Tag Archives: boot disk

4 more questions about RAID

Longtime reader Jim ` asked me a few more worthwhile questions while I was procrastinating working on yesterday’s post about RAID. Let’s go to Q&A format. Continue reading 4 more questions about RAID

How to revive an old PC

Somewhere, stashed in a corner of the basement or a closet, pretty much anyone who works on computers or even has just owned computers for a long time has a stash of obsolete hardware, stashed for a just-in-case moment.

Sometimes just-in-case comes quickly. Sometimes not so quickly. It’s when it comes not so quickly that you can run into problems.The first, and easiest problem you’re likely to encounter is a dead CMOS battery. The computer needs to be plugged in and powered on for this battery to charge, and when a computer sits for several years, chances are the battery will go dead. And with it goes the computer configuration, since CMOS memory is volatile, not firmware.

That means all those supertweaked settings you painstakingly entered in after reading Tom’s Hardware Guide in 1996 are gone. But so are the hard drive settings–assuming the hard drive still works.

So the first order of business when reviving a sleeping old PC is just to set it up with a keyboard and monitor, plug it in, turn it all on, watch for a CMOS battery failure message, then turn off the monitor and wait about 24 hours. Come back, turn the PC off and on, and see if you still get a CMOS battery failure.

If not, you’re good. You can go into BIOS setup, autodetect the hard drive if the computer is recent enough to have that feature, and see if the computer boots for you.

If the battery won’t come back, hopefully it’s a replaceable coin type. Remove the battery, take it to Cellular Shack, er, Radio Shack, and they should be able to look it up and find you an equivalent replacement. Buy the battery, tell ’em you’re deaf when they start trying to sell you a cell phone and enjoy the bemused looks you get, then take the new battery home, put it in your PC, power cycle it a few times to see if it needs to be charged, and if not, configure your hard drive.

If the computer doesn’t have an auto-detect feature, the hard drive parameters are hopefully on a sticker on the drive itself. Enter those parameters in CMOS setup, and see if the computer boots.

There’s a very real possibility that the drive won’t work. Some drives react better than others to just sitting. Rather than mess around too much with old drives, I prefer to install an adapter that converts a Compact Flash card (for digital cameras) to an IDE interface. This gives you an inexpensive solid-state drive that won’t develop mechanical problems and will consume less power. You can pick up a Compact Flash adapter very cheaply on eBay or from DealExtreme.com.

This approach works better on motherboards that can autodetect drive types, of course. I’ve never seen a Compact Flash card that had drive type parameters printed on the label. You can put the card in a system that does have the feature, autodetect it, then write down the parameters so you can enter them in.

The procedures for loading an operating system vary. MS-DOS and its contemporaries like PC-DOS and DR-DOS, load from floppy. Windows 95 and 98 require boot disks with CD-ROM drivers, which are easy enough to locate online and download. Windows 2000 will boot off a CD-ROM to install, as will FreeDOS and most Linux distributions.

The other major difficulty with older PCs is just that setting them up was more complicated than it is now. With most modern PCs, you can just put in a CPU, connecting a hard drive, and letting the BIOS detect everything. Older boards may require you to set some jumpers for the CPU configuration, and if the PC is really old (especially pre-Pentium PCs), you may have to set some jumpers on plug-in cards as well. You may have to do some detective work, hunting down markings on the board, then do some Google searching (search both the web and newsgroups for best results) to find a manual or a list of settings. Many vendors have gone out of business or no longer have manuals posted on their web sites. When I went looking for a manual for an Asus SP97-V motherboard, for example, Asus no longer had it online. I had to download it elsewhere.

Why I generally buy AMD

I was talking to a new coworker today and of course the topic of our first PCs came up. It was Cyrix-based. I didn’t mention my first PC (it seems I’m about four years older–it was an Am486SX2/66).

With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve always bought non-Intel PCs. Most of the Intel PCs I have bought have been used. One boss once went so far as to call me anti-corporate.

I’m not so much anti-corporate as I am pro-competition.I was a second-generation AMD fanboy, not first. When the Am386DX/40 hit town, I was aware it was the best value in the industry, giving better performance than an Intel 486SX/25 for the price of an Intel 386DX/33, but I didn’t really care because I was still an Amiga guy at that point in time.

But that’s the reason I’m an AMD guy today. One of the reasons the computer market is so stagnant today is because it’s dominated by Microsoft. There’s nothing exciting going on there. There hasn’t been anything exciting coming out of Microsoft since the mid 1990s when they had to compete with OS/2. OS/2 never captured a huge amount of market share, but OS/2 promised to be a better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows, and to a large extent it delivered. Say what you want about OS/2, but I could load Tony La Russa Baseball 2 up in a DOS Window under OS/2 and it would run faster than it ran under DOS, even though the game didn’t have the machine’s full attention. OS/2 2.1 (and later 3.0) had Microsoft running scared, because it ran all of the software that was available in the early 1990s and it ran it quickly, in a fully pre-emptive multitasking environment. Microsoft responded with Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0 because it had to–Windows 3.1 just couldn’t compete with OS/2’s stability, and booting into DOS using a custom boot disk for every game they wanted to run wasn’t something the public was going to put up with forever.

And what’s happened since then? Windows 98 was basically a service pack, improving the stability of Windows 95 but not offering anything revolutionary. Windows 2000 was a lot better than NT 4.0 but not the kind of jump that Windows 95 was over 3.1. Windows XP did a lot to improve backward compatibility with old DOS and Windows 9x games, and while it was a big leap from Windows 98 or ME, it wasn’t a tremendous improvement over Windows 2000. I haven’t heard anyone say anything good about Vista. At least the Windows 95 box was pretty, but Vista doesn’t really even have that going for it.

Microsoft’s primary competition today is illegal copies of its own operating system, so its main concern with Vista is keeping people from making copies of it. And it shows.

Apple is trying to compete, but its market share is around 10 percent. We don’t exactly have a duopoly.

When I got interested in computers in the 1980s, there was all sorts of interesting stuff going on. IBM and DOS were things you used at work to do accounting. At home we used all these weird and wonderful 8-bit computers that were technically obsolete, but engineers kept figuring out how to squeeze more capability out of them. Revisionist historians talk about Apple dominating the 8-bit era, but that wasn’t true. At its peak, Commodore sold as many C-64s in a single year as Apple sold Apple IIs in that line’s entire lifetime. Although Commodore was the king of sales, Atari arguably had the best 8-bit computer (the 800/XE/XL family). Tandy had its Color Computer line, and while it couldn’t match the graphics and sound capability that Commodore and Atari had, it had a far more powerful CPU. Coleco’s Adam is little more than the butt of a joke today, but on paper it should have done well. Coleco took several chips that Texas Instruments had used in its failed TI-99/4A, paired them up with a more conventional CPU (the popular Zilog Z-80), and made a competitive computer with it. Its biggest problem was that it was late to market and plagued with reliability problems at first. Kind of like Windows Vista.

And that’s the beauty of competition. In the 1980s, if you delivered a product like the Coleco Adam, you went out of business. But if your name is Microsoft and you have 85% of the marketplace, you can deliver something like the Coleco Adam and keep on chugging.

The really exciting stuff in the 1980s wasn’t in the 8-bit arena though. The Motorola 68000-based computers were where the action was. The most famous of these, of course, was the first-generation Macintosh. But the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga used the 68000 too, and unlike the first Macs, they paired the powerful CPU with color and powerful sound. The three companies threw bricks at each other a lot, but they kept each other honest. Apple ended up having to add color and sound and expansion slots to its Macs in order to compete. Commodore designed a low-cost Amiga to compete with Atari, and a higher-priced model with lots of drive bays and expansion slots to compete with Apple.

These three companies, ironically, built the kind of machine Bill Gates tried to get IBM to build in 1981. Gates wanted IBM to use a Motorola 68000, and then they would have used Xenix, Microsoft’s version of Unix, for an operating system.

The result was Microsoft trying to play catch-up. Windows was in development before these machines hit the market, but Microsoft knew the Mac was coming long before it happened. Microsoft had a prototype and was one of the first Mac developers. In typical Microsoft fashion, Microsoft was talking about Windows in 1983, but didn’t deliver anything until 1985, and what they delivered wasn’t useful for very much. It wasn’t until Windows 3.0 came out in 1990 that it hit prime time. By then the code was stable enough that you could use it for a few hours at a time, and PC CPUs were powerful enough that Windows could keep up with an Amiga or ST or Mac without embarrassing itself.

And that was the beginning of the end. It was one thing for Commodore and Atari to compete with 286 clones that could barely run Windows. But within a year or two, they were competing with Tandy 386s that sold for $1,200 at every Radio Shack in the country. Whether you lived in New York City or Buffalo, Missouri, you could walk into Radio Shack and see a computer running Windows and buy it on the spot. Neither Commodore nor Atari had a dealer network anything like that. And if you lived in a big enough city, you could walk into a "superstore" like Best Buy or Circuit City or Silo that were sweeping the nation at the time and buy a Packard Bell for even less.

By 1993, Commodore and Atari were non-factors in the marketplace. It was down to Apple and the PC clones running Windows.

So what does any of this have to do with AMD and Intel?

AMD and Intel keep each other honest. When Intel released the Itanium, AMD countered with its AMD64 architecture. While the Itanium gives better 64-bit performance, AMD64 does a much better job of running the 32-bit applications we all run today. Itanium has a better long-term approach, but it’s designed for a future that will never come on its own because people still want to play their old copy of The Sims and have it run well on their new computer. AMD’s answer for 64-bit computing was AMD64, and its success forced Intel to clone it.

The CPU isn’t as important today because Intel and AMD are making CPUs that have more power than today’s software knows what to do with. But that’s not Intel’s fault, and it’s not AMD’s fault. Microsoft can’t think of a good use for all the power or a way to harness it, and the industry doesn’t have the scrappy underdog companies like Commodore or Atari anymore to figure out a use for them and drive the industry.

But if one company had a total monopoly on CPUs, I’m afraid of what I’d see. Probably Intel would become more like Microsoft, delivering products that ran slower and at a higher price than each previous generation. It’s unnatural, but it’s the norm for a monopoly.

I’ve heard myself saying several times over the last three or four years that I don’t like computers anymore. But that’s not exactly true. Either I don’t like modern computers, or what HP and Dell sell today aren’t computers.

If either Intel or AMD were to succeed in squeezing the other company out of business, the modern computer would become even more underachieving and uninteresting than it is now.

Operating System Not Found, Missing Operating System, and friends

So the PC that stored my resume got kicked (as in the foot of a passer-by hitting it) and died, and the backup that I thought I had… Well, it wasn’t where I thought it was.

Time for some amateur home data recovery. Here’s how I brought it back.This machine ran Windows 2000. The first trick to try on any machine running any flavor of Windows is to boot from a DOS boot disk containing FDISK.EXE and issue the command FDISK /MBR. This replaces the master boot record. A corrupt MBR is the most common malady that causes these dreaded error messages, and this is the easiest fix for it.

That didn’t work for me.

The second trick is to use MBRWork. Have it back up the first sector, then have it delete the boot record. Then it gives you an option to recover partitions. Run that, then run the option that installs the standard MBR code. I can’t tell you how many times this tool has made me look like I can walk on water.

No dice this time either.

Next I tried grabbing the Windows 2000 CD and doing a recovery install. This has brought systems back to life for me too. Not this time. As happens all too often, it couldn’t find the Windows 2000, so it couldn’t repair it.

The drive seemed to work, yet it couldn’t boot or anything. I could have and probably should have put it in another PC to make sure it was readable. But I didn’t have a suitable donor handy. Had there been such a system, I would have put the drive in, checked to see if it was readable, and probably would have run CHKDSK against it.

Lacking a suitable donor, instead I located an unused hard drive and put it in the system. I booted off the drive just to make sure it wasn’t a hardware problem. It wasn’t–an old copy of Windows 98 booted and dutifully spent 20 minutes installing device drivers for the new motherboard hardware. So I powered down, installed both drives, and broke out a copy of Ghost.

Ghost, as I have said before, doesn’t exactly copy data–what it does is better described as reinterpreting the data. This allows you to use Ghost to lay down an image on dissimilar hard drives. It also makes Ghost a fabulous data recovery tool. Ghost complained that the NTFS log needed to be flushed. Well, that requires booting into Windows (and I think that’s all that’s necessary), but I couldn’t do that. It offered to try the copy anyway, so I chose that. So it cranked for about 15 minutes. I exited Ghost, powered down, and disconnected the bad drive. I powered back up, and it booted. Fabulous.

Now I can use Ghost to copy the now-good drive back over to the drive that was bad in the first place. I’ll do that, but sending out the resume takes much higher priority.

Ghost won\’t let me use my monster hard drive!

Here’s a familiar problem, I’m sure.

You need to back up your laptop, so you buy a monster (200+ GB) USB or Firewire hard drive. And then you can’t use it in Symantec/Norton Ghost, for one of two reasons:

1. You can’t format a FAT32 partition bigger than 32 gigabytes.
2. Ghost chokes when it tries to make a file larger than 4 gigabytes.These are limits of the operating system, not Ghost. But there are workarounds.

To format a FAT32 drive bigger than 32 gigs, you need a DOS boot disk. If you don’t have a Windows 95OSR2 or Windows 98 DOS boot disk handy, you might try bootdisk.com, or download the latest version of FreeDOS, which now supports FAT32.

You’ll have to use good old FDISK and FORMAT, which is clunkier than Windows XP’s computer management, but at least it’s possible.

Ghost can choke when the image file exceeds 4 gigabytes in size because FAT32 won’t let you make a file larger than that. It’s a limit of the FAT32 file system. The workaround there is to split up the image. Pass Ghost the -SPAN -SPLIT=4095 parameters when you launch it to get around that problem.

Need to squeeze a little more on that floppy?

I’ve been experimenting again with bootdisks and the FreeDOS project came to mind.

Boot floppies are getting rarer but they’re still hard to avoid completely. I think FreeDOS is worth a look for a variety of reasons.Its system files take up half the space of Win9x’s DOS. That extra 100K on the disk can make the difference between your tools fitting on a floppy or not.

FreeDOS supports FAT32. There’s an unofficial DR-DOS fork that does as well, but the licensing terms of FreeDOS are a whole lot more clear.

The FreeDOS FORMAT.EXE can overformat disks. If you use more than 80 tracks, the disks have problems in some machines, but a 1.68 megabyte disk using extra sectors per track should be OK. Concerned about overformatting disks? The Amiga’s default high-density disk format was 1.76 megabytes. That extra 240K can make a big difference, especially when coupled with that 100K you’ve already saved. The syntax to make a bootable 1.68 meg disk: FORMAT A: /F:1680 /S

The syntax for a 1.74 meg disk: FORMAT A: /F:1743 /S

The FreeDOS command interpreter includes command history, so you don’t need to make space on the disk or in low memory for DOSKEY.

Using FreeDOS and its 1.68 meg floppy, I was able to squeeze Ghost 8.1 (a 1.3 meg monster) onto a boot floppy and still have 197,632 bytes free to play with. With that kind of space left, if need be, one could format the disk with FreeDOS, then SYS it under Win9x and run MS-DOS 7 on it.

If you still need to squeeze a little more space, get the freeware FDFormat, which can also format oversized floppies and lets you reduce the root directory down to 16 entries from the default 224, which gives you a few more kilobytes of usable space. If you need to put more than 16 files on the disk, create a subdirectory and put your files in the subdirectory. The syntax would be FDFORMAT /D16 /F168 /S. Substitute /F172 for a bigger disk. To increase the performance of the floppy (who doesn’t want the slowpoke floppy to be a bit faster?) add the /X:2 /Y:3 options. A boot disk formatted this way yields 1,595,904 free bytes with the FreeDOS boot files installed.

That’s enough space to be almost useful for something again. You’ll at least be able to fit more on Bart’s modular disks or Brad’s network boot disk.

Slimming down the bird: A 2.6 kernel for PCs with 4-8 megs

In case you haven’t read about it elsewhere, a new branch of the Linux kernel called -tiny was quietly released last month. Its main intent is for embedded systems, but I can see all sorts of uses for it. The smaller the kernel, the faster it loads off a floppy, so it’d be great for boot disks. Likewise for diskless machines that boot off the network.
Some people claim that compiling the kernel with the -Os parameter, as this branch permits, causes faster operation than compilations with the normal -O2. The theory is that the system spends more time in user space than in kernel space, and therefore, the kernel will almost never be in system cache, and therefore, the smaller it is, the faster it will operate. I’m sure someone who knows some specifics of how CPUs and caches work could validate or refute this. Even Steve DeLassus, who has both an electrical engineering and a computer science degree from one of the best universities in the world for that kind of thing, admits that sometimes these specifics get over his head. So if Steve doesn’t always know, then how am I supposed to know?

But the argument sounds good on paper.

With this kernel slimmed down as much as possible (no networking), it can boot in 2 megs. With networking, it can boot in 2.5 megs. With a comfortable set of features, it runs in 4-8 megs, which a mainline kernel doesn’t always do anymore.

Obviously, this is a perfect companion for projects like asmutils and uClibc/Busybox/Tinylogin.

CD-ROM troubleshooting under Windows 9x

Occasionally, a PC’s CD or DVD-ROM drive will stop responding for no known good reason. Sometimes the problem is hardware–a CD-ROM drive, being a mechanical component, can fail–but as often as not, it seems, the problem is software rather than hardware.*
Troubleshooting an IDE CD-ROM drive that quit working is pretty much the same under Windows 95, Windows 95B, Windows 95OSR2.1, Windows 98, Windows 98SE, and Windows Me, whether you have a Compaq, Dell, eMachine, eMachines, Gateway, HP, IBM, Micron, Packard Bell, Sony, or clone PC.**

In an effort to avoid tech support calls about DOS games, most computer manufacturers load DOS-mode CD-ROM drivers in a file called config.sys. This reduces tech support calls but increases the chances of software failure by about a million percent. Open My Computer, navigate to Drive C, and locate the file config.sys. (It might just say “config”.) Rename it to something else.

Don’t reboot yet. Often, this will solve the problem in and of itself, but frequently there’s another problem on Windows 9x boxes.

Sometimes Windows has trouble deciding whether to use the driver specified in config.sys or its own built in driver, so it’ll bluescreen. Then, the next time you boot, it adds a key to the registry that disables the CD-ROM drive entirely and makes the rest of the computer run about as fast as a Studebaker.

Nice of it, eh? To check this, click Start, then Run, and type regedit. Double click on HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE, then navigate to System\CurrentControlSet\Services\VxD\IOS. You’ll probably see a value named “NoIDE.” Right click on it and select Delete. Reboot. Your drive will likely come back to life.

If neither of these things work, you can determine for certain if the problem is hardware or software through a couple of methods. If your manufacturer gave you a restore CD, try booting off it. Hold down the shift key while it tries to boot in order to prevent it from doing anything nasty to your system–you just want to see if it boots up. If it doesn’t boot, you’ve got a hardware problem. Replace the drive. If it does boot, either try the above directions again, or you’ve got a problem I’ve never heard of.

If you don’t have a system restore CD, you can accomplish basically the same thing with a DOS boot disk. You can get one of those from bootdisk.com. Boot off the disk, pay attention to what drive letter the CD-ROM got (usually D: but it can vary), insert a data CD, and type the command DIR D: (substitute the drive letter that came up if it’s something other than D:). If you get an error message, you’ve got a hardware problem. Replace the drive.

Windows NT, Windows 2000, and Windows XP are immune to the problems I described here. If the drive quits working under one of those operating systems, either your drive lens is dirty or you’ve got a bad drive. Cleaning kits are hard to find and overpriced. As I write, an Artec 56X IDE CD-ROM drive costs $19 at Newegg.com, so outright replacement doesn’t cost much more than cleaning.

* Yes, I realize this is yet another boring troubleshooting entry. Having nothing interesting to say today, I’m writing entries that I know will get me Googlejuice down the road. Analysis of my early stuff and of some of the comments on this site has made me realize there are still some gaps in the Farquhar back-catalog.

** Yes, this is another paragraph written with the express design of getting hits from Google. If you can think of any search term I might have possibly left out, well, that’s what the comments are for.

Fare thee well, goodnight, and goodbye to my friend, OS/2

The Register: IBM has finally brought the Great Rebellion [OS/2] to a close.
The Register was the only online obituary that mentioned eComStation, a third-party OS/2 derivative that everyone forgets about. Interestingly, the product literature never mentions OS/2 by name, only bragging about its technology licensed from IBM.

The Reg also talked about OS/2 version 3 being positioned as a gamer’s OS. Maybe that’s ironic, coming from the suits at IBM, and that wasn’t how I saw it–I switched from Windows 3.1 to OS/2 because, coming from an Amiga, I was used to being able to multitask freely without a lot of crashes. Windows 3.1 crashed pretty much every day if I tried to do that. OS/2 knocked that number down to about once a year, and usually those lockups happened when I was running Windows apps.

Even though I never really thought of it that way, OS/2 was great for games. Since it used virtual DOS machines, each environment had its own memory management, so you could fine-tune it and avoid shuffling around boot disks or struggling to master the DOS 6.0 boot menus. Pretty much no matter what you did, you got 600K or more of conventional memory to work with, and with some fine-tuning, you could bring that total much higher than you could usually attain with DOS. Since 600K was almost always adequate, most games just ran, no sweat.

The other thing I remember is the speed at which DOS games ran. Generally, running it under OS/2 gained you a speed grade. A game running under OS/2 on a DX2/50 felt like a DX2/66 running under DOS would feel. An OS/2 wizard could usually squeeze yet more performance out of the game with some tweaking.

I have fond memories of playing Railroad Tycoon, Civilization, and Tony LaRussa Baseball 2 on my Compaq 486 running OS/2 v3.

And there was another really nice thing about OS/2. When I bought a shiny new Pentium-75 motherboard and CPU and a new case, I pulled the hard drive out of the Compaq and dropped it into the Pentium. It just worked. All I had to do was load drivers for my new video card, since it used a different chipset than my 486.

And the cult of OS/2 won’t go away just yet. The talk over at os2voice.org has me almost ready to install OS/2 again.