Delaying DOS upgrade? The wait may be over

HOME COMPUTING

November 01, 1993|By MICHEAL J. HIMOWITZ

If you've been holding off upgrading to MS-DOS Version 6.0 because you've heard stories about problems with the original release, your wait may be over.

Microsoft today unveiled the long-awaited "Oops" update to its disk operating system, adding much-needed data protection and a some useful features that should particularly please owners of CD-ROM drives.

The new release is known as DOS 6.2. If you're wondering what happened to DOS 6.1, IBM grabbed that number earlier this year when it released its own version of the operating system.

While DOS 6.2 may not break new ground from a computing standpoint, Microsoft's marketing effort is unlike anything that has gone before.

For only $9.95, current owners of DOS 6.0 can buy a single-disk version of DOS 6.2 which updates only those parts of the operating system that have changed. The upgrade is also available free to modem users from Microsoft's bulletin board and its forum on the Compuserve Information Service. Just be aware that the upgrade file is so large and takes so long to download that connect time or long-distance charges will probably be close to the $9.95 cost of the retail version.

Businesses with many PCs may find it worth their while to download, however, since Microsoft will allow them to update all their users without paying additional license fees.

For users of DOS 5 or earlier versions, a full upgrade carries a list price of $77.95, which means about $50 on the street. But Microsoft is offering an unusual choice here, too.

One is the standard Microsoft package -- three disks and a user manual, which novices have long found to be indecipherable. The other package, available for the first time in bookstores and other nontraditional outlets, comes with a special version of Dan Gookin's best-selling "DOS for Dummies," which walks users through the upgrade and the basics of DOS with grace and wit.

"It's not that we're calling our customers dummies," said Tony Audino, Microsoft's DOS marketing manager. "It's just that software manuals, by our own admission, are not designed well for novice users."

Graduates of the "DOS for Dummies" version can order the full manual for a nominal charge.

Now to the nitty-gritty. Microsoft has never formally acknowledged the bugs that have caused data loss and even hard-disk crashes for thousands of users (myself included). But DOS 6.2 has been rewritten to solve these nonproblems, or better yet, prevent them.

The flakiest feature of DOS 6 has been its disk compression utility, called DoubleSpace. This extension to DOS can compress some or all of the files on your disk into one large file, which your computer treats as though it were another disk drive. Once you've set up a compressed volume file (CVF), the compression and decompression are transparent to you. But the amount of data you can store on your hard disk has increased by 50 to 80 percent.

Unfortunately, these compressed disks have had more than their share of failures, and corrupted CVF's have been difficult to repair without third-party utility programs. Microsoft has acted on several fronts here.

The first is the inclusion of a new program called ScanDisk, which is similar to the much beloved Norton Disk Doctor. ScanDisk performs a complete surface test of your disk drive before it will let you create a compressed volume. If it finds a bad sector on the drive, it will transfer the data to a good spot and then mark the bad sector as unusable. This will prevent the kind of problems that occurred when programs tried to write data to bad spots in compressed volumes that were left undetected by DOS 6.0.

ScanDisk will also examine and repair existing compressed volumes. If you upgrade, it's probably a good idea to run it on your current CVF to make sure there are no trouble spots.

Another feature, called DoubleGuard, protects against corruption problems caused by memory resident programs and games that impolitely overwrite areas of memory reserved for a copy of your disk drive's File Allocation Table (FAT).

DoubleGuard detects unwanted changes in the FAT and halts the computer before it can write a bad allocation table to disk and trashes your data.

Microsoft has also made changes to SmartDrive, its disk caching software. From a safety standpoint, the most important one disables so-called write-back caching unless you specifically turn it on. Write-back caching delays disk writes for up to five seconds, waiting for a time when your processor isn't busy. It appears that the data hasbeen written to disk, but it may not be stored yet. This can speed up your computer, but a software or hardware problem that shuts down your system before the data has actually been written can ruin your day.

Now for the new goodies. Read caching, which speeds disk operations by reading large chunks of data into memory, has been extended to CD-ROM drives. CD-ROMs store huge amounts of data but are much slower than hard disks, and their performance will improve dramatically.

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