Mike's Picks

Windows 95 without The Fear

Michael Newcomb

Many people would like to try the new Windows 95 Preview being offered by Microsoft, but, quite sensibly, they fear that installing a new, known-to-be-buggy operating system might destabilize their existing Windows installation. One little-discussed advantage of DOS' primitive architecture is that you have the power to drastically reconfigure your machine with a few commands; let's use this power to let you try out Windows 95 without losing your Windows 3.11 safety blanket. I suggest the following procedure, which must be carried out from the DOS prompt (not from within Windows):

Back to Safety

The Win95 Preview replaces the boot sector of your hard disk. In other words, once the preview is installed, you have a choice between Win95 and the "DOS" that's built into it. Even when you elect to "Restart in MS-DOS Mode" from the Win95 "Shutdown" menu, Win95 is still lurking there ready to restart; your "old" DOS is gone forever, deleted by the install program. To get back to where you were, there are three possible procedures, depending on whether you want to get rid of Win95 permanently or not. One choice is to use Win95's built-in DOS.

Win95 DOS

To do this, choose "Restart in MS-DOS Mode" from the Win95 "Shutdown" menu. Then copy your original CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files back to the root directory and reboot again. When you see the sentence "Starting Windows 95..." appear, press <F4>. Theoretically, your machine should boot like it always did. This method does include one caveat: the DOS built into Windows 95 is not exactly the same as your plain-vanilla DOS. I wouldn't be surprised if there were hidden compatibility issues. Also, be careful not to type EXIT at the Windows 95 DOS prompt: this will relaunch Win95.

Win95 Startup Disk

To get rid of Win95 semi-permanently, boot from the DOS boot floppy you made above, type SYS and your boot drive spec, then hit <Enter> (e.g., SYS C:). Change to the boot drive and copy back the AUTOEXEC and CONFIG files. Then reset your machine with the boot floppy out; you should get back your old, familiar configuration. To boot Win95, place the Startup Disk created by the Win95 installer in your floppy drive and reset the machine. With a little luck, you should come up in Win95.

You may also get a character-mode menu saying that Windows 95 didn't boot successfully the last time it was started. If this happens, choose option "1" for "Normal." If Win95 still won't come up, choose option "3" for "Bootlog.txt." The latter file contains a description of your last successful boot configuration (a very nice feature--I wish other OSes did this). I don't recommend the "Safe" boot option, as this disconnects many Win95 drivers that will subsequently have to be reconnected. Use that option only if you've added something to a running Win95 configuration that caused it to become unable to start up.

My DOS Files!

After the Win95 install is completed, look in your DOS directory. Quite a wasteland, eh? Good thing you saved the DOS utilities before the install! Copy back all the DOS utilities from your save directory, then delete any suspicious BATch files and any file ending in ".EX~." You can still use your DOS utilities, but remember to be careful around the Win95 directory. If any of the utilities complain about files with peculiar, two-letter names, leave them alone! These are files and pseudo-files created by Win95. DOS defragmenters, in particular, shouldn't be run on a drive where Win95 is living. If you want to defrag, use the 32-bit utility supplied with Win95; it's smarter and faster anyway.

System Commander

System Commander is the third option. This is a utility program from V Communications, Inc. of San Jose. It leverages DOS' simple file system architecture to let you juggle multiple operating systems with the touch of a button. In flexibility, robustness, and power, System Commander is far superior to the "dual boot" options provided as a part of some operating systems.

In essence, System Commander provides you with a way to store and retrieve operating system files on the fly. When you boot a system with Commander installed, instead of the familiar "Starting..." sentence, you see a small graphical menu that lists all the configurations available. Each operating system you have installed will appear in the menu. When you select an OS, Commander does any required setup and then steps completely out of the way. After you have made your OS selection, Commander is gone! It consumes no memory and interferes in no way with the boot process. The OS that is starting can't even tell that it isn't the primary operating system on your machine.

Technically, System Commander creates "snapshots" of OS configurations. When you create a new Commander entry, it saves all the vital files required by the current operating system into directories on your hard disk. For example, for DOS, it saves the boot sector, IO.SYS, MSDOS.SYS, DBLSPACE.BIN, COMMAND.COM, AUTOEXEC.BAT, and CONFIG.SYS. From then on, when you select that configuration, the snapshot is restored to its proper place. Hidden and configuration files magically reappear. To the operating system, it looks like nothing ever happened.

Commander is even smart enough to save changes before they're lost. For example, suppose that you selected DOS the last time you booted, and then you adjusted your AUTOEXEC.BAT file. If you reboot and switch to Windows 95, Commander will automatically save the changed AUTOEXEC file to its snapshot directory before reconfiguring for Win95.

System Commander is a remarkable piece of software. I use it to keep Windows for Workgroups 3.11, Windows NT 3.5 (in an NTFS partition), Windows 95 Preview, plain DOS, and OS/2 Warp on the same machine. Switching OSes is as simple as rebooting the machine and picking the new configuration from the menu. It's great for going back to naked DOS to play games, for example. No more juggling files and boot disks!

Commander also protects OSes from each other. Some OS install programs try to find and scrag competing operating systems. OS/2 Warp, for example, trashes NT's BOOT.INI file if it can find it. System Commander protects these sensitive files, so you can recover from childish install programs.

You can get out of some very deep trouble with System Commander. Sometimes, these new-fangled 32-bit operating systems will acquire exotic Ebola-like diseases that leave them unable to boot. System Commander can always get you back to good old primitive DOS, from whence you can usually launch the character-mode tools needed to rescusitate your fancy protected-mode multithreaded multitasking patient.

In using System Commander, I've only noticed one quirk, which is more the fault of the PC architecture than the software: it's better to do a hard reset when changing OSes, rather than a <Ctrl> + <Alt> + <Delete>. If your computer has no reset button, power down. Otherwise, you may find that the new OS is unable to enter protected mode, apparently some hardware aftertaste of the old OS being in the way. If you want to restart into the same OS, you can just give the three-finger salute.

As befits a program targeted at the more technical sort of user, System Commander has endless options and commands. You can create new configurations based on old ones, add files to be snapshoted (WIN.INI and SYSTEM.INI, for example), boot from floppies other than A:, and so on. Most of these options won't be needed by the typical user, but it's nice to know that they are there just in case. For general use, you can just install Commander, answer a few questions, and be all set.

To return to our example of provisionally adding Win95 to a DOS/Windows system, you will see that I mentioned installing System Commander just before you begin altering your configuration files. This will snapshot your current, running configuration, tucking the vital files away in a safe place. You then have a known, stable configuration to return to if you ever get into trouble or need to get some real work done.

Installing Win95 will temporarily disable System Commander. To reactivate it, after Win95 is running, you will need to "Restart in MS-DOS Mode." From the Win95 DOS prompt, change to the System Commander directory and type SCIN <Enter>. This loads the System Commander utility menu. Choose "Reinstall/Update." This reactivates System Commander. Then quit the SCIN utility and type EXIT <Enter> at the Win95 DOS prompt. This should load Windows 95. The next time you reboot, System Commander will allow you to snapshot your Windows 95 configuration, and you're in business.

The same procedure should work any time you want to install a new operating system: just get to DOS somehow and run the SCIN utility to "wake up" Commander. Then you can snapshot each new OS in turn.

Commander can also handle setups where the "active partition" must be changed before booting. This situation is most likely to arise if you are using an exotic operating system like Linux that can't at least start the boot process from a DOS partition. Certain OS/2 and NT installations may also need this feature; its use is described in detail in the documentation.

Pioneer Without Fear

System Commander takes a lot of the fear and uncertainty out of trying new operating systems. It's much more fun to play with a new OS when you know you can get your familiar old system back at the touch of a button. In fact, it's almost irresponsible to try to change something as critical as your operating system without a simple path back to safety. Feeling like getting Warped? Want to live on the Win95 precipice? Go ahead! Just make sure your lifeline is tied to something sturdy!

System Commander

Communications, Inc.
4320 Stevens Creek Blvd., Suite 120
San Jose, CA 95129
Voice: (408) 296-4224
Fax: (408) 296-4441

Street price: $70

Available from The Programmer's Shop and other mail order houses.

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