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This weekend, Microsoft quietly rolled out a preview release of the Microsoft PC Advisor to select members of the Windows Feedback Program. (Members of the Windows Feedback Program agree to let Microsoft monitor their machines closely, and Microsoft uses that data to determine what types of problems real users experience.) The invitation to try out the PC Advisor made some intriguing promises—the app will monitor our PC for problems and give solutions in real time and it will monitor system settings for potential pitfalls. The survey that preceded our download was even more interesting, it hinted that Microsoft's ultimate goal for the new app is complete Apple domination.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of how PC Advisor works, it’s worth talking about the signup process. Before we could download and install the app, we had to fill out a brief, ten-minute survey. That’s not unusual in and of itself, but the questions we were asked were definitely non-standard. In addition to the typical “What kind of computer do you have?” and “What’s your expertise level?” questions that usually precede entry into Microsoft software betas, this survey asked a bevy of questions about our Linux and OS X predilections. Questions included “How many Apple computers do we own?” “How likely we are to recommend PCs running Windows, OS X, and Linux?” and “How do Windows and OS X make you feel?” Additionally, the PC Advisor preview only works with Vista. It seems like the PC Advisor may be part of Microsoft’s master plan to improve PC users’ confidence in Windows as a platform.
On to the software. The invitation email we received said that the Microsoft PC Advisor will:
To these points, the PC Advisor includes five main sections: PC Checkup, Toolbox, Offers, Tutorials, and Online Help. We’ll go over each one separately.
The centerpiece of the PC Advisor app is the PC Checkup tool. It scans for common (and not so common) problems. We tested the Checkup tool on three machines, and most of the “problems” it found weren’t really problems—disabling UAC is the solution to a problem and switching the power profile doesn’t impact game performance on most desktop machines. Other suggestions were to empty the temporary Internet files (Firefox is the primary browser, so this is a non-tip), enable the Phishing filter in IE (ditto), and turn the Windows Firewall. It didn’t find the simple fix for a game crash that’s plagued us recently—our videocard drivers were two revisions out of date. After we manually updated them from Nvidia’s website, our crashes disappeared. While we do appreciate the app pointing out that the shortcut for the Disk Cleanup Wizard points to the wrong version on our install of 64-bit Vista, this isn’t a problem that keeps us up at night.
When you choose to fix a problem that the PC Checkup tool finds, you click the Fix button, the app downloads the fix from the Internet, and automatically applies it, without any additional input from the user. Don’t want to install an update? Simple enough—click the trashcan icon, and you won’t be bothered again.
The user experience is a definite improvement over some of the repair tools built into Vista, but the actual fixes are of pretty low value. It bodes well for the future of helpdesk staff and PC repairmen everywhere, but we’ve never actually seen a PC repair application that will solve anything more than the most insignificant problems. We wouldn’t expect a simple mass-market application to troubleshoot overclocking problems, but we do expect it to notify us that our drivers are out of date.