Sunday, December 03, 2006

Norton Ghost Exorcised

There was a time when Peter Norton's programs were the best system tools available for the PC. However, in recent years, mostly since the acquisition by Symantec, the quality appears to have been slipping.

  • Norton Antivirus has a significant negative impact on system performance.
  • Norton SpeedDisk made my system unusably slow for the entire week I left it running, with no indication that it would ever finish 'optimizing' my hard drive.
  • Norton Protected Recycle Bin didn't really add any significant functionality to the Windows Recycle Bin, and like the other apps was a resource hog.
  • Norton GoBack is another resource hog, adds little to Windows System Restore, and by many accounts makes systems unstable or even renders them unbootable. Hardly acceptable behavior for a program that's supposed to protect you from buggy software that screws up your system.

Norton Ghost has now joined the growing list of Symantec products I would never voluntarily install.

I was getting ready to upgrade to a larger hard drive, and wanted to simply move my entire filesystem to the new disk, along with all my installed games and game saves. A drive imaging program would do the trick. I happened to have a copy of Norton Ghost 2003 I'd gotten with a hard drive, and I'd heard good things about it, so I decided to try that.

I installed Ghost, ran it, and found that it wanted to boot in its own "virtual partition" so it could copy files that are locked while Windows is running. Fine. So I let it do its thing and rebooted the PC. On reboot Ghost told me something was wrong and offered to let me reboot the machine in its previous state (i.e. before Ghost twiddled the partitions). So I chose that, rebooted, and it...

Displayed the same error message.

After several hours and an rapidly increasing percentage of gray hairs, I was able to find a combination of commands issued from the Windows XP Home install disk and from a Linux boot disk (Knoppix 4.01) that allowed me to fix the partitions and drive letters back and delete Ghost's virtual partition. To my great relief, on the next reboot I was back in my familiar Windows XP environment.

After uninstalling Ghost and removing from my system any trace of it I could find, I did some research. I dug into the nooks and crannies of the Web, and it appears that Ghost has problems with SATA boot drives, which is the kind I have. But that's really beside the point.

What we have here is a backup tool: a program to assist you in securing your data against mishap. But it modifies the source before copying it, and does so in a way that renders the machine unusable if anything goes wrong. Sure, I was able to restore the machine to its previous state. But I'm also a computer professional with over twenty years of experience. Joe Normal who doesn't know the tricks I do would be sunk; he'd either have to find someone like me to help him or reformat his drive and lose everything.

So I now renounce all software Symantec. There would have to be some indication that their software development methods have had a major change for the better before I considered purchasing or using any of their products.

Epilogue: I found a combination of Linux tools that would let me do the image copy, and which was considerably faster than solutions based on reading the filesystem file by file. And I can now use it to make regular backups of my system drive.

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