Computing people fear the Windows blue screen and with good reason. Booting a PC to be confronted with such a sight gives abrupt notice to stop what you are doing and spend the next several hours in a frosty embrace with the deeper recesses of the Windows re-install process.

Windows XP is a bit better than previous versions of Windows because it detects the OS-level corruption and automatically starts the restore process, but this is a small concession. As well as getting Windows back into a stable state, you’ll then have to load a family of updates which, depending on the age of the PC, can mean SP1 updates, SP2, and post-SP2 patches, of which there is a long list. Even though Windows will have helpfully shunted your data files into a recovery directory, every application on the PC will need to be reinstalled from scratch once Windows is back in a living state.

If this sounds unpleasant then Protector, from Israeli company Radix, is a product worth serious consideration. Coming in either a PCI card form or a USB token (reviewed here), its primary function is to take “snapshots” of a hard disk on as regular a basis as a user wants, instantly restoring these in the event of problems.

That means everything about the system can be restored - including registry, application and data files, CMOS and FAT settings - save data directories specifically excluded from its restore function. Excluding data directories beyond those default ones such as email and the Windows Documents folder is highly recommended to avoid the disaster of accidentally restoring important documents to an out-of-date form.

Installing Protector is relatively painless, during which it creates its own secure partition on the hard disk of around 1GB in size. This is now a buffer for all data pointers to be parked between restores. The system can be set to “recover every boot”, useful for restoring a PC back to a default setting every day, “keep last boot”, which updates disk as it is booted, or creating specific restore points as often as desired.

The USB version can be managed either from a Windows utility (downloaded separately) or through an interface the fires up Just before Windows. As a safety feature, neither are available to the user unless configured to be visible.

The product would protect against the blue screen scenario already mentioned, but it has more everyday uses. If it can restore a system to a working state after OS corruption, you reason, why not after any problem event? There are a number of possibilities. Files can be resurrected after accidental deletion or overwrites, a malware-infected system can be restored to its state before infection, or a system rendered unstable after the installation of a new application could be rolled back.

If the matter is more serious than OS corruption – a full hard disk crash say – then nothing short of buying a new drive will do, but that’s beyond any product to rectify.

The USB protector comes with some caveats. Recovering a laptop with it installed means inserting the USB key. No key, and recovery is obviously not possible. This adds another layer of security against unauthorised access, but might not suit everybody. Mislaying the key would mean not being able to recover the laptop, and it is guaranteed that employees are going to do this from time to time. Once the PC has been booted, the key can be removed until the next startup. The downside with the PCI card approach is that one needs to be installed in every PC.

Protector would suit a number of uses, starting with hard-pressed sysadmins. Restoring public computers to a desired default state is one example, and it can also function as a quick way of carrying out certain tasks that might otherwise require a full-blown disk imaging utility. It will keep a population of laptops in a decent state for sure, restoring them to a working state very quickly in the event of trouble.

This is, realistically, a product for expert users and trained IT staff despite Radix’s attempt to promote it for general users. Underneath its apparent simplicity, it is complex technology and needs to be used carefully at all times. We’d still give it the thumbs up because it does what it claims to very well.

OUR VERDICT

There are a small number of products in this class, mostly PCI cards. Ideally, this feature would be built into PCs and integrated with the OS, but that?s some way off. If used carefully, the idea of rolling back a PC?s state to get it running again is very useful. But it should be used carefully.