THE BLOG

The Writers Workbench: System Utilities

04/08/2015 12:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015

Okay, you have your computer or notebook. You're all set. Except that you aren't. Unlike the old world of typewriters and quill pens, computers exist in a far larger world around them, and it's important that they be protected in a variety of ways. Too many people overlook this, and it not only causes problems from them - but in some ways it even causes problems for others (as viruses get passed around, for example.)
But rest easy, protecting yourself is not all that much of a challenge - whether it's against viruses, spyware, or crashes. So, here are some thoughts about a couple of anti-malware and back-up solutions.

  • Malwarebytes Anti-Maleware Premium
  • Acronis True Image 2015
  • CMS Bounceback Ultimate
  • Malwarebytes Anti-Exploit

Almost more than any other program, a good anti-virus program is critical. It's the first thing I install when I get a new system. In fact, I usually load two or even three anti-maleware programs, since they each check in different proprietary ways, and some check more for viruses, and others for spyware. (They're cousins, but different.) Know that you should only run one such program actively at a time (for realtime protection) to avoid conflicts. The others I run manually, generally once a week.

For many years, I've used Malwarebytes as one of those free, once-a-week programs. It's always been very good, with a top reputation. I decided to check it out finally as my realtime program that's running actively, all the time. This Premium version doesn't cost much - only $25 which lets you install it on up to three PCs. Working out to just $8 a PC is not shabby.

As good as it's been in the past, Malwarebytes has always had a sort of stodgy user interface, not only in appearance, but in not being user-friendly. That's changed. It now has a vibrant look that lays out information clearly on its home screen.

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Not just on the main screen, but under the hood, as well. The program is much improved and is very clear for making your way around. Click on Settings, and an easy-to-follow set of options is laid out.

For instance, setting up automated scans is as simple as selecting the button. No need to search around under the hood for it. (I run a scan at four in the morning, when happily sleeping, but the scan is respectably quick so it's not even all that necessary to run then. I've tested it during the day, and it wasn't a system hog.)

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All such programs use their own proprietary technologies for protection. In Malwarebytes' case, they use three processes (checking virus signatures, heuristics scanning, and behavioral activity) to protect your home system and your online experience. I'm not set up to do in-depth anti-virus analysis, but Malwarebytes consistently has excellent ratings from a range of trusted sources I follow for protecting against threats and removing them. It also protects against anti-malware and anti-spyware - though as noted above, I still like to have secondary software for those to give added security.

Malwarebytes Premium has "malicious website protection" against phishing sites. (Those are dangerous websites that send out fake URL addresses that look like something else and appear safe.) It also importantly protects against horribly-malicious rootkits. (The short version is that rootkits are little devils that can modify the operating system in a way that's hidden). Also, one of the challenges of AV software is that a lot of malware tries to disable the software itself - Malwarebytes has a self-protection mode that creates a Safe Zone to prevent this kind of manipulation.

Because Rootkit protection slows scanning, and self-protection delays the loading of the program, both are not enabled by default. I understand the reasoning, but because these two protections are so valuable, and the point of AV software is protection, more than speed, I wish they were the defaults. I suspect a lot of people leave them unchecked, and therefore unprotected. While I know some people do prefer speed, I think that should be their option, and protection should be the default.

Somewhat similarly, there are a few other oddities in their defaults. For instance, "Check for updates" is not automatically enabled. You have to go to Settings/ Automated Scheduling and select it. This would seem to me something that also should be an obligatory default. And "Help" is buried under Settings / About. For a program that is now so user-friendly and easy to use, this is mindless. There should be a "Help" button front and center.

I also experienced what I thought was a problem, but it was just an odd way the program works, and Customer Support explained things quickly and clearly. (I'd formatted an external drive before doing a manual backup to it, and not everything got backed up on the first pass, though did on a follow-up. What happened was this, after formatting a drive, one is supposed to select the "Launch a full backup" option" - I hadn't done so because I thought that would backup everything on my system. It turns out that this will only backup everything on your system if you're doing a system backup - if you're just doing a "data backup" job, like this was, it means it will backup everything in that job only.) The phrasing on the button isn't great, though makes sense when you know - but beyond that, the Customer Service gets high marks.

There were also two little glitches with the program. In the first case, shutting down my computer re-set the Automated Schedule I had set up, and it changed to when I started my system up again. (It was easy to fix - delete the scheduled scan, and just add a new one.) The company says this is a known bug that will be fixed in the next update. And there also was had a temporary glitch with their CDN (Content Delivery Network), so one night it appeared that my system wasn't protected, and I couldn't figure how to resolve it. But things soon were running smoothly again.

All these quibbles aside, I find the Malwarebytes Anti-Maleware Premium a terrific program that now has a significantly-improved, easy user-interface, and offers excellent protection. I wish they'd address those default oddities, but then that's up to them. As long as you know what to select - which you do now, having read this - you're covered.

Once upon a time, Windows had a Backup and Restore program built into the operating system, so it was easy to do a nightly backup, something that's a Very Good Idea. (Especially when you save it to an external hard drive, or perhaps to the cloud, not onto your same hard drive. The whole point of a backup program is as a safety valve if your hard drive fails. So, if it fails, and that's where your backup is, you're really out of luck)

Backup and Restore no longer exists in Windows, though, so you now need a third-party backup program. Sort of. Bear with me.

It's still a very good idea to have a backup program, but the reason Windows dropped it is because it's not as critical anymore. First, Windows 8.1 has a feature called File History - as mentioned, when you set it up it will back up all your document files automatically, in real time as you work on them and make changes. And Windows 8.1 also still has a feature that lets you create an "Image" of your hard disk - a very good thing to do, it's basically a snapshot that can restore an entire hard disk exactly. (You don't necessarily create an Image all the time, but at the very least it's a good thing to do when you've made a major, substantive change.) Image isn't as easy to find as it was when part of Backup and Restore, but it's still there, and easy enough to locate. And also, importantly, there's now Microsoft Accounts. (Remember that?!) Now, if your system crashes, or you set up another computer, you simply log into your Microsoft Account, and it remembers the apps you downloaded from the Windows Store and system settings. It won't re-load everything instantly, but rather will have links to everything, and you pick and choose what you want.

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It's that "from the Windows Store" part that's the caveat. If you installed any of your own third-party programs on the Desktop, a Microsoft Account won't know those. It only helps with programs on the Metro/Modern Interface. (Those are the ones you downloaded from the Windows Store.) The point here is that if you have a problem, Windows 8.1 will have you covered mostly, even without a backup program. But you'll still have to reinstall those third-party Desktop programs. Depending on your system, that might be only a few things, or a whole lot.

So, it's still good to have a backup program. It's just not as critical as before, if you set up your Windows 8 system with File History, Microsoft Account, and Image.

There are two types of backup programs. One backs up files and folders in their native formats (like .doc and .jpg), so you can access them anywhere. Another type uses proprietary backup to create one big Image file. The latter is what Acronis True Image Backup does.

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I happen to like a file/folder backup, for its accessibility. I create a few backups, including one with my Documents folder and important data that I put on my Flash drive which hangs on my key chain. As a result, wherever I am, I can access this backup. But the advantage of an Image backup is that it's more protective. If your system crashes, you can have it back up and running quickly.

As noted, Windows 8 does let you create an Image. But it's a one-time manual thing. Acronis lets you automate the process and run the Image backup whenever you want behind the scenes, like overnight. And it creates "incremental" updates of any changes since the last backup, so that each day's Image backup isn't massive, which saves you huge disk space. (A normal Image backup can easily be 100 GB or much more. An incremental backup will be around just 1 GB.) In case of a crash, Acronis True Image will restore your system without having to reinstall your operating system. And you can "clone" your disk with the program, as well, in case you want to move everything on your PC to another PC. Additionally, you can protectively save the Image backup to the Acronis cloud and access it from anywhere - though that costs extra. You can also create different types of Image backups - a Full PC, or partitions, or individual folders or files, or whatever you want.

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Note, too, that although Acronis True Image does let you create backups of individual folders and files, it does so in its proprietary format, rather than native formats (like .doc or .jpg). That's ideal for protecting your system with a backup, which for most people is the main need. But if you have different needs, and what you want is instant access to backed-up files on, say, a Flash drive or small portable drive you carry with you when away from home, native files are more advantageous, being accessible from everywhere.

I have to admit I find some of the options with Acronis a bit of a challenge. It's not hard at all to set up a basic Full PC Image Backup. Exceedingly easy in fact. But if you want to do more, things aren't explained well. Additionally, a few things actually bewildered me, so I wrote to the PR rep, who was told the company wanted me to instead ask my questions within the program itself, using the "Send feedback" feature. Fair enough, it's what customers would do - but I never heard back. I did follow-up again with the terrific PR rep though, who tracked down the answers: all three issues turned out to be bugs, which are being addressed and likely fixed by the time your read this.
To be clear, Acronis is an extremely popular program, so a whole lot of people have figured it out. Some of this is just me. But I did get confused. And did figure the basics out very easily.

(The previous version I looked at was even more bewildering, and oddly created its own User Account for Windows 8. All of this was drastically improved with the version tested here.)

And I want to reiterate one important thing. If you use Acronis just to create a daily (or weekly, or whenever) Full PC Image Backup - which is the most critical function - that is extremely easy to do. Set it and forget it. But it's clear that Acronis does a huge amount more, and offers tons of impressive options, and while I figured some of that out, it's also where I got lost wandering in the weeds.

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There are a lot of backup options available on the market - File History and Image built into Windows, file backup programs, and Image backups. People can get by on any of these, including the free options in Windows. But an Image backup is something that can be a critical saver if you have a crash, which is the main reason for having a backup scheme in place. And though it probably operates at a higher end if you want to get under the hood to do more (and I found a touch confusing) setting up a basic, Full PC Image Backup is very easy to do. And very protective. At the time of writing a single license retails for $50. (You can get three licenses for $80.)

As I mentioned, there are two forms of backup. (Well, okay, a lot more than two, but for our purposes here that's what we're going with.) One is backup that uses proprietary files, and the other uses native files, like .doc and .jpg. The former is most common for creating an image or doing full system backups, but I find native files very valuable and use that kind of backup all them. The main reason is accessibility. If for whatever reason I lose connection to the software, and wherever I am, I can carry native file backups with me, whether on a Flash drive attached to my key chain, or a small, portable backup drive in my briefcase and work with them on any computer in the world.

Which brings us to CMS Bounceback Ultimate. To be clear, Bounceback does more than just back up native files and folders. It can handle creating full-system backups (including programs and your operating system) that will be bootable in case of a crash. You can also use Bouncebook for Instant PC Recovery, to run your computer externally, if your hard disk fails. And you can set the program for "real-time backup" to automatically back up files as soon as they've been changed. (This is something that Windows can do, as well, now, if you set it for File History.)

Bounceback has a fairly easy user interface. Click what you'd like to do with easy-to-understand buttons. (For instance, "Realtime Backup. Yes/No.") And when you select to create a backup job, a file tree appears in a left panel to check off what you want backed up - down to specific files -- while the destination options show up in a right panel. When you're done, you give the job a unique name and simply select when you want to run it. (I set up backup jobs for a weekly external drive, and one to backup onto a smaller-capacity Flash drive.)

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You can schedule backups to run at specific times of the day, of course, or just do manual backups when you've attached an external destination run. Related to this, you can also choose whether to start running a backup as soon the external drive is attached. Or other similar options, all clearly marked. The program even has a very helpful options that lets you do multiple backups at the same time, to multiple drives - this won't be of interest to most people, but it's quite advantageous to people who like to have extra protection, which ultimately the point of doing backups. (When I'm working on a major project, for instance, I'll keep three or four backups of the files.)

Initials backups will always take a while, of course, but subsequent backups are fairly quick, because since Bounceback makes incremental backups - that means it will only backup files that have changed or been added since the last time the backup was run. This also keeps the size of the backup smaller.

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Easy as the program is to use, I didn't find everything about the Help system to be great. On the positive side, when you hover your mouse pointer over a feature, a pop-up window explains a bit about what that does, which I quite liked. However, oddly, when you're editing a backup job, there's no Help button - you have to go to the main Backup Job Manager for that. And the Help how-to guide was only moderately explanatory. Happily, you don't need a lot of explanation, but such an otherwise well-done (and fairly easy to use) program, I expected better.

Not everyone needs or wants native file backup. I happen to like the added safety of having all my backed up files accessible, wherever I am. I also don't think one system is necessarily mutually exclusive of the other. The point of backup, as I said, is safety and to protect yourself.

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There are a number of pretty good free backup programs that exist. Those tend to be good at what they do, but without some of the bells-and-whistles that might make your backup schemes easier. They're worth looking at if your needs are small, but I've liked CMS Bounceback in its earlier incarnations, and find its Bounceback Ulimate a very powerful and easy to use program. It's not the least expensive kid on the block, though, probably my biggest other quibble. At the time of writing, it retails for $80, which at least is not outlandish.

Anti-Exploit is companion software to Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware program. I wouldn't be surprised if at some point the two programs merge, since they overlap in many ways, but who knows, that for the future. And they do operate in their own worlds, no matter how close. The simplest way to describe the difference is that Anti-Malware (like other anti-virus programs) protects you system from being infected by viruses, worms, keyloggers and other malware, which corrupt your overall computer. Anti-Exploit keeps individual programs that are most vulnerable for having their code rewritten from having that occur. Basically, three layers of security are wrapped around your applications as a shield. The program on your computer that's most at risk is likely the browser, but other applications - like Microsoft Office, PDF readers, media players and Java - are also vulnerable.

Using Malwarebytes Anti-Exploit is incredibly easy. About as easy as any software on your system. After installing the program, an opening screen comes up.

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It tells you that it's running, along with how many current programs are being protected - basically your open applications, and if any attempts have been made to exploit anything that's running. After that, you...well, no, that's basically it. You're done.

Anti-Exploit runs in the background, and there really are no settings that you have to adjust. A tab for Shields tells you what's covered, and the Logs tab shows you what's currently running and being protected. You can add and remove shields, or clear logs, but for most people, you won't. You just sit back and use your computer like always.

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I didn't notice any drag at all on running my computer, and boot-up/shut-down time seemed pretty normal. It's basically an extra layer of protection, and it works without any involvement from you.

At the time of writing, Malwarebytes Anti-Exploit retails for $25. It's good protection at a low cost. But if that's an extra level of protection you rather than pay for, know that the company has a free version. It protects your browser and add-ons, as well as Java. But Office, media players and PDF readers are left on their own.

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"The Writers Workbench" appears monthly on the website for the Writers Guild of America. To see this entire column, with complete product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," please click here

To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about this or many other matters both large and tidbit small, see Elisberg Industries.