Microsoft's newest DOS has the look of another hit


April 05, 1993|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

Judging from the crowd at the counter of the local Egghead Software store when the newest version of MS-DOS went on sale last week, Microsoft may have another hit on its hands.

The latest release of Microsoft's Disk Operating System for IBM-compatibles, available for about $50 on the street, doesn't break any new technical ground. In fact, most of the improvements in DOS 6 are in utility programs licensed from other software publishers who made a killing selling features that Microsoft left out of its first five versions.

If you already own most of those programs, you may not need DOS 6. But there's plenty of value here, and it's nice to know that many of the exotic tricks software vendors have been playing to improve performance now come in a package that has Microsoft's blessing.

Here's a breakdown of the major new features:

* Hard disk compression: While hard disk drives are getting bigger and cheaper, they can't keep up with software manufacturers, who make programs that eat up disk space faster than most people can afford to buy it. There are games today that take up 15 megabytes of storage.

Over the last few years, companies such as Stac Electronics, AddStor and Vertisoft have created programs that deal with the problem by compressing and decompressing files on the fly -- effectively doubling the capacity of any hard disk.

But many users don't trust these programs, or can't figure out how to make them work. And they've always required some awkward shuffling of hard disk labels and configuration files.

With DOS 6, Microsoft has included a program called DoubleSpace (based on Vertisoft technology) which makes disk compression part of the DOS kernel and eliminates most of the hassles associated with third-party programs.

It isn't as slick or configurable as Stacker, the most popular of the third-party compression utilities, but it does the job. If you have Stacker and like it, Stac Electronics has introduced a new version that ties into the reworked DOS 6 kernel and is much easier to use.

BTC * Memory management: The most galling limitation of DOS is that it can directly address only one megabyte of internal memory. And of that, only 640K is available to standard programs. This wasn't a terrible limitation when DOS was born 12 years ago, but 80386 and 80486 PCs can theoretically address zillions of bytes of memory.

With DOS 5, Microsoft figured out how to stuff most of DOS into upper memory areas. It also provided tools that allowed anyone with a Ph.D. in computer science, a couple of days of spare time and more than a little luck to stuff networking software and drivers for mice, scanners, CD-ROMS, sound boards, compression programs and other memory-resident software into whatever open niches remained.

That freed precious conventional memory for real software.

DOS 6 includes a program called MemMaker that does this automatically. Third-party memory managers may be more sophisticated, but they can be a bit flaky, too. MemMaker did a much better job in about four seconds than I did after eight or 10 hours of tweaking configuration files with DOS 5. Thank you, Microsoft.

* Disk Defragmenting: When DOS stores a file on your disk, it stashes it in the first available space it finds. When your disk drive is new, files are stored contiguously, but as you delete files and create new ones, the space becomes fragmented. That means larger files may be chopped up into little pieces all over your drive. While DOS knows where everything is,fragmented files can slow the performance of your hard disk.

DOS 6 comes with a stripped down version of Norton SpeedDisk, a defragmenter (also known as an optimizer) that picks up all the little pieces and puts them down in the right order. Running the defragmenter a couple of times a year will keep your hard disk running at top speed.

* Virus protection: Unfortunately, viruses are an ugly reality today. These malicious programs, which hide on your disk or in memory until they're ready to strike -- often by erasing your hard drive -- are hard to detect and delete without special software.

DOS 6 includes both DOS and Windows versions of the Central Point Antivirus program, which can detect more than 1,000 different viruses and eliminate most of them. Microsoft has promised regular updates to deal with the new viruses that appear almost daily. While experts can argue the merits of various anti-virus programs, this one is easy to use.

* Hard disk backup: Backing up your important files is the best protection against viruses and hard disk crashes. Unfortunately, the backup program in earlier versions of DOS was so bad -- and potentially dangerous -- that I often warned new users to ignore it or delete it from their hard disks altogether.

With DOS 6, you'll get both DOS and Windows backup software that makes it easy to back up a whole disk, selected directories, or particular files to a floppy disk. This is actually a stripped-down version of the Norton Backup, but it has most of the important features of the original, including file compression, which cuts in half the number of floppy disks you'll need. Unfortunately, Microsoft's version of Backup doesn't support tape drives, but if you have a tape backup, you probably have software to make it work.

There are dozens of other improvements in DOS 6, some major and some minor. One of the most useful is a new command that allows you to delete an entire directory without first deleting all the files stored in it.

I hope DOS 6 is a bug-free as the last major DOS update, although only time will tell. Meanwhile, it looks like a good buy.

(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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