Disk Utilities Fade Away

There was a time when, after unpacking a new Macintosh, the next purchase you most likely made was a “disk repair and maintenance” utility. This usually meant buying Symantec’s Norton Utilities for Macintosh (NUM), mainly because Symantec bought out (and then discontinued) almost all of its competitors.

Today, NUM itself is long gone. The primary remaining third-party survivors are TechTool Pro, DiskWarrior and Drive Genius. I am not privy to the sales figures for these utilities, but my gut feeling is that they are in a decline. A decline that I expect will continue. In fact, I would not be surprised if one or more of these utilities disappears altogether over the next couple of years.

Why? Because the need for these applications has sharply diminished as computer hardware and Mac OS X software continue to improve. To be specific:

• Apple includes Disk Utility free with Mac OS X. Over the years, it has evolved into a very capable program. Today’s Disk Utility is all most users will ever need.

• The reliability of hard drives has improved to a remarkable extent. These days, if a drive (from a reputable company) has no problems out of the box, it is likely to work well for many years.

• If a drive does develop problems, and it cannot be fixed by Disk Utility, it is often wiser to replace the drive than to attempt further repairs with other utilities. This is especially so because drives are now incredibly cheap. As one example, I just purchased a 2TB Western Digital drive (USB and FireWire) for under $200! You can get the USB-only version of the drive for $159.

There are some drive-related problems that a third-party utility can fix but Disk Utility cannot. However, they are not common. Even in such cases, be wary. An apparently successful repair may temporarily mask an underlying hardware defect that will soon come back to bite you.

• Similarly, given how cheaply you can buy a large capacity drive, problems related to insufficient drive space are on the road to extinction.

• Cheap hard drives and effective software (such as Apple’s Time Machine) make it practical to maintain regular backups on an external drive. This sharply reduces the need to attempt to repair a drive for the sole purpose of data recovery.

Drive Genius 3

My thinking about all of this was prompted by the recent arrival of Drive Genius 3, a major update to ProSoft’s disk repair and maintenance utility. As such utilities go, Drive Genius is probably the best you can get. It combines an attractive easy-to-understand interface with a wealth of features. No other utility handles both sides of this equation as well.

I have not yet tested each new feature, so do not consider this to be a review. However, based on my experience with prior versions, I expect Drive Genius 3 to work pretty much as advertised. And if you do have problems, ProSoft offers great tech support, making it easy to speak to an “actual person” instead of a phone tree.

Still, Drive Genius is an inevitable victim of the forces I described above. To see what I mean, consider the following Drive Genius features:

1. Defrag. I have never defragmented a drive running Mac OS X. And I have had no reason to regret this. Even my most fragmented drive is only about 50% fragmented with considerable free space remaining. I have never noticed any performance degradation as a result. Consistent with my findings, Apple states: “there is little benefit to defragmenting” a Mac OS X drive.

2. DriveSlim. Given the large capacity of today’s hard drives, most users will never come close to running out of free space. However, if this does happen, you can regain room by deleting files and resources you no longer need. Drive Genius’ DriveSlim assists in locating and deleting such items.

On the other hand, Mac OS X’s Spotlight will often be sufficient to locate large unwanted files. Or you may already own a utility for this job, such as WhatSize or the freeware GrandPerspective.

In any case, you want to be careful about removing resources such as language localizations or universal binaries, as doing so can lead to problems.

3. Repair. You don’t need to buy Drive Genius for its basic Repair function, as it does virtually the same thing as Apple’s Disk First Aid. Drive Genius’ separate Rebuild option may occasionally prove useful. However, at a practical level, I cannot recall needing a rebuild in the past ten years.

4. Scan. If you have defective “blocks” on your hard drive, Scan can find them and “map them out” so that they are no longer accessed. This allows you to continue to use the drive without risking writing data to the mapped out blocks. Sounds fine — except that bad blocks are much rarer today than with older drives. You will likely never have this issue. And, even if you do, you are usually better off buying a new drive at this point, as it is often an early warning sign of more serious problems to come.

5. Duplicate. With Duplicate, you can make a clone-like copy of a drive. While this can be a worthwhile backup procedure, users will benefit more from “full-featured” backup utilities such as SuperDuper; these allow you to automate backing up.

6. Shred. As far as I can tell, Shred doesn’t do anything more than you can already do with Disk Utility’s Erase options. Further, for shredding an individual file, you can use the Finder’s Secure Empty Trash command.

7. Reformat and Repartition. You can reformat and partition a drive with Disk Utility. In fact, within limits, you can use Disk Utility to modify the size of an existing partition or create a new partition — without having to erase the drive. While Drive Genius’ Repartition feature offers more options than Disk Utility, and makes them easier to carry out, I don’t believe this is sufficient reason to buy Drive Genius. This is especially so when you consider that most users never partition their drive at all! 

Bottom Line: If you are serious about doing your own troubleshooting, there is value in having an all-in-one utility that can do just about every basic troubleshooting procedure — as well as several non-basic ones. If that describes you, I recommend Drive Genius 3. For everyone else, I see little or no need for Drive Genius 3 or for any of its third-party competitors.