Hobby 95/98 - Part 3

by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, July 1999
This is the third installment in my series of columns about arguably the most popular hobby in the world, as measured by the number of participants as opposed to the number of willing participants. That hobby is trying to keep Windows 95 and 98 systems stable. Having already covered my favorite commercial stability-enhancing product, I’ll now cover some free methods of partaking in this hobby. Free, that is, only if you consider your own time worthless.

The first tool in your free arsenal is Microsoft’s REGEDIT, the Registry Editor. It is also the most dangerous tool.

On the good side, it can take a snapshot of your System Registry and save it as a file. If your computer starts acting wacky, (a technical term, of course) REGEDIT allows you to restore the Registry from one of those backup files, hopefully restoring sanity to your system.

Any time you are about to make any serious change to your system, you should use REGEDIT to back up your Registry. The most obvious change would be the installation of either a new program or an updated version of an existing program. However, so many things happen automatically and, in some cases, accidently that you might want to do one backup at the beginning of each day for a machine that regularly exhibits instability. If you see an approaching thunderstorm, you might want to back up your Registry. Considering some of the strange sensitivities that I’ve seen on Win 95/98 computers, you might want to back up your Registry even if you just want to look at your computer from across the room!

Now we get to the dangerous aspects of REGEDIT. First, restoring one of the backups that I’ve just encouraged you to make is definitely not without hazard. If you restore your Registry at an inopportune moment, you can screw up your system worse than it was in the first place. You should make yet another backup just before restoring in case the restore initiates a disaster. That way you have at least a fighting chance of getting back to where you were in the first place.

The other dangerous aspect of REGEDIT lies in its name, the Registry Editor. Anytime you can edit a configuration file as little understood and poorly documented as the Win 95/98 System Registry, there will be plenty of opportunity to mortally wound the file. One tiny misunderstanding or typo and your Registry could be rendered irretrievably corrupted. Editing the Registry is a high-risk activity, and the result cannot always be undone by restoring the aforementioned backup copies. Edit at your own risk, not without due consideration of both your own skills and those of the person or document advising you to perform the edit.

One of the most valuable free "tools" is access to patches and updates via Microsoft’s web site (entry point www.microsoft.com/support). For owners of a single Win 98 system, using these files is almost a complete no-brainer, since automatic update is a built-in feature of Win 98.

For owners of multiple Win 98 systems, accessing Microsoft’s site and downloading each separate update and fix file for each individual computer is ridiculously labor and time intensive. For whatever reason, Microsoft has been very secretive about the cure for this problem. (Just to be ornery, perhaps? I am reminded of Mel Brooks’ line in his movie, The History of the World, Part I, "It’s good to be King!") The solution is to go to www.microsoft.com/windows98/downloads/corporate.asp and download the individual files. After that you can apply them to your computers, one by one.

There is one caution to this method. While Win 98 updates are programmed to automatically know when they are appropriate (they are supposed to refuse to install when they are not needed), it is still possible to waste time and possibly cause problems by just randomly applying these updates.

When you allow Microsoft’s Web site to directly update your system, this all sorts itself out automatically. When you download the files and apply them yourself, you are responsible for organizing the updates. Microsoft makes this harder by not including separate documentation or README files with the updates. If you execute the downloaded files, they immediately launch their installation programs without a thorough explanation. (I can’t remember any other company that neglects the trivial task of self-documenting its downloadable files.) Just prior to downloading each file you must either print out the Web page containing the documentation, or make copious notes. Then you must keep the printouts or notes with the files so you can coordinate between them. ("It’s good to be king!") One odd thing that I’ve noticed is that I’ve had better luck accessing Microsoft’s site (and not just the updates section) with Netscape’s Navigator than with Microsoft’s own Explorer, regardless of whose computer I’m using! Welcome to The Twilight Zone.

Next month I’ll continue covering update files which will lead to tips on handling the most common Win 95/98 problems that I’ve encountered. (I’ll report later on the effectiveness of melting down all of your jewelry and building a golden idol in the image of Bill Gates.)

�1999, Wayne M. Krakau