TechTool Pro 5
At a Glance
Micromat's TechTool Pro 5.0.4 is the latest version of the company's venerable troubleshooting and data recovery toolkit. TechTool Pro packs a ton of tests and tools into one easy-to-use package. This version features a pleasant new interface, a number of new tests, and an automatic monitoring system.
On the testing side, TechTool Pro will check your machine's memory, scan disks for bad blocks, run S.M.A.R.T. tests on your disks, check disks for directory corruption, check integrity and structure for many file types, and even test the RAM on your video card.
On the tool side of the program, you can create a special recovery partition that Micromat calls an eDrive. The eDrive lets you reboot your machine—if your boot drive has died, or if you just want to do some work on it—to a special startup partition equipped with TechTool Pro 5 and a few system utilities. You can use this booted system to try to repair the broken boot disk. You can also rebuild a disk's directory, defragment files, and consolidate free space on disks, securely erase files or free space, calibrate audio and video, repair permissions, and recover accidentally deleted files or those located on a damaged disk. You can run all of the specified tests and tools at any time, even when not booted from the eDrive—you just can’t make repairs to your boot drive unless you boot from the eDrive (or a different drive) first, so it’s not active and can be unmounted.
TechTool Pro's test suite covers pretty much everything you'd ever want to test on your Mac. An all-encompassing Check Computer test runs the full suite of tests, though you can disable individual portions of the suite quite easily—each task appears as a separate icon in the interface, with its own "x" button to cancel that task. Running the full suite of tests can be very time consuming, especially on systems with lots of files and folders; the surface scan and file structure tests in particular are lengthy. It's best to run such tests overnight, when you can leave the computer alone for a number of hours.
You can also access each test individually from the Tests screen, to run it on an as-needed basis. One test I was particularly impressed with was the S.M.A.R.T. test. Instead of simply reporting pass or fail, as do many other tools, TechTool Pro displays a chart showing 18 separate tests, with an indicator for each test showing the results along the pass/fail scale. One of my drives, for instance, passes its S.M.A.R.T tests but shows a nearly failing score for temperature changes—perhaps a sign of impending failure, or perhaps just an oddity with that drive. Either way, I know that I need to make sure my backups for that drive are up-to-date, as it may be on the verge of failure. With a simple pass/fail for the entire drive, I wouldn't have been aware of this potential problem.
In addition to these as-needed tests, TechTool Pro includes the TechTool Protection System Preferences panel, which lets you automate some tests and reports. You can set up alerts (on screen and via e-mail) to let you know when any of your drives or partitions drops below a defined percentage of free space, and you can set the time interval between such checks and specify which volumes will be checked. In my testing, using the Protection panel had a minimal impact on resource utilization. On my Mac Pro, the background process was typically under 0.5 percent of CPU usage, with occasional spikes to 3 percent to 5 percent for a couple of seconds. During normal use of the machine, though, I never noticed this activity.
Similarly, TechTool Protection can automatically back up your drives' disk catalog (at a user-specified interval), the key file that tells the operating system where everything is on the disk. Backing up this directory makes it more likely that you'll be able to recover damaged or lost files from your disks. You can also specify which disks to include and exclude from these backups.
Finally, you can schedule regular S.M.A.R.T. tests on your drives, specify the interval at which those tests are run, and customize the e-mail you'll receive if a S.M.A.R.T. test fails. I found all of the TechTool Protection features worked well, and they stay out of the way until there's an issue you need to know about.
Note that as of press time, this version of TechTool Pro supports all Mac systems except the recently released Mac Pro and Mac mini. The system version on bootable products is 10.5.5; however, this product is updated often, so over time, this will change.
The tools in TechTool Pro aren't really things you'll need every day. Instead, they're designed to do one specific task. eDrive, for instance, will typically be used just once to create an emergency bootable partition. On this partition, you'll find TechTool Pro 5 along with Safari, System Preferences, and a few key utilities. With eDrive in place, if you experience a failure on your boot drive, for instance, you could reboot from the eDrive, and then use TechTool Pro 5 to try to repair your normal boot disk.
The eDrive is created directly within TechTool Pro 5, though to create an eDrive on your boot drive, you'll need to reboot using the TechTool Pro DVD first so your boot disk isn't active. Creating the eDrive took about 45 minutes on my Mac Pro, and it then booted perfectly, displaying a custom desktop picture that left no doubt that I wasn't booted from my normal drive. This feature may be particularly useful to laptop users, as you don't need to bring the TechTool Pro DVD with you when you travel. So while it's not used often, eDrive is one of TechTool Pro's more powerful features.
Volume Rebuild is another important tool that, with any luck, you won't have to use very often. Volume Rebuild attempts to make seemingly damaged disks usable again by rebuilding their catalog files, much as DiskWarrior ( ) does. This process is made simpler if you use TechTool Protection to back up the catalog files.
To test this feature, I intentionally destroyed the catalog file on a FireWire drive by overwriting it with a copy of a catalog from another drive. I subsequently wasn't able to rebuild the catalog with TechTool Pro. I tried again with DiskWarrior, and it also failed. Finally, I tried Apple's own Disk Utility and its Repair Disk option, and it worked. I wasn't able to test how well TechTool Pro can rebuild catalogs on disks with less extensive corruption, however.
The Data Recovery tool is just that—a tool designed to help you recover data files, whether they're lost due to a damaged disk or an inadvertent emptying of the Trash. To make the latter issue simpler to handle, TechTool Protection includes a Trash History feature that can be set for any number of days. Trash History tries to keep track of the files you've deleted. A Show Trash History button in the Data Recovery tool lets you see everything you've put into or emptied from the Trash, including what day it was placed in the Trash and when the Trash was emptied. You can try to recover any file in this list by selecting it and clicking a Restore button.
In my tests, TechTool Pro did a very good job of recovering recently deleted and emptied files. Older files were more troublesome—the longer a file has been deleted, the higher the odds that the space it used to occupy on the drive has been overwritten. Once that happens, the file isn't recoverable—TechTool Pro can't work miracles, and if the data's not there, it's not there. (If you use Time Machine, of course, it will have copies of files you’ve deleted.)
I also tested TechTool Pro's file and volume optimization tools, which defragment files and drives and consolidate free space. While these tools worked well in my testing, they are time consuming, and OS X includes its own defragmenting routines for many files (those under 20MB in size). In short, unless you know you need to defragment a drive, you probably won't need these tools—but they're there if you do, and they worked well.
TechTool Pro includes a Reports section that details the tests you've run—when you ran them, the target drive, and a detailed look at the results of that test. This can be useful for tracking S.M.A.R.T. results over time; for instance, to see if a drive's results are deteriorating.
One thing I wish TechTool Pro offered was the ability to schedule its tests. Other than those features supported in the TechTool Protection System Preferences panel, you have to run the program's tests manually. It'd be great if you could schedule a weekly "test everything" run on a given night of the week. You could then use Energy Saver to wake the computer before the test, let the test run, and then put the machine back to sleep. When you woke up in the morning, you'd find the results of the test in the Report section of the program.
Macworld's buying advice
The lack of scheduling and the uncertainty about how well the Volume Rebuild feature works with damaged disks in the real world are my only two real issues with TechTool Pro 5.0.4. The new interface is pleasant to work with, the automated disk space and S.M.A.R.T. testing are very useful, and the tools the programs provide can be invaluable in a time of crisis. You may not need TechTool Pro's full feature set every day, but when you do, you'll be glad the tools are there.
[Rob Griffiths is a Macworld senior editor.]