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June 1991

Diagnostic software. (TouchStone Software Corp.'s Check It 3.0) (Software Review) (evaluation)

by Hoffberg, Alan M.

    Abstract- TouchStone Software Corp's Check It 3.0 diagnostic software package helps users identify the cause of PC problems and make repairs. The package comes with a manual and a 40-minute videotape on maintenance. Users can easily perform the diagnostic steps in less than 20 minutes. The program can detect problems in several areas, including the main system board, memory, disk drives, communications ports, and printers. The program, which can be used with IBM PCs or PC-compatible computers, costs $149.95.

Typical problems that can be easily repaired or identified for repair by a technician include:

* Sticking key(s) on the keyboard;

* Erratic mouse operation;

* Incorrect time and/or date at startup;

* Failure of floppy drive to read diskette;

* Rolling or misadjusted video image;

* Memory error;

* Loss of data on hard disk drive; and

* Decreased performance from an impact or inkjet printer.

The PC diagnostic software package Check It version 3.0, from TouchStone Software Corporation, includes the appropriate system tools that identify most of the simple problems enumerated above. The accompanying manual explains how to make repairs that do not require special technological training. A related 40-minute video, Basic PC Maintenance, gives a visual demonstration of how to make many of the repairs.

Stop It Before It Happens

A clerk or secretary can easily perform the diagnostic steps with Check It, which should be performed on a regular basis, preferably every month or quarter, to protect against a surprise PC failure. The actual testing process requires less than 20 minutes, and can run unattended. During operation, Check It displays its progress on the video monitor and, upon conclusion, offers the user the option of printing a PC certification report.

When I visit clients, I usually run Check It on each PC while I attend to other consulting activities. If your firm or client has more than three or four PCs, an investment in Check It quickly pays for itself.

Eliminate Conflicts

During a recent engagement, I recommended that the client link its separate PCs into a network. Because I do not specialize in networks, I arranged for the help of the MAS department of another CPA firm. The MAS staff could not get two of its eight PCs to function within the network. The other consultants though the client would have to either repair or replace these PCs.

The MAS people were familiar with the installation of networks, but they did not have experience in retro-fitting such a variety of dissimilar PCs, varying in age and option card configurations. My client's computers actually represented a cross-section of the development of computer technology over the past 10 years. Having experienced similar difficulties when installing option boards for other clients, I concluded that the network cards in each of the troublesome PCs had been installed with the wrong interrupt setting, causing interference with the other installed option cards.

By running diagnostic tests on each PC, the problem was identified and the solution suggested. The diagnostic software displayed the interrupts in use and confirmed that two had been set incorrectly. Five minutes with each of the troublesome PCs was all that was needed to set each network card to use one of the few available interrupts and to bring each PC to life on the network. The other consultants became believers, and now Check It is part of the resources they use in their consulting activities.

Check It provides three additional essential displays about your PC's hardware and software: configuration, DOS device drivers, and the CMOS table.

Diagnostic Tests

A menu bar offers simple navigation through the variety of user options. The diagnostic tests detect problems with the following types of PC hardware.

* Main system board. The main processor (real and protected modes for 386 and above), numeric co-processor (if installed), and the interrupt and direct memory access controllers.

* Memory. Up to 16 megabytes of base and extended memory, by address range, with optional test patterns and multiple passes.

* Hard and floppy disk drives. Nondestructive tests and detailed error reporting. For more thorough testing, TouchStone offers a companion product called Floppy Drive Testing System, which includes either a 5.25- or 3.5-inch special Mini-Spiral alignment disk by ASKY, Inc. The Mini-Spiral disk contains a number of special tracks written in a spiral on the disk rather than a concentric circle. This technique provides more accurate and repeatable results than traditional digital or analog alignment disks with oscilloscopes.

The Mini-Spiral technology was originally developed for use by the quality assurance and repair personnel at various PC manufacturers, including Apple Computer and Unisys. In 1982, a repair technician told me an alignment disk had cost him $250. TouchStone has brought this technology to the general public for under $70, so users can detect floppy drive problems, before the problem manifests itself with a fatal error.

I ordered both sizes of Mini-Spiral disk to properly service my clients. The 5.25-inch disk works in both 360K and 1.2MB disk drives; the 3.5-inch diskette works in both 720K and 1.44MB disk drives.

* Video sub-system. Character and graphics modes, with on-board RAM (random access memory) testing, for both monochrome or color monitors.

* Communication ports. With either internal or external loopback tests. To test a port, one must connect a peripheral to the port (such as a printer or modem) or a loopback plug. If you have installed a loopback plug, the diagnostic software performs more extensive checking of the parallel or serial port. The Check It manual comes with instructions on building your own loopback plug, but TouchStone offers a complete set of three for $29.95.

* Printers. With printing tests for IBM, Epson (or compatible) dot matrix printers, and Hewlett-Packard (or compatible) laser printers.

* Input devices. Keyboard, mouse, and joystick.

You can run the tests in a quick test-everything mode, select batch (unattended) mode, or one test at a time. In addition to displaying the results on the monitor and printing the certification report, you can also log the tests results to a disk file for subsequent review and/or printing.

Performance Benchmarks

The software provides four types of benchmarks for measuring PC performance. It measures actual throughput rather than the manufacturer's rated speed, thereby giving a standard for comparison of performance (which is IBM's Model XT).

* Processor speed (dhrystones);

* Numeric or math co-processor (whetstones);

* Video display throughput (characters per second); and

* Hard disk actual drive speed (revolutions per minute) and data transfer rate (bytes per second).

I use the video display benchmarks on both my 286 and 386 style PCs to determine how to install the video board to more than double the apparent speed of the computer.

System Tools

Check It provides a number of system tools for fixing simple problems (which you might normally perceive as complex). If the PC has a memory error, the RAM locator shows which chip requires replacement. The software provides for two methods of operation. In simple mode, the software asks a series of questions and displays intermediate results which identify the approximate location of the bad chip on the memory board. In advanced mode, an experienced user skips the questions and fills in a memory description table. In turn, Check It graphically displays exactly where the bad SIPP, SIMM, or chip is located.

You can also format the hard disk, if special formatting is not required, as well as set either the CMOS date or time (for type 286 or subsequent CMOS type PCs). These utilities are useful if the diagnostic software indicates a bad track or you need to reset the PC's battery backed-up memory used for storing the current time and date and other system characteristics used during startup of the PC.

Check It includes a copy of the McAfee Associates Virus Scan software that identifies over 200 different kinds of virus infections on both hard and floppy disks. I've used this utility on my PCs and it required under three minutes to scan an entire 40MB hard disk.

Customer Support

The last two times I contacted TouchStone's Customer Support Group, they provided prompt and accurate information. However, you will have little need to contact them because the manuals are well written, including touches of humor and orientation for both the non-technical and technical user.

Emphasize Avoiding Problems

TouchStone stresses that this technology should be used to avoid problems and not just to fix them. The use of diagnostic information provided by Check It can determine whether the problem you are encountering lies in the hardware. The software helps to pinpoint the problem before the technician gets started. When the repairs are complete, you can use the software to verify that the technician fixed everything.

TouchStone also offers a simplified and less complete PC certification program called PC Test. In approximately seven minutes, the software performs basic diagnostic tests on all major PC components, runs standard benchmarks and prepares a one-page certification report.

You can order the products from your local computer store. If you have difficulty obtaining any of these products, you may order them through my company, Information Resource Management Inc., 516/679-2228.

* Prices: Check It, $149.95; PC Test, $49.95; Mini-Spiral floppy alignment disk, $69.95 or $99.95 for both 3.5" and 5.25"; three-piece serial and parallel port loopback plug kit, $29.95; and Basic PC Maintenance Hands-On video, $29.95.

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