Software utilities can boost your productivity - and be fun Every time Microsoft releases a new operating system, the question arises: What utilities do I need for my computer?

Computer utilities are small programs that help you work better with your hardware or existing software. Unlike application programs, they don't let you do anything externally, such as prepare a letter or budget.

To its credit, with each new version of Windows, and before that of DOS, Microsoft has bundled in utilities you previously had to pay extra for.

Windows Me, the latest version, includes tools for restoring corrupted system files, sharing an Internet connection among multiple PCs, reattaching files that become fragmented, viewing graphics, deleting unnecessary files and backing up data and programs.

Unfortunately, the utilities Microsoft typically provides are limited compared with "third-party" programs, and this continues with Windows Me.

That's why utilities remain popular. Five of the top 10 best-selling business software programs are utilities, according to the latest numbers from market research firm PC Data.

Whether you use a PC in a business or home setting, utilities can boost your productivity. They can also be fun, in a geeky sense, to experiment with.

There's a slight risk to such experimentation, however. Infrequently, poorly designed utilites can corrupt other software. The remedy typically involves simply reinstalling the corrupted software, although, very infrequently, it can necessitate wiping your hard disk clean and reinstalling everything.

What's more, when used carelessly, some utilities can temporarily disable a computer. That's why, in organizational settings, some system administrators restrict the use of utilities to advanced users.

The financial risk to using utilities is usually small. Most cost little and some are free, released to the public by the developer in an act of goodwill to promote a consulting or publishing business, or to show off programming virtuosity.

Here's a roundup of some of the best utilities on the market today - common names as well as little gems you may not have heard of.

- Norton SystemWorks (www.symantec.com/sabu/sysworks) Peter Norton popularized third-party utilities back in the 1980s. After he sold the store to utility powerhouse Symantec, his products kept their brand names but sometimes experienced the indignity of bug infestation.

The latest version of Symantec's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink utility package, Norton SystemWorks, seems stable. Included are top-notch tools for system maintenance, debris clean-up and virus protection. The pro version also offers fax and drive imaging programs.

- Norton Personal Firewall (www.symantec.com/nis) If you have a permanent Internet connection, whether cable, DSL or T1, you need protection against hackers, and this is a great choice. A related product, Norton Internet Security, includes both hacker and virus protection.

- Norton AntiVirus (www.symantec.com/nav) Virus protection is the most vital tool missing from all versions of Windows, and if you don't have access to antivirus software, buy this.

- PowerDesk (www.ontrack.com/powerdesk) One of the earliest types of utilities was the file manager. Windows comes with Windows Explorer, which offers everything most people need to copy, move and otherwise manage files. But if you work with lots of files, you can do better with PowerDesk.

This program was recently sold to Ontrack, best known for its data recovery services, by its creator, Mijenix. Its two-pane view of the files on your hard disk and its bundled tools for working with Zip-compressed files are the most useful of the many improvements over Windows Explorer.

- PartitionMagic (www.powerquest.com/partitionmagic) Dividing a hard drive into "partitions" is an effective way of keeping organized if you have lots of programs and data or run multiple operating systems from one computer.

This is the best collection of tools for managing these partitions. The most innovative lets you quickly move programs and associated files and links from one partition to another.

- TweakIE (www.tweakie.com) As its name implies, this utility lets you tweak IE - Microsoft Internet Explorer. Among other things, it can help you cover your tracks when surfing by instantly wiping out your history, cache and cookies lists.

- RoboType (www.zdnet.com/downloads/stories/info/0,,000OHO,.html) This free utility, distributed by PC Magazine, lets you quickly insert "boilerplate" text - a word, phrase or even paragraph you use again and again - into any program.

- AI RoboForm (www.roboform.com) A free offering from Siber Systems, this program instantly fills in those pesky Web forms for you. The "AI" in the product's name stands for artificial intelligence.

- XDrive (www.xdrive.com) This free Web service places a utility on your hard drive that makes it easy to store files off site. You simply use Windows to back up files, share them with colleagues or access them from the road.