Computers: Gizmo for the meek at heart - Isabel Hilton puts away her cybernetically challenged image to enjoy the power behind 17 megabytes of software for Windows

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The Independent Online
PC Tools for Windows

System: PC-compatible.

Requirements: Hardware: 17 mega bytes of hard disk space.

Software: Windows.

Availability: Most outlets.

Street Price: pounds 69 (inc VAT).

THERE IS a handy rule of thumb for the cybernetically challenged such as myself: that a gizmo that threatens to make life easier is probably lying. Not that, under other circumstances - on somebody else's computer, for instance, it might not turn out to be a little marvel, dusting and sweeping and making the coffee all over the system.

But on my machine it breaks the best china, leaves cigarette burns on the operating system, misplaces everything and finally slams the door so hard that the whole thing grinds to a halt. Days of my life are chewed up with the effort of trying to understand it and make it work.

More often than not it ends in the humiliation of rescue-by-expert. I know that it is all my fault, but some people just cannot handle uppity software and the only thing to do is to gracefully acknowledge your limitations.

So it was not without misgivings, and after expert recommendation that it would change my life, that I took delivery of . I knew the malevolent potential of 17 megabytes of system management software and nearly 900 pages of manual. It could wreck my life in ways I had not even thought of. I would probably end up in a self-help group. And besides, I protested, why did I need it. I could get on with Windows. I knew I could handle it. I did not want to move on to anything stronger.

Nervously, I began to install PC Tools. I retreated, nervously, to my machine and began to install its terrifying 17 megabytes into my unsuspecting PC.

Do you want to create an emergency disk? it asked me. I capitulated at once. Installation is a special humiliation for the cybernetically challenged: you get asked questions you do not understand. 'Default,' you whisper, hoarsely, hoping nobody will notice your panic. It worked. I rebooted. I panicked. Nothing was ever the same again.

Gone was the Tyrannosaurus Rex that my son had managed to install as Windows 'wallpaper' - the background to the normal screen display or 'desktop'. In its place was a screen display labelled 'Isabel Hilton's Office'. This is heady stuff. Not only did I have my own office, but I could have as many 'desks' in it as I wanted, with anything on them, permanently on view.

I could even, I discovered, lock the door against intruders by setting a password on my office or on a desktop and I could set up rumpus rooms for the junior users in the shape of their own offices or desktops with backgrounds in their favourite shades of fluorescent pink and chicken- dropping green and all their games. I began to cheer up.

Tentatively, I began to read the manual. I know that this is a sign of print addiction but I cannot help it. Besides, it helps. Armed with the manual, I set about creating desktops and discovered that one of the joys of the thing is that it saves all that tramping back and forth through the system as you work.

For instance, the journalist, to pick an example out of the air, can have a desktop for freelance work which contains folders for the various publications in which can be collected past articles, research for current work, the current work itself, accounts, expenses and any correspondence.

Clicking on items in the folders automatically loads the applications you need to work on them. So clicking on an unfinished article loads the word processor and opening the expenses file loads the relevant application.

You are also allowed long labels, which I find handy, being a forgetful sort of person who tends to find the filename created 10 days ago has become meaningless. Creating the folders and desktops could not be easier: you can drag and drop from anywhere to anywhere. You can also set up your folders and desktops so that any new files created in certain directories are automatically added to the right folder.

There are other crutches too. I find the existence of Smartfind - a quick search facility - and Undelete - which recovers a file accidently deleted - a real security blanket, though I have not had to resort to them often. I also, in the installation, requested regular virus and disk checks, so each time I switch on my machine tells me that we have missed our schedule and offers to do it now. You can tell it not to, but it gives a sense of good housekeeping to be asked.

Lest I grow too smug, the software has many ways of reminding me that it is smarter than I am. Clicking System Consultant is a sure fire way of reminding myself that I am definitely the apprentice, not the sorcerer. It produces a flood of totally unintelligible prose then asks me incomprehensible questions. If I say yes, I then panic in case I have agreed to something I will never be able to unscramble. If I say no, I feel like a wimp.

Something else that continues to mystify me is the whereabouts of an icon relating to some software installed since PC Tools took over my life. The software is there, but the icon has gone AWOL. It does not matter, in that I can just create a folder with the necessary . EXE file - a file which will load and run a program - in it. but I do not like to think of the icon languishing alone and neglected in some corner of the system. I wish I knew where it was. Perhaps one day I will find it, along with all the other features of PC Tools that I have not encountered yet.

One handy item I have met it is called Tag-along, which allows you to keep to hand applications that you use frequently - like electronic mail or the fax software - as you change desktops. The item appears with a little thumbtack on the bottom of the screen and saves you having to amble around looking for it. It will be jolly useful, I know, if I ever get my new fax-modem to work. But that is another story.

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