Reasons to upgrade can also lead to problems

DOS 6:

May 31, 1993|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ (Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

Ever since I warned readers to be wary of upgrading to Microsoft's DOS 6, I've had calls from users who've had problems with the latest version of the operating system.

This doesn't mean everyone has had trouble. In my line of work, I rarely hear from people who don't have problems. Frankly, I believe Microsoft's claims that DOS 6 is a reasonably stable product and that most users have no hassle at all.

But if Microsoft sells 5 million copies of DOS 6 and even 1 percent of its customers have some kind of problem, that leaves 50,000 irate users out there. And most of them have a right to be angry -- particularly if they're paying long-distance charges to be put on hold by Microsoft's overworked technical support staff.

After spending a couple of weeks talking to users, reading the literature and tuning in on Microsoft's online support forums, I've come to a couple of conclusions.

First, the main problems involve three of the the most attractive reasons to upgrade to the new version: disk compression, disk ** caching and memory management. If all of these work well on your system, you'll think $50 for DOS 6 is the best money you ever spent.

Second, if those features are attractive enough to persuade you to upgrade to DOS 6, it is possible to minimize the risk.

Unfortunately, on a small number of systems, these features can backfire because of hardware incompatibilities and conflicts with some versions of existing software. You may experience lockups, whichare annoying but curable with enough tinkering. Or you could wind up with a trashed hard disk, which is a disaster.

The problem is that there's no way to tell ahead of time if you're going to be one of the few unlucky souls. And if you're not knowledgeable about the workings of DOS, you'll have a lot of trouble figuring out what went wrong. Even if you're a DOS expert, you may be in for a rough time.

If you're running DOS 5 now with no problems, and you have enough disk space and memory to meet your needs, you're probably best off sticking with it. The new utility programs that come with the DOS 6 bundle -- a disk defragmenter, backup software and virus checker -- are available from third parties (Symantec's Norton Utilities or Central Point's PC Tools) in much more robust forms.

This is particularly true for 286 or older machines. While the DoubleSpace disk compression in DOS 6 will increase your disk capacity, it will slow these systems down considerably.

* If you think the benefits of DOS 6 outweigh the small risk involved, here's a procedure that will eliminate many problems at the outset and make it easier to solve new ones as they crop up.

* 1. Back up your hard disk first. This is the single most important precaution you can take. Even if DOS 6 turns your hard disk into mush, you can always uninstall it and restore everything to its pristine state.

A full disk backup is best. I recommend purchasing a tape backup unit, whether or not you upgrade. These aren't cheap ($250 for an internal unit, $450 for a stand-alone drive that plugs into your printer port), but today's huge hard disks make backups to floppies so time-consuming and unwieldy that few users are willing to go to the trouble.

Tape drives are easy to use and painless. They'll do their work while you're asleep. If your livelihood depends on the data stored on your computer, the price is small.

At the very least, back up your critical data files and all the directories containing your Windows programs. These are the hardest to reinstall and get working properly.

* 2. Make sure your hard disk is in good working order. The DOS 6 DoubleSpace compression program will give your disk the workout of its life when you install it, and flaws you may not have noticed may become painfully obvious.

Run the CHKDSK program that comes with your existing version of DOS and fix any problems it finds with your files.

Better yet, buy the latest version of the Norton Utilities or PC Tools ($100 to $150 on the street) and use their disk-fixing programs to run a through surface test of the disk and repair any bad spots. If you have earlier versions of these programs, upgrade to the newest releases.

If you don't want to make that investment, consider purchasing the $99 version of DOS 6 that comes packaged with the Norton Desktop for Windows. It's only $50 more than straight DOS and (( includes the latest version of the Norton Disk Doctor, along with a bunch of other useful utilities.

Once you're sure the disk is in good working order, defragment it with Norton Speedisk or another similar utility. This rearranges your files so that they occupy contiguous space on your disk and make it easier for compression programs to work their magic. DOS 6 comes with a defragmenter, but some knowledgeable users I know don't particularly trust it.

* 3. Install DOS 6 according to the instructions. This in itself should not create any problems. But please, READ THE MANUAL. The basic stuff is written in reasonably understandable English.

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