Healthy PC from Symantec is one of those little utility programs that promises to give your system a checkup and either fix, or tell you how to fix, any problems with your hard disk. It looks for viruses and checks to make sure your hard disk is set up properly, that it is free of errors and running at top speed.

It can't fix everything, but it promises to clean out any viruses it finds, and to repair errors on your hard drive and to defragment the drive if it needs it. Defragmenting refers to the process of rewriting the data on the disk so that all files are contiguous and not scattered in parts in different places on the disk. This makes the disk work faster.

Once the program is installed, you just click on its icon and, after a weird delay in which your computer appears to have locked up, its opening screen appears with a "Start" button at its center. Clicking on start brings another delay before the program begins checking your hard drive.

In the midst of giving a Toshiba 205CDS laptop a checkup, Healthy PC suddenly displayed this ominous message: "Healthy PC has detected a serious hardware configuration problem. Your hard disk has not been installed properly. Further use of your computer will eventually result in data loss. Please visit the place where you purchased your computer to have it repaired."

A click on the "help" option brought the following details: "Windows may not be able to access all of your hard disk, although Windows may think it can. When Windows passes the limit on the hard disk, Windows starts writing to the first part of the disk again, causing data corruption. This can occur either because your hard disk has been set up incorrectly or because you moved your hard disk from a new machine to an older machine."

This seemed odd, since the machine came with the hard drive installed at the factory. It has been in service for months with no hint of a problem. Windows 95's "Scandisk" utility, which checks disk drives for errors, reported no problems. Neither did the "System" utility in Windows 95's "Control Panel." "This device is working properly," it said.

Symantec is a reputable firm, so a warning from one of its products is not to be taken lightly. This sounded like a job for another Symantec product, "PC Handyman." Since that program sells for about $50 and "Healthy PC" for half that or less, presumably "Handyman" would do an even better job of checking the hard drive, and its "Disk Doctor" feature might even be able to solve the problem.

After all, right on the box there's a friendly looking cartoon figure wearing a ball cap and a tool kit on his belt. "Windows 95 problems? Hardware problems?" he asks with a smile. "Don't worry. I'll fix them for you." So "PC Handyman" was installed on the Toshiba.

The program boots up to a picture of a PC on a desk, complete with printer, modem and speakers. You click on any part of the PC, and "PC Handyman" is supposed to go to work checking it out and fixing it. In the meantime, the program is supposed to have already had a look at your hard drive the first time you restarted your computer after installing the program. Among its automatic services: "Check the drive configuration and partitions." If an error is found, PC Handyman tells you how to correct the problem. But it said nothing about the Toshiba hard drive.

So we clicked on the part of the computer where the hard drive is ("click here if you're having trouble with your hard drive," says the program). That brought a menu including "fixing and preventing errors." But clicking on that produced only another menu with a list of potential problems that had nothing to do with the hard drive's configuration.

There is a window in the opening screen where you can enter your own description of the problem. There's also a "solve" button. But every description we tried took us back to the same menus we got before. The "solve" button did nothing. We could not get "PC Handyman" to actually do anything with the hard drive's configuration.

That may well be because it had already checked the drive's configuration and found nothing wrong, in which case "Healthy PC" was wrong. Or "PC Handyman" simply failed to see the problem that its Symantec sibling had discovered. Either way, one of these programs is a dud. When we find out which one, we'll let you know.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at, or Brit Hume at

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