Hobby 95/98 - Part 1

by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, May 1999
If you use Microsoft Windows 95 or Windows 98, you probably have a hobby that will take up endless hours of your time, and will keep your mind off of those annoying day-to-day concerns that can really take their toll - like getting your work done. That hobby is the care and feeding of these desktop operating system siblings. Keeping Windows 95 or 98 relatively stable (totally stable being realistically unattainable), can, and in some cases has, eliminated any efficiency gained by transitioning from a manual system to a computerized one in the first place.

For most people, it is a hobby by necessity, not by choice, excluding, of course, those who actually get so much of a kick out of constantly tinkering with their systems that they would rather do that then get their work done. (Hmmm. That last save didn’t go as fast as usual. Maybe I’d better tweak some of the system performance parameters.)

In a network environment, you have even more potential destabilizing influences to worry about. This includes network cards, client software (to communicate over the network), and the added complication of using the network versions of applications software which may have their own unique idiosyncracies

The first line of attack that I use against Windows instabilities is a set of utilities sold as part of Network Associate’s (www.nai.com) McAfee Office. Network Associates bought the companies that produced several of my favorite utility programs and now sells them packaged together at a far better price than I paid when I acquired them separately. The availability of network licensing based on the number of workstations make McAfee Office even more cost effective. Realistically, almost anything that works is cheaper than spending hours (or paying for some else’s time) trying to beat Windows 95/98 into submission.

The main disadvantage to using any repair-oriented utility such as this one is the added potential for the utility itself to destabilize Windows, especially when that utility is installed by nontechnical users. Contrary to the propaganda put out by all of the utility program publishers, these programs are definitely not as carefree as they are advertised to be. This holds for McAfee Office and all of its competitors. In addition, when multiple utilities are loaded on one computer, they can fight with each other for control of the safety mechanisms that they have in common, causing additional crashes.

While McAfee Office contains many different products, including the popular VirusScan anti-virus program, the key utilities for keeping Win 95/98 healthy are Uninstaller, First Aid, and Nuts & Bolts, itself a collection of multiple utility programs.

Uninstaller does exactly what its name implies. It removes programs and files in a reasonably safe and complete manner. The automated uninstall features included in many programs often blindly remove only a base set of files, leaving behind potentially harmful files and directories. They frequently neglect to check if the files that they remove are potentially used by other programs on the computer. Also, almost none of them have an Undo feature to use in case the uninstallation causes problems, or even if you simply change your mind. These problems can cause mysterious crashes that are very difficult to debug.

Uninstaller eliminates these problems by adding cross reference checks and an Undo feature. While its analysis is not always perfect, in that it occasionally errs on the side of safety and doesn’t delete some truly removable files and directories, it’s the best uninstall package that I’ve found.

Uninstaller also some handy features for general system cleanup that allow you to find useless files and registry entries. The useless items are then graded for safety of removal and backed by an Undo feature. If you only delete the green-labeled items and leave the yellow and red ones alone, your system should remain healthy. Of course it takes human judgement to decide if a particular file that is marked as not absolutely necessary for Window’s survival is actually required because it contains valuable data, or is related to some function that you may need in the future.

One function of Uninstaller, and all of its competitors, that causes more trouble than its worth is its installation monitor. All of the installation monitors that I have tested, including this one, have a tendency to fight with and confuse installation programs causing either incomplete, and therefore dangerous, installations, or outright crashes. I now turn this feature off. The only real disadvantage to turning it off is that every time you launch Uninstaller (and again, any of its competitors), you have to wait for the program to scan your system to find out the current state of all programs. Since this program is not used that often, I would rather put up with this minor inconvenience than risk the mayhem that this feature can cause.

The second important feature of McAfee Office is First Aid. It is an all-encompassing diagnostic program which includes an added crash prevention and recovery safety feature. Its main function is to scan all of the hardware and software in your system, looking for potential problems. This could be a hardware conflict, a missing program file, or an invalid registry entry. Let me warn you that this thorough scan takes a long time to complete. After scanning, First Aid shows the problems, rated by seriousness, and offers both automatic and manual fix buttons, as well as an ignore option.

In most cases, the automatic fix works just fine. The manual fix option, with hints provided, works in most other cases. Repair programs are not perfect, however, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses, so occasionally you hit a dead end. First Aid then offers a guided question and answer session leading to more advice. If that fails, it leads you to connect automatically with its massive troubleshooting database on the Web. This also gives you access to support newsgroups.

Finally, possibly the most valuable feature of First Aid is Windows Guardian, a crash recovery and prevention tool. It sits it the background and monitors Windows. When a program starts to crash, it intercepts the crash and pops up a window offering to either attempt a recovery or to close the offending program. Much of the time, the recovery option works. When it doesn’t, at least the close option almost always (again, none of these programs are perfect) allows you to shut down the program and keep Windows alive.

After closing the program successfully, sometimes you can just restart it and continue working. At other times, it won’t restart, or, you might notice that Windows starts misbehaving. In this case, the damage to Window’s environment has been too great, so you have to save your work from other programs, close all of them and restart Windows.

While Windows Guardian can’t fix every crash, it is, by far, the most effective crash recovery program that I’ve seen. Even in cases where it can’t fully recover, it allows you to click on a Details button to see exactly what happened to the crashing program. If you have the appropriate technical background, this can provide valuable information toward finding a long term solution to that particular program’s problem.

Next month I will complete coverage of my favorite utilities and then move on to various other things you can do to try to keep Windows 95/98 behaving itself. (FYI: Whacking the monitor on the side while cursing vehemently doesn’t help. I’ve already tried that.)

�1999, Wayne M. Krakau