?

Creating a known-good starting point

No PC is perfectly clean after even minimal use, but I do use a thorough and regular maintenance regime. For example, to prevent viruses, malware, and other security problems, I continuously run Windows 7′s built-in firewall and Microsoft Security Essentials (site). As a backstop, I also regularly use the U.S. $25 version of Malwarebytes Anti-Malware (site) to catch any malware that might have slipped past MSE.

From time to time, I also use other standalone security scanners, such as ESET’s Online Scanner (site), Microsoft’s Safety Scanner (site), and Trend Micro’s House Call (site), to verify that my system is secure and uninfected.

I use Windows Update and Secunia PSI (site) to keep my most important software up to date and free of known security issues. (For more info on software updating apps, see the July 26 Top Story, “Software that updates your other software.”)

To keep my system lean and free of bogus Registry entries, junk files, useless cookies, and such, I run either Piriform’s CCleaner (free and paid; site) or Macecraft’s free PowerTools’ Lite (site) every day. I also run Macecraft’s jv16 PowerTools ($30; site) when I want a deeper, more controlled cleaning (such as when some software won’t install or uninstall properly). For general Registry cleaning, I use these tools in their safe, default modes because too-aggressive Registry cleaning can cause instabilities and other problems. All three tools are generally considered safe and effective by expert PC users.

I have Windows set to defrag my spinning-platter hard drives every night. My main PC has a solid-state drive (SSD), which should not be defragged. (Windows 7 automatically omits SSDs from its built-in defragging schedule. See the July 4 Top Story for my experiences with an SSD.)

My system also backs itself up automatically every morning before work. (See the May 12, 2011, Top Story, “Build a complete Windows 7 safety net.”)

There’s more, but the above steps and apps typically provide everything I need to reliably keep my PC clean, well optimized, stable, and secure. My machine had no known operational problems when I ran the tests.

Running Corel’s WinZip System Utilities Suite

I started with Corel’s WinZip System Utilities Suite because that was the subject of Norman Freitas’ letter.

I rebooted my PC — so that no other software would interfere with the test drive — and immediately ran CCleaner and Macecraft’s Powertools Lite, one after the other, to remove junk files and needless Registry clutter. With my system thus cleaned, I downloaded and ran the WinZip System Utilities Suite (site). The initial scan is free, but using the suite’s repair tools requires a $40 activation fee.

Figure 1 shows the report the WinZip System Utilities Suite delivered when the initial free scan completed.

Smart PC Care scan

Figure 1. Smart PC Care, part of the WinZip System Utilities Suite, reported a surprisingly high 398 problems on my PC.

Almost 400 problems? That definitely called for a closer look. I clicked the details links for each category, starting with the 25 issues in the “junk files and folders” section, which produced the list shown in Figure 2.

Smart PC Care scan results

Figure 2. Most of the junk files WinZip found were normal — and harmless — items temporarily cached by my browser.

This portion of the WinZip report was accurate. These are the kinds of temporary files that normally accrue during system operation. (In fact, several of these files appeared to come from the Corel site where I downloaded the WinZip software.) There’s nothing extraordinary about these files — any cleanup tool can remove them.

I moved on to the 129 issues in the ominous-sounding “Internet and privacy traces” category. Figures 3, 4, and 5 show the detailed report results.

Smart PC Care Internet traces results

Figure 3. Although the 129 Internet and privacy traces sounded dangerous, most were ordinary browser cookies.

Smart PC Care cookie report

Figure 4. I examined several of the listed cookies to see where they'd come from and what privacy dangers they might pose.

Some cookies have obtuse names, making their sources not immediately obvious. I randomly picked cookie 644u3a3w and used Windows Explorer and Notepad to view its contents. Ironically, that particular cookie turned out to be one that WinZip had placed on my system when I visited the Corel site.

Cookie 644u3a3w

Figure 5. The contents of cookie 644u3a3w showed that it had come from WinZip.

Here, too, the WinZip Suite wasn’t technically wrong. However, the listed “privacy traces” were mostly plain, old cookies — completely normal and harmless. Heck, Corel’s own site uses them! Calling ordinary cookies “privacy traces” could inflate their perceived threat in the minds of unwary users, inaccurately suggesting serious security problems that do not exist.

I moved on to check out the 13 out-of-date or missing drivers WinZip reported (as shown in Figure 6).

Old drivers report

Figure 6. WinZip listed 13 drivers as 'ancient' and in need of updating.

To see whether my drivers really were out-of-date, I ran my PC manufacturer’s official driver update tool. It reported that all my drivers were fully current.

My PC has an Intel system board and CPU, so I also ran Intel’s official Driver Update Utility (site). It, too, found that none of my drivers needed updating.

Needless driver updating can destabilize a PC or even cause working hardware to fail, so this portion of the WinZip report I consider to be utterly wrong — and potentially dangerous to the health of the PC.

(For more information on driver-update false alarms, see the July 26 Top Story, “Software that updates your other software.”)

Next, I looked at the 231 Registry-related issues WinZip said it found. See Figure 7.

Smart PC Care's Registry scan

Figure 7. I was surprised that the Registry-cleaning tool found 231 issues on a freshly cleaned system.

This turned out to be a mixed bag when I manually examined many of the listed Registry issues. Some of the items were real but trivial. For example, the four Help file issues turned out to be associated with Adobe Acrobat. I had uninstalled Acrobat some time ago, and references to the Acrobat Help files must have been left behind in the Registry. This is indeed a kind of Registry error — but one that has no operational significance because the software involved is no longer on the system and the wasted space used by the entries is minuscule.

Other reported problems were simply wrong. For example, WinZip reported that several programs “do not have an uninstall program.” As a test, I used Control Panel’s Uninstall a program applet to try to uninstall two programs that WinZip said didn’t have an uninstall program — they both uninstalled normally. I have no idea what WinZip was detecting here.

Other issues were too vague to call. For example, it’s hard to tell what was going on with most of the 138 “orphaned” ActiveX and COM objects. My normal Registry cleaning tools, in their safe default cleaning modes, detected no problems here.

Perhaps WinZip wants to clean the Registry very aggressively — a mode available in other cleaning tools, but one I have learned not to use because of the likelihood of causing trouble.

Would removing all 138 references save a lot of space? No. I exported some of the suspect keys and found they averaged around 1.5KB of data each. Deleting them all would recover only about 207KB — that’s KB, not MB or GB — of space. That’s a truly trivial amount. These supposed ActiveX and COM “problems,” like others mentioned earlier, appear to have absolutely no effect on the operation of my system.

After working through all the test reports, I see one positive: WinZip System Utilities Suite can and does find some legitimate issues, such as junk files. However, you don’t need a $40 tool to remove junk files when there are numerous free tools available, including the free versions of CCleaner and PowerTools Lite mentioned earlier.

More troubling, WinZip System Utilities Suite (and the other scanners discussed below) seems to deliberately inflate the seriousness of some items — for example, calling its own website’s harmless cookies “privacy traces.”

Those, however, are relatively minor transgressions compared to reporting serious problems where none exist, such as flagging fully up-to-date drivers as “ancient.”

All of this seems designed to make your PC appear to be in dire need of paid-for repairs, when in fact there appear to be no real operational problems.

Similar results with Free Norton PC Checkup

I uninstalled WinZip, cleaned my system again, rebooted, and verified that everything was back to its pre-WinZip state. I then downloaded and ran Free Norton PC Checkup (site).

Its report was less detailed than WinZip System Utilities Suite’s, but it produced almost identical results, claiming to find 399 “problems” on my system. See Figure 8.

Norton PC Checkup scan results

Figure 8. Free Norton PC Checkup claimed that my test system — known to be clean and stable — contained almost 400 issues.

There’s no point in going into detail because, on examination, almost all of the Norton-reported issues closely paralleled those reported by WinZip: harmless cookies (some created by the Norton site itself) reported as security “vulnerabilities,” fully up-to-date drivers being reported as obsolete, and so on.

But Norton had some major missteps all its own. It reported that my Windows firewall was disabled (it was not), and it reported that my PC’s startup had “speed issues.” This was curious because the Norton software did not actually time my system startup. If it had, it would have seen my system boot to the Windows desktop in about 12 seconds, which most would agree isn’t slow at all.

Norton PC Checkup is free, but it makes no repairs until you pay $70. The repairs are then effected by a live tech using Remote Assistance to take over your PC and make adjustments for you.

Although Norton PC Checkup can find some legitimate problems on your system (e.g., junk files), it blends these useful repairs with what I consider to be exaggerated and even outright erroneous items. And the $70 service probably does nothing you can’t do on your own with free software.

AVG’s PC Tuneup

After cleaning and rebooting once again, I ran AVG’s PC Tuneup [free scan; $35 to activate the software to allow repairs; site).

It set the record for the day, reporting almost 600 problems (see Figure 9) on a clean and stable PC.

AVG PC Tuneup scan

Talk about a hard sell: AVG PC Tuneup reported 579 problems on my clean and stable system.

Just as with the previously-discussed tools, when I drilled down to examine these problems, some (such as junk files) were real, with most of the rest either exaggerated or simply wrong.

Here’s one example of an outright error: AVG flagged my C: drive as a problem because it was fragmented. But my C: drive is a solid-state drive which doesn’t need defragmentation and, in fact, can be damaged by defragging. Allowing AVG to perform this one “fix” could have started my SSD down the road to premature failure.

When I uninstalled AVG, it took one parting shot at convincing me to pay for repairs, as shown in Figure 10.

AVG warning on uninstall

Figure 10. As if apparently exaggerating the number and severity of problems weren't enough, AVG displayed this dubious warning when I uninstalled the app.

Like the other products in this article, AVG’s PC Tuneup can find some legitimate problems on your system. But like its competitors discussed above, it has, I believe, inflammatory language, exaggerated problem counts, and at least one potentially dangerous recommended fix. And as with the others, any useful cleanup PC Tuneup might do, you can accomplish on your own with free software.

Scare tactics and hard sells should be a red flag

With only three products in this test-drive, nothing here should be taken as a blanket condemnation of this class of software.

But the software I test-drove for this article clearly seems aimed at inexperienced users who are more likely to purchase “repairs” when confronted with frightening reports of critical and numerous system problems. Unfortunately, these PC users often lack the skills to do basic troubleshooting themselves.

Windows Secrets readers tend to be more hands-on, involved, and knowledgeable about their systems. For this level of user, my original cleanup/tune-up recommendations remain unchanged:

To keep your PC clean, well-optimized, stable, and secure, all you need are the kinds of safe, proven, known-good, security and maintenance tools and techniques described at the top of this article — and in almost every issue of this newsletter!

Subscribe to our Windows Secrets Newsletter - It's Free!

Get our unique weekly Newsletter with tips and techniques, how to's and critical updates on Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows XP, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Google, etc. Join our 480,000 subscribers!

Windows 8.1: Out of the box

Subscribe and get our monthly bonuses - free!

Get a real feel for Windows 8.1 with a wealth of tips in this step-by-step guide. This month, Windows Secrets subscribers can download the first 2 chapters for free: Using Windows 8.1 and Using Email and the Internet. Get this excerpt and other 5 bonuses if you subscribe now!

= Paid content

All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2012-08-09:

Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.