Utility programs

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Introduction

We have already said that, according to the British Computing Society, a utility program is a "systems program designed to perform a commonplace task". 

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'Text editor' utility

A text file is a file that contains pure data, pure ASCII, without any formatting codes (such as the hidden formatting codes that make a word underlined, bold, in italic, right-hand justified and so on) or an actual program. A text editor is a program that allows a user to enter or edit text files. Applications that are used to write letters and use hidden codes are known as word processors. Text editors are not word processors although some can be used for that purpose! Word processors can be used to write pure text files. The file needs to be saved as a .txt file.

A text editor can be used to edit the content of data files and programs directly. A common example of the need to do this is when you want to customise a computer, to make it behave in exactly the way you want it to. To do this, you need to edit an important 'boot file' known as 'autoexec.bat'. Your computer looks at this boot file when it first boots up (is powered up). It then carries out any instructions it finds in there. You can add, delete or amend the instructions in this boot file to make your computer behave as you want it to.

For example, suppose you had a computer with the operating system known as DOS on it. Imagine you would like to customise your computer so that every time it boots up (you turn the power on), it opens your favourite game automatically. To do this, you need to edit the contents of a boot file known as 'autoexec.bat'. To edit this file using the text editor, you would type EDIT AUTOEXEC.BAT at the DOS command prompt. This would then start the text editor utility and then open the autoexec.bat file. Once open, you could then add a line to the end of the autoexec.bat file, for example c:\games\game1.exe If you then save your changes and reboot your computer, it will open game1 automatically!

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'Formatting a disk' utility

A handy little utility that comes with most systems software is a 'format disk' utility. This allows a user to buy a standard floppy disk and then set it up for their particular machine's operating system. When you 'format a disk' the utility checks that the disk can be written to and then divides up the disk into areas, giving each area an address. It then sets up a table that will keep track of what is stored in each area as well as areas that, for example, have become corrupted and cannot be used. You cannot use a floppy disk (or a CD R/W or hard disk for that matter) until it has been formatted although you can buy storage devices that are pre-formatted.

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'Disk maintenance' utilities

It is possible that parts of a floppy disk or hard disk, for example, become unusable. A utility is provided in operating systems to check to see if there are any problems areas on a disk and to try and fix them. In Windows, you may have used the Scandisk utility to do this. We have said that files are stored in areas on a disk. Sometimes, an area isn't big enough to hold the whole file so a number of areas have to be used. If lots of areas are used to hold one file and those areas are scattered all over the disk, then retrieving a file can be slow. You should run the defragmentation utility if you have one (Disk Defragmenter in Windows) every few weeks, to ensure that files are stored physically as close as possible on your disk. If your computer has become sluggish, one reason might well be that your hard disk has become fragmented - so defragment it!

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'Backing up files' utility.

This utility is included in most systems to allow a user to make a copy of files. If the original is damaged, then the back-up can be used. Network Operating Systems software might come with quite sophisticated backup utilities that enable the contents of the server's hard disk to be transferred to magnetic tape in the middle of the night. In the morning, the Network Administrator would then remove the magnetic tape and put it in a fire safe, for example.

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'System use' utility.

It is often possible for a user to get some statistics from the operating system about how much RAM the system has got, how much hard disk space is available for use, what software drivers are installed and so on. This is possible because a 'system use' utility is available that can examine a computer system and display what it finds.

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Screen savers

Screen savers are moving pictures that are displayed on your monitor after a set period of time. The original purpose of them was to prevent a 'ghost' image of whatever was on a screen being burnt permanently into the screen of the VDU, if the VDU happened to be left on for a long time. This was true with the early monitors. Modern Visual Display Units are much less susceptible to this problem. However, screen savers nowadays have an extra feature. They can be password-protected. If you leave your computer alone for a period of time, a password-protected screen saver can be set to come on to prevent prying eyes from accessing your computer. Although it is not a robust form of defence, it can stop casual access.

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