NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article
Second Chance by PowerQuest
by Doug MacDonald, November 99
(click to email author)

"Second Chance" by PowerQuest is a useful utility that helps you to manage your PC without really trying. It is a part of a suite of tools by the same company, all of which are intended to make it easy to restore your system when disaster strikes. The tools cover the full spectrum of possible disasters, ranging from basic system incompatibilities and discombobulation to operator-induced "dumb-dumbs."

The other two products in the suite are DataKeeper, which is a file backup utility, and Drive Image, which maintains an image of each of your hard drives and/or partitions so that you can completely rebuild your system quickly. Both DataKeeper and Drive Image have been discussed in the NWA-PCUG Newsletter before; this article concentrates only on Second Chance.

What is Second Chance? Basically, it is a passive monitor that keeps track of changes made to your system. By periodically establishing "Check Points" as your system changes, you provide yourself with a means of returning to a satisfactorily functioning system if your computer suddenly begins to act up. Of greatest importance is the fact that Second Chance monitors changes to critical areas such as the Windows Registry and operating file system so that if things suddenly stop working you can return to happier days!

Here is a typical scenario where Second Chance is ideal: you have purchased a new application and you are ready to install it onto your system. Before you do so, create a manual Checkpoint using Second Chance so that you have a complete picture of what your system was like before you installed your new software. Go ahead and install the new program and configure it. If all goes well, great! Occasionally, however, this is precisely when your system decides to hang or lock up, slow down substantially, or actually cease to function. What to do now? With Second Chance the answer is easy, because a couple of mouse clicks you can restore your system to the configuration it had just before you added whatever it was that caused your system to stop working. In the process of installing Second Chance you build an emergency recovery disk that will allow your system to reboot and reconfigure itself even if it is totally locked up and you are unable to use Second Chance in the normal way. Often the return to previous system status will involve a reboot as Second Chance restores files to the pre-Checkpoint conditions.

This useful functionality comes with a price, however. Second Chance keeps a copy of all files that were changed between Checkpoints -- this means that after a few checkpoints you have a substantial collection of reference files that are necessary for the program to work its magic. [One of my checkpoints, for example, is 115MB in size!] You can limit the amount of space that is reserved on your hard drive (s) for these backup copies, but they can still get large fairly quickly. Also, since Second Chance only keeps track of the changes between checkpoints, you may not be able to do a complete restore to conditions five or ten checkpoints back if you have removed key files in the interim.

Another useful feature of the application is that Second Chance provides you with a viewer that allows you to see exactly what files and directories have changed between checkpoints. If you compare the "before and after" files with an appropriate tool you can actually see the content of the changes themselves. This can be a valuable troubleshooting device when you need to identify the specific culprit that caused your system crash.

While it is a minor limitation in my opinion, Second Chance does not track changes that were made if you are working in the MS-DOS mode of Windows 95 or 98, since it relies upon the actual Windows system for its file information. This could be a problem for folks who shift to the real MS-DOS mode often. [By "real" MS-DOS mode I mean the mode where Windows shuts itself down and reboots as a pure DOS system to run programs that may not be able to be run within a DOS Window. I am not referring to the situation where a DOS program is run within a Window while the primary operating system remains Windows 95, 98, or NT. This type of operation does not affect Second Chance's ability to track system activity.]

Second Chance, as it comes from the box, is configured to create a new checkpoint automatically each day of the week. You can also create a checkpoint manually at any time, as I indicated above. As it reaches the limit you have set for total disk space devoted to checkpoints, Second Chance will begin to automatically delete existing checkpoints beginning with the oldest checkpoint on the system. You can have the program notify you when this is occurring, but the default condition is not to notify the user that old checkpoints are being eliminated. This should not create a problem for most users, but if you are a person who constantly modifies your system - particularly with software that interacts directly with the operating system, you might want to keep a longer list of checkpoints than normal. You can do this; it will just mean that you have to set aside additional hard disk space for Second Chance to use.

Although it functions as a specialized backup system, Second Chance is not a substitute for regular backup software. This is the reason that PowerQuest recommends the full suite of tools - Second Chance, DataKeeper, and Drive Image. (It may also have something to do with making money!) Each program performs its own functions, and for full protection and ease of system restoration you probably need to run all three types of backup. Second Chance is particularly valuable because it tracks the small changes in the "nooks and crannies" of the Registry and Windows System area that would be very difficult to follow using a standard backup system alone. Likewise, when you "restore" with Second Chance you are really only changing those things you need to fix to get back to a known stable system. You can do the same with a drive image or a backup system, but both of these are more "brute force" methods for accomplishing that function. Also, they each take more time to do their work than Second Chance requires. Seen from this perspective, Second Chance is a more efficient as well as a less drastic cure.

Another useful feature of Second Chance is the fact that it can be used to return to an earlier system status incrementally if you need to do so for some reason. If you create a new checkpoint before you make any major change or each step in a series of changes, you can return backward in a step-by-step manner if you need to identify specifically where the problems began to occur. This can be an invaluable troubleshooting aid, and it can be done much more quickly than if you took the time to do a full backup (or even an incremental backup) between changes.

Fortunately, I never had to use Second Chance to cure a real system crash while I was reviewing the application. I went through several test evolutions where I made small changes and then moved the system back to an earlier state using a checkpoint. In each case Second Chance accomplished the restoration task. Sometimes, however, my Windows98 (Second Edition) system did not cooperate fully. In at least one instance where a reboot was involved, Windows98 recommended a reboot to the Safe mode because it couldn't figure out what was going on and knew that registry changes had been made. I followed the system's recommendation and used the Safe mode to check all of the configurations with which I had played around; Second Chance had made correct restorations in every case. I then rebooted the system normally and when Windows 98 returned, it was stable and configured as I had expected it to be. I only mention this because the limited (but adequate) documentation that comes with the product suggests that restorations are "quick and easy." They are, but sometimes they involve processing that you might not expect!

In summary, Second Chance by PowerQuest appears to be a valuable addition to a user's arsenal of weapons to use against Windows system hangs, crashes, or corruption. The latest version, 2.0, is available with a list price of $69.95 but user group members may purchase SecondChance at a special price of $30 by ordering from the secure web site at http://www.ugr.com/order/. Indicate the special price code of UGEVAL99 with your order or pick up a form at meetings. Contact our editor for more information. The review copy of this software will be placed in our Software Library; I recommend you check it out and work with it to see if it will be a good addition to your bag of software tricks. It definitely was for mine!

Gene Barlow, User Group Relations
PowerQuest Corporation
P.O. Box 275
Orem, UT 84059-0275
barlow@ugr.com -- http://www.ugr.com

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