5. Magix PC Check & Tuning
Casting a spell on our netbooks and Registries
German software company Magix is best known in the UK for its powerful (if clunky) video and music software, so its venture into system optimisation feels somewhat at odds with what's gone before. Further doubts were cast when we opened the box and came across a huge printed manual.
In this age of intuitive software, physical instruction booklets seem like a bit of a novelty. Our uncertainties were set aside once we'd installed the software. Although it's not the handsomest of programs, everything's nicely laid out, with a traffic light system displaying your system's status - red for current problems, green for resolved problems and yellow for things that have not yet been investigated. It's perfect for beginners, provided they haven't been put off by the huge manual.
The hand-holding continues throughout the software. Each option comes with a clear description so you know what it's going to do to your PC. There are some nice additions to the Registry cleaners and performance boosts too. A netbook-specific section deactivates certain visual effects and maximises your workspace, and Magix has included its own efficient power management plans on top of the Windows defaults.
The impact on our machine wasn't spectacular, with average results in our Half-Life 2 and LibreOffice tests. It found more Registry problems that most, but any advantages this had at boot up were assuaged by PC Check & Tuning taking time to load itself into Windows.
Internet tuning is welcome, but doesn't support Chrome, which may explain the slight increase in our Peacekeeper benchmark. Our hopes for Magix weren't high, but we were pleasantly surprised by its clean layout and simple operation. It may not have performed quite as well as others in our group test, but it's a great debut.
6. Norton Utilities
The big boys enter the optimisation arena
Norton's reputation for antivirus software makes it a name people trust, so its venture into PC optimisation should fit like a glove. PC users rely on its software to keep all sorts of viruses and trojans at bay, so it makes sense that they should let it tinker with the way their machines run.
Resplendent in Norton's trademark honey-yellow hues, Utilities includes the de facto optimisers - and nothing more. You'll find a Registry cleaner, service management, defragmentation tools and start-up tool. A complete optimisation involves clicking through a series of soulless web-page-like menus and applying the fixes Norton recommends. One nice touch is that Norton can apply fixes instantly without a system reboot thanks to a Refresh Windows setting.
The level of control here is all or nothing. Norton provides a pair of service managers with just two options - Recommended or Minimal. Choose either and you are presented with a huge list of running services to customise, but little in the way of description or explanation. Check boxes turn them on or off, but most users will simply go with what Norton reckons is best. It seems like an extravagantly over-complicated approach to something that could be quite simple.
Utilities failed to provide a substantial performance boost too, increasing our boot time and giving mediocre results in Half-Life 2 and LibreOffice timed benchmarks. It found 114 Registry problems, which again places it at the lower end of the scale. Anyone wanting a significant improvement will be disappointed.
Norton may make the most popular antivirus software on the planet, but Utilities feels like an attempt to exploit the brand, by sticking yet another essential Norton product on the shelves. Unfortunately, it doesn't reach the heights that other Norton products do.
7. Advanced System Optimizer 3
Two-in-one system optimiser and antivirus
Advanced System Optimiser scans your PC for security vulnerabilities and Registry issues, then presents them all in a dramatic red box inviting you to 'Register now'. It found 1,206 issues on our machine, which is somewhat surprising given that no other piece of optimisation software on test reported so many.
Once we'd registered, Advanced System Optimiser ran a full scan of our machine and fixed these problems. It also dumped folder upon folder of HTML report files on our desktop, closed Chrome and restarted our PC.
With such intrusive and poorly designed programming, you'd hope that ASO would offer serious improvements in performance, but the results were only slightly above average: Windows boot time increased by nine seconds, LibreOffice ran fairly quickly, and it came second in our Peacekeeper browser benchmark league. Where it did offer a surprising boost was our Half-Life 2 test, where it gave better results than any other optimisation tool.
There are a couple of added benefits too. ASO comes with System Protector, which is essentially a stripped back antivirus program. This isn't an antivirus group test, so we won't detail its intricacies, and we certainly wouldn't trust it alone to defend our PCs. It does make Advanced System Optimizer feel a little more substantial, though.
Its other benefit is a gaming mode, and ASO is the only optimisation tool to offer this. Any game you specify is run in a virtual desktop, so you can switch between it and your real desktop quickly. It also smooths out sound levels so your eardrums aren't burst by virtual gunfire, and allows key remapping. It's a handy feature, but it's not quite enough to save Advanced System Optimizer from its heavy-handed interface and intrusive operation.
8. Piriform CCleaner
Can this free software take on its paid-for rivals?
Fifty-four seconds. It's how long Amir Kahn stood in the ring at the WBO Intercontinental lightweight championship before being knocked out by Breidis Prescott in 2008. It's also the amount of time it took our Windows 7 PC to boot up after we'd installed CCleaner. For Kahn, it was a bad result. For us, it's very, very good.
Unlike all the other products in our round-up, CCleaner is freeware, so you don't have to pay a penny for it. Rather than promising a complete system optimisation, it just cleans out all your various browsers' temporary files, tidies up the Registry and empties Windows' temporary storage areas and Recycle Bin. It doesn't hang around on your system, and it doesn't load when Windows starts, which may go some way in explaining that amazing boot up time.
You might expect freeware to be poorly-presented and chock full of adverts, but CCleaner is marvellously refreshing in its simplicity. It simply says, 'Here's what we've found, you can click this button to get rid of it.' You can choose what's kept and what's not, but you can also set it to clean everything apart from those all-important persistent logins for webmail services like Gmail and Hotmail.
In the rest of our tests, CCleaner didn't make a huge difference to native Windows performance. It scored second lowest in our Peacekeeper benchmark, and LibreOffi ce took its time loading. Half-Life 2 took slightly longer to load, but this could have been a result of CCleaner turfing out some of gaming client Steam's temporary files - something no other product did.
These are slight misgivings compared to that all-important 54 second Windows boot time. CCleaner may not appeal to those who are looking for the all-singing, all-dancing optimisation software, but for us it's simply brilliant: a stripped-back piece of software that does exactly what it should. And it's free.