Ultra-X provides another tool for the average computer user to add to the computer toolbox. Is it just what the doctor ordered?
Ultra-X describes their SOHO Diagnostic Kit as being "perfect for the small office or home use for quick system troubleshooting". The kit is a nicely packaged set of software with a few loopback adapters that is designed to help a small/home office computer owner determine the appropriate action to take in the event of a computer problem.
As with other Ultra-X products that we've reviewed here, the SOHO Diagnostic Kit is very well packaged. Everything that you see above comes in the kit:
- QuickTech, a self booting diagnostic and informational disk
- WinStress, a suite of Windows programs designed to stress your system to reveal areas of potential faiures
- Ultra-X Test CD, a 700MB disc used with QuickTech and WinStress to test CD-ROM drives
- Documentation on two floppy discs in Adobe PDF files
- Two 9-pin serial loopback adapters
- One 25-pin serial/parallel loopback adapter
- A strip of "Technician Certified" labels
- A sturdy carrying case
None of the software requires installaion; all programs run from CD or floppy. In order to use the software, your system must meet the minimum hardware requirements (minimal indeed!) and at least be able to boot from a floppy disk.
The main diagnostic tools is QuickTech. It is a self-booting floppy that automatically enters a DOS-style menu to allow you to perform various diagnostic tasks. Although Ultra-X makes much of the simplicity and ease of use of the tool, I found that it is anything but a lightweight. The text-based menus are easy to follow and the tests available are very comprehensive and thorough. The disk booted and recognized every system I tried it on, from a Pentium 166 notebook, circa 1998 to a brand new Athlon 2800+ based NForce2 board.
For a change, I don't have any dead hardware here in the lab, but at my day job, we have a lot of memory modules available that don't quite work. I compared the results of QuickTech's memory testing routines with a commercial-grade memory testing program developed at my office. I was surprised to see that QuickTech matched the high-powered tester module for module, right down to the bit failure.
Even without failing hardware, QuickTech provides valuable information about the system on which it is running. The program verifies the system's configuration including processor type and speed, memory and cache amounts, and peripherals attached to the system. Tests are grouped into motherboard, drives, memory, peripheral and video sections, with a special section for looping burn-in tests.
As each of the tests runs, a status display keeps the user informed of the test being performed and which tests have passed or failed.
I found that the serial and parallel port loopback adapters were an important addition to this kit. Without them, it is impossible to perform a complete test of the ports' drivers and receivers. QuickTech automatically detects the presence of the loopback adapter and adjusts the tests to take advantage of it.
WinStress is the second half of the SoHo Diagnostic Kit. It comes on a single CD that will automatically start on systems that are configured to automatically run CDs. WinStress does double duty as a suite of utilities that will most thoroughly exercise your system, revealing its strong and weak points, and a very comprehensive system information generator.
The initial screen provides access to the two main areas of WinStress. The System Information area is laid out in a familiar tabbed format.
As you can see, the information categories are plentiful, as is the amount of information available. Based upon the data observed in the System Information area, the user can make the appropriate Test Configuration choices.
Each tab provides for more detailed test selection and configuration, based upon the hardware and software drivers installed in the system. The Test Load slider provides the means to determine just how heavily loaded the tests will be. The duration of testing can be selected in one minute increments from one minute to a continuous loop. The test can be selected to stop on an error or to beep, make a log entry and continue.
What happens when you run the tests? On my Athlon 2800+ system with 1GB of DDR400 memory and an Asus NForce2 motherboard, WinStress was actually the first program that I had ever run that seriously taxed the performance of the computer. Of course, given that taxing the system's performance is what it was designed to do, this isn't so amazing of itself, but it did provide evidence that the system is even faster than I though it was!
The only hitch that I found in the program was that the test log is created on the drive that the tests run from. Since most people will run the tests directly from the CD-ROM, this is an obvious problem. It is, however, possible to copy the entire contents of the CD to a hard drive directory, since the entire program suite takes up a relatively slim 18.5MB. With that done, the test results log will present a columnar list of the tests run, the number of loops of each test, any errors and an occasional comment.
The true value of WinStress is really found in its name. It will most definitely put the maximum possible amount of stress on a computer system. It is effective in pointing out strong and weak points of a system and of forcing marginally performing or intermittently failing hardware to show up.
Ultra-X made the right choice by bundling QuickTech and WinStress together. Both programs complement each other. QuickTech provides a very detailed, in-depth look at the performance and functionality of system hardware while WinStress takes a higher level approach of exercising the system as a whole to draw attention to the failures that QuickTech finds.
Ultra-X has made something of a departure in this package from the previous diagnostic tools that I've looked at. The SOHO Diagnostic Kit is aimed at a somewhat less tech savvy audience than other tools, yet, even though many of the raw technical details of the diagnostic testing are shielded from the user, the power, usefulness and utility of the Diagnostic Kit places it at the head of its class. The SOHO Diagnostic Kit is aptly named - it would be the perfect addition to the home user's computer toolbox as well as to a small office that doesn't have or doesn't want to rely on the services of an IT department or outside consultant every time a computer problem pops up. I highly recommend it.
On the web: Ultra-X