Mac Musings

Norton Utilities Warning

Daniel Knight - 2002.09.06 -

I'd used Norton Utilities (NUM) on Macs since version 1.0 came with the Microtech 40 MB hard drive I bought for my Mac Plus a decade ago. In all that time, NUM had never caused a problem.

Sure, there had been a few times when it couldn't solve a problem, but until yesterday, I had run Norton thousands of times on over 100 different computers ranging from my Mac Plus through Quadras and PowerBooks and Power Macs - and it had never created a problem.

My winning streak ended yesterday when I ran Norton Utilities 7.0 on my wife's iBook.

My usual practice is to create at least two partitions on a hard drive, label one Emergency, and put a basic install of the Mac OS on it. When problems crop up, I boot from this partition, run Disk First Aid or whatever other utilities I have. And it's exactly what I should have done yesterday.

Over many years of using Norton Utilities, I learned that things like File Saver and Crash Guard caused far more problems than they created, so when I install NUM on a drive, I disable these two apps before I run Norton the first time. Better safe than sorry.

Besides, I'd heard rare tales of Norton wreaking havoc instead of solving problems.

Conventional Wisdom

There are two important rules to keep in mind:

  1. If it's not broke, don't fix it.
  2. Never run utilities from the drive having problems.

Linda's iMac has been having some problems, so I figured this was a good opportunity to use the OEM copy of Norton I'd recently acquired. Instead of installing it on her emergency partition, I followed conventional wisdom and booted from Norton 7.0 CD-ROM.*

Big mistake.

Unlike any previous versions of NUM that I'd used, the 7.0 CD runs File Saver automatically at startup. Theoretically that should be a good thing, but in this case File Saver managed to write its recovery file in the same area of the hard drive that stored the file directory.

Never let any utility program write to any drive with problems before it attempts to diagnose and correct those problems.

That's right - the program wrote a file designed to recover directory information right over that directory information. In technical terms, the two files were cross linked. In general terms, we now had both a useless disk directory and useless File Saver recovery file.

Norton couldn't fix things, and I couldn't locate my Disk Warrior 2.1 CD, so I grabbed the copy of TechTool Deluxe included with AppleCare and used it to recreate the drive's file structure. It worked well enough to boot the iBook and let some programs run, but some things had completely disappeared - like years worth of email correspondence.

Thank heavens we do network backup daily. Thank heavens for Retrospect. Thank heavens that her most recent backup was done at 5:00 p.m. Wednesday, because at this point, the only real choice was to wipe the main partition and restore all her files from backup.

Norton Is Dangerous

As ten years of use attest, Norton Utilities for Macintosh can be a wonderful program. It can find and fix real problems. It arguably has the best disk optimizer for the Mac. And 99.9% of the time it's going to work, fix problems, and not cause problems.

It's that one time that Norton mucks things up that you need to worry about. Never under any circumstances boot NUM 7.0 from its CD and allow it to create a File Saver file on your hard drive. If the drive is having any problems at all - and isn't that precisely when you're most likely to run diagnostics? - you may end up with cross linked files and a trashed drive.

Lessons Learned

I'm not going to write off Norton, but I will be sure to only run it from an emergency partition where File Saver has been disabled. I've never put much stock in File Saver's ability to do anything useful, but I also never expected it to destroy the directory on a hard drive.

Still, I find Disk Doctor and Speed Disk very useful utilities. Except for the problem caused by booting from the Norton 7.0 CD, both of these programs have performed flawlessly for years.

That said, don't put all your eggs in one basket. Don't trust NUM or any other utility program for file recovery - backup, backup, backup. Whether you backup individual files to Zips or CDs or you backup all your Macs to tape over a network, backup anything and everything that's important. Take no chances.

Further, have more than one tool in your Mac utility belt. I swear by Disk Warrior, which fixes some problems NUM can't touch. I've heard good things about TechTool Pro as well, and you can get a copy of TechTool Deluxe if you buy AppleCare for your Mac.

For instance, while Disk Warrior is fantastic with directory problems, it's pretty much a one trick pony. It will never find a damaged file - but Norton or TechTool will. So have at least two of these in your arsenal.

Never trust File Saver. And to the folks at Symantec: Utility programs are supposed to solve problems, not create them.

* In one of life's odd ironies, although the CD is clearly labeled version 7.0, each of the programs on the CD is version 6.0.3 - which I'd already owned before "upgrading" to what was billed as a new version. Yes, there is a Norton 7.0, but it only runs under Mac OS X, so you can't run it from the bootable CD, which includes Mac OS 9.x. Had I known this, I would have saved my money and avoided this whole mess.