Keep track of system changes when installing new software

Installing new software on your computer is often a recipe for disaster. The installation can change Registry settings, install new files, and overwrite system files. In many cases, it's amazing that your computer successfully reboots after the installation is complete. Trying to uninstall the software can be even more troublesome, often leaving you with orphaned files, incomplete Registry tree deletions, and numerous other problems that prevent a clean uninstall. Epsilon Squared's InstallWatch 1.2 can help you gain control over your software installations.

InstallWatch is a system monitoring tool that tracks changes to your computer’s hard disk, Registry, and .ini files when you install a new software product. The product tracks changes whether you install the software locally off a CD-ROM or disk or over the Web.

The product is available in two versions: InstallWatch Basic and InstallWatch Professional. InstallWatch Basic automatically detects the execution of setup programs, looks for file and folder changes on the user’s C drive, and finds all changes to the computer’s Registry and limited modifications to .ini files. InstallWatch Professional includes all the features of the Basic version, plus expanded .ini file-modification tracking, file version information tracking, the inclusion of network drives on file and folder change checking, and the ability to add comments to each installation. Both versions of the product can create various printed reports.

I installed InstallWatch Professional, which arrived on one 3.5" disk, on my American Megatrends-based computer system running Windows NT Workstation 4.0. I ran the setup program and rebooted my system to activate the software. The entire process took 3 minutes.

The first time I ran the software, it prompted me to create a snapshot of my computer system’s configuration. The snapshot provides the baseline from which the software determines what changes a product’s installation makes to your system. The snapshot process took several minutes because my system contained more than 15,000 files in 672 directories. After I completed the snapshot, the software was ready to start monitoring my system for installation system changes.

To test InstallWatch Professional, I installed several different software products, starting with a simple VT100 emulator product for connecting to a UNIX server. When I launched the setup process for the VT100 emulator, InstallWatch immediately detected the installation and informed me that it was monitoring the process. After the installation was complete, the software scanned my system looking for updated files. The scan took several minutes, similar to the initial snapshot.

For a more complicated test, I installed Hummingbird’s eXceed X Server and associated TCP/IP utilities suite on my system. I launched the installation program from the Hummingbird CD-ROM, and again, InstallWatch automatically detected the installation. However, during the installation, it found that the installation process had changed several .ini files associated with another software product, even though these .ini files were not part of the eXceed distribution. For this reason, you're smart to make a new snapshot of your system prior to installing each new product.

To view the data that InstallWatch collects, simply right-click the InstallWatch icon in the system tray and select Restore. This procedure launches an interactive, Windows Explorer-like interface that lets you examine the collected information and perform various administrative functions, such as deleting install information, creating install kits, or creating another snapshot. Screen 1 shows a typical InstallWatch session, displaying the data the program collected during the eXceed installation.

One area where I found the product lacking was its use during an uninstall procedure. InstallWatch can't remove an application from your computer based on the system changes it records. Some competing products, such as Symantec’s CleanSweep, have this capability, which is tremendously useful. To remove a product from your system, you must go through the product’s removal process manually, and then use the information contained within InstallWatch to verify that the product uninstalled properly.

InstallWatch Basic has a very reasonable price tag; InstallWatch Professional is priced somewhat higher—still reasonable but not ideal given the product's shortcomings. Despite its shortcomings, the software can potentially save you hundreds of dollars worth of time reloading your computer system when software installation goes awry. A fully functional trial version of the software is available for download from the company’s Web site.

Installwatch 1.2 Professional
Contact: Installwatch 1.2 Professional
Price: $15 for the Basic Edition, $79 for the Professional Edition
System Requirements: Windows NT Workstation 4.0 or NT Server 4.0 or Windows 9x. Disk space varies depending on number of products you install and track in the product’s database.