Optimizing BIOSes and optimizing DOS

Optimizing the BIOS. Dustin Cook sent in a link to Adrian’s Rojak Pot, at www.adriansrojakpot.com , which includes a BIOS tweaking guide. It’s an absolute must-read. I have a few minor quibbles with a couple of the things he says, particularly about shadowing and caching your ROMs with Windows 9x. He says you shouldn’t do it. He’s right. He says you shouldn’t do it because Microsoft says not to do it with Windows NT, and Windows 9x “shares the same Win32 architecture.” It does and it doesn’t, but that’s flawed logic. Shadowing ROMs isn’t always a bad thing; on some systems that eats up some usable memory and on others it doesn’t, depending on the chipset and BIOS it uses. But it’s pointless because Windows doesn’t use the BIOS for anything, unless you’re in safe mode. Caching ROMs makes very little sense; there’s only so much caching bandwidth to go around so you should spend it on caching memory that’s actually being used for something productive. So who cares about architecture, you shouldn’t cache and shadow your ROMs because Windows will ignore it one way or the other, so those facilities are better spent elsewhere. The same thing is true of Linux.

Still, in spite of this minor flaw I found in a couple of different spots, this is an invaluable guide. Perfect BIOS settings won’t make a Pentium-90 run like a Pentium III, but poor BIOS settings certainly can make a Pentium III run more like a 386DX-40. Chances are your BIOS settings aren’t that bad, but they can probably use some improvement. So if you want the best possible performance from your modern PC, visit Adrian’s. If you want to optimize your 386 or 486 or low-end Pentium, visit the site I mentioned yesterday.

Actually, it wouldn’t be a half-bad idea to take the downloadable versions of both guides, print them, and stick them in a binder for future reference. You’ll never know when you might want to take them with you.

Optimizing DOS again. An awful lot of system speed is psychological. I’d say maybe 75% of it is pure psychology. It doesn’t matter so much whether the system really is fast, just as long as it feels fast. I mentioned yesterday keyboard and screen accelerators. Keyboard accelerators are great for people like me who spend a lot of time in long text files, because you can scroll through them so much faster. A keyboard accelerator makes a big difference in how an old DOS system feels, and it can improve the responsiveness of some DOS games. (Now I got your attention I’m sure.)

Screen accelerators are a bit more of a stretch. Screen accelerators intercept the BIOS calls that write to the screen and replace them with faster, more efficient code. I’d estimate the speedup is anywhere from 10 to 50 percent, depending on how inefficient the PC’s BIOS is and whether it’s shadowing the BIOS into RAM. They don’t speed up graphics at all, just text mode, and then, only those programs that are using the BIOS–some programs already have their own high-speed text routines they use instead. Software compatibility is potentially an issue, but PC power users have been using these things since at least 1985, if not longer, so most of the compatibility issues have long since been fixed.

They only take a couple of kilobytes of memory, and they provide enough of a boost for programs that use the BIOS that they’re more than worth it. With keyboard and screen accelerators loaded in autoexec.bat, that old DEC 386SX/20 feels an awful lot faster. If I had a copy of a DOS version of Microsoft Word, I could use it for writing and it wouldn’t cramp my style much.

Optimizing DOS and the BIOS, plus new iMacs

Optimizing DOS (Or: A New Use for Ancient Equipment). I was thinking yesterday, I wished I had a computer that could just hold disk images and do data recovery. Then I remembered I had a DECpc 320P laptop laying under my desk. I cranked it up. MS-DOS 5, 20 MHz 386sx, 80-meg drive, 6 MB RAM, grayscale VGA display. So I installed Norton Utilities 8, the main thing I wanted to run (I had a retail box sitting on my shelf), then of course I set out to optimize it. Optimizing DOS is really easy: it’s just a question of disk optimization and memory management. I cleaned up the root directory, pulled the extraneous files in the C:\DOS directory (the .cpi files, all the .sys files, all the .bas files). Then I ran Speed Disk, setting it to sort directory entries by size in descending order, put directories first, and do full optimization. It took about 30 minutes. If I’d been really bored I could have mapped out what executables are most important to me and put those first. Since DOS doesn’t track file access dates it can’t automatically put your frequently accessed files first like Speed Disk for Windows does.

Of course when I installed Norton Utilities 8 I installed NDOS, its command.com replacement. Built-in command history, improved resident utilities, and thanks to its memory management, it actually uses far less conventional memory (but more memory total) than command.com. That’s OK; with 6 MB of RAM I can afford to give up a fair bit of extended memory for better functionality.

Once I was happy with all that, I also attacked the startup files. I started off with a basic config.sys:

device=c:\dos\himem.sys
device=c:\dos\emm386.exe noems
dos=high,umb
files=30

Then I went into autoexec.bat, consolidated the PATH statements into one (it read: PATH C:\WINDOWS;C:\DOS;C:\DOS\u;C:\MOUSE) and added the prefix LH to all lines that ran TSRs or device drivers (such as MOUSE.EXE). Upon further reflection, I should have moved the Mouse directory into C:\DOS to save a root directory entry.

I added the NCACHE2 disk cache to autoexec.bat– NCACHE2 /ext=4096 /optimize=s /usehigh=on /a a c /usehma=on /multi=on. That turns on multitasking, enables caching of both C: and A:, tells it to use 4 MB of memory, use high memory, and use extended memory. My goal was to use as much memory as prudently as possible, since I’d be using this just for DOS (and mosly for running Norton Utilities).

I also set up a 512K RAMdisk using RAMDRIVE.SYS (devicehigh=c:\dos\ramdrive.sys 512 128 4). Then I added these lines to autoexec.bat:

md d:\temp
set tmp=d:\temp
set temp=d:\temp

Now when an app wants to write temp files, it does it to a RAMdisk. The other parameters tell it to use 128K sectors to save space, and put 4 entries in the root directory, also to save space. With DOS 5, that was the minimum. I don’t need any more than one, since I’m making a subdirectory. I could just point the temp directory to the root of D:, but I’d rather have dynamic allocation of the number of directory entries. This setting is more versatile–if I need two big files in the temp directory, I’m not wasting space on directory entries. If on the other hand I need tons of tiny files, I’m guaranteed not to run out of entries.

It’s not a barn burner by any stretch, but it’s reasonably quick considering its specs. Now when someone trashes a floppy disk, I can just throw it in the 320P, run Disk Doctor and Disktool on it (and in a pinch, Norton Disk Editor), copy the data to the HD, then throw the recovered data onto a new, freshly formatted floppy. I’ll only use it a couple of times a year, but when I need such a beast, I need it badly. And if I have the need to run some other old obscure DOS program that won’t run on newer machines, the 320P can come to my rescue again too. It runs the software well, it boots in seconds–what more can I ask?

I could have done a couple more things, such as a  screen accelerator and a keyboard accelerator . Maybe today if I have time.

I was tempted to put Small Linux ( http://www.superant.com/smalllinux/ ) on it, but frankly, DOS 5 and Norton Utilities 8 is more useful to me. I’m not sure what I’d do with a non-networkable Linux box with only 6 MB RAM and a monochrome display.

A useful (but unfortunately dated) link. I stumbled across this yesterday: The BIOS Survival Guide , a nicely-done guide to BIOS settings. Unfortunately it stopped being maintained in 1997, so it’s most useful for tweaking very old PCs. Still, it’s better than nothing, and most modern PCs still have most of these settings. And reading this does give you a prayer of understanding the settings in a modern PC.

If you want to optimize your BIOS, this is about as good a starting point as you’re going to find online for free. For more recent systems, you’ll be better served by The BIOS Companion, written by Phil Croucher (one of the co-authors of this piece.) You can get a sample from that book at http://www.electrocution.com/biosc.htm .

New iMac flavors. Steve Jobs unveiled the new iMacs this week. The new flavors: Blue Dalmation and Flower Power. Yes, they’re as hideous as they sound. Maybe worse. Check the usual news outlets. They’d go great in a computer room with a leopard-skin chair, shag carpet, and lava lamps. And don’t forget the 8-track cranking out Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead tunes.

I think the outside-the-box look of Mir, the PC Gatermann and I built as a Linux gateway (see yesterday), is far more tasteful–and that’s not exactly the best idea we ever had.

How to get noticed: Get sued

~Mail follows today’s post~

Linux Today antics continue. I see on Jerry Pournelle’s site that they’ve dared him to sue them for libel. Smart move on their part, actually–I remember in my Magazine Publishing class, we raised the question in one session of how to drum up publicity for an upstart that nobody knows or cares about. (Linux Today would certainly qualify as this–it’s small potatoes and obviously knows it.) I raised my hand. My project in the class was a rebel computer mag. I’m sitting there in ripped-up jeans and a Joy Division t-shirt, known among my peers as the managing editor of a student newspaper that had an audience mostly because we baited the big, established paper, and my business plan called for taking this to the next level.

“Get sued,” I said.

Several people laughed. The professor gave me a look he gave often, a look that said, basically, I don’t know yet where you’re going with this, but I’ll humor you.

“It’s cheaper than advertising and it lasts longer,” I continued. “Suddenly, you’re news. People pay attention to you because someone big and important pays attention to you. By the time it manages to get through the courts, you’re either huge or you’re out of business, so it doesn’t matter.”

It made for nice classroom theory. It might work in the real world. But such kamikazee tactics are a sheer sign of desperation that begs the question: Why are they desperate? What do they know that the rest of us haven’t figured out yet?

Chances are, rather than sue, Jerry Pournelle will just solve the problem by eventually not saying a word about Linux at all. Linux zealots never say anything about John C. Dvorak, because Dvorak never says anything at all about Linux. The other lesson Linux Today and the zealots need to learn is that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Whatever Jerry Pournelle or any other mainstream columnist says contributes to mindshare. Mindshare, not rose-colored glasses, is what wins marketplace battles. It’s not like anyone who knew anything had anything nice to say about the original IBM PC–it won because of sheer mindshare.

This is a tired subject, and I’m dead tired. Time for lunch and a nap.

~~~~~~~~~~

From: “Curtis Horn” <curtishorn@home.com>
Subject: Data recovery and a dumb question.

Hello again Dave, glad to see you posting again. If you don’t remember me I e-mailed you about the compaq I was working on that had memory on the
motherboard.  Regarding the post quoted below:

“Hey, who was the genius who decided it was a good idea to cut, copy and paste files from the desktop?”

Have you tried http://www.officerecovery.com?
I noticed you said you downloaded a recovery program, but you did not say which one, so if this wasn’t it I hope it can still help you.  I found it
a few months back when a paniced friend called me and said he had a report due the next day and that his office document was corrupted.  Luckily, the demo version that I downloaded was able to get the cruicial
> parts of his report (I think you have to pay for the full recovery).  I did have trouble with it crashing also I think but I don’t remember.

On to my question, this is a good one too.  I put together a computer for my roomate and I tried upgrading it. (I’m using this computer now since
mine sucks[acer] and i’m waiting on DDR memory so I can start a new system)
Here is the current configuration:

FIC 503+ Motherboard with 1Mb cache
96 Mb of simms from acer (only had simms that’s why I bought fic, supports 4 simms)
16 Meg pci ati video card (from my old acer also)
and k6-III 400 (also from my acer, was on a powerleap adapter, now removed)
nice atx case from pc club (30$ 🙂
pci sound, 52x cd-rom, 8x4x32 cd-rw, 5.3gig quantum, isa nic card, scsi card for scanner

Got the picture? I mainly use it to play Asherons Call, to schoolwork, e-mail, ect.

So, for the upgrade, i’ve got a 13.6Gig Hd and I’m going to buy a 128meg Dimm since they are SO cheap now.  Here is where I ran into a problem.  I usually check pricewatch and some other sites to keep track of what things cost.  If I want to upgrade the processor on this computer my only option that is worth it is a Higher Mhz k6-3.  The problem is they are expensive.  2 weeks ago I noticed that they were under 60$, so I ordered one, a 450Mhz k6-3.  I ploped it in to my board and the bios comes up, says it’s running at 50Mhz and checks the memory then
stops.  Now, I expected this, because the processor I bought was a MOBILE processor, AND, I made sure my board supported the voltage (2v) and made sure to set it at 2v. But it didn’t boot.  I tried everything, set all the bios settings to default, rebooted, even tried lower than 450Mhz clock speeds. but no, it wouldn’t
work. Unfortunatley they won’t take it back because they EXPECT people to not set their boards to 2v and fry them (and I don’t blame them).  What I’d like
to know is if you know any way to get this to work?

Things I may try are:
taking everything out except the video card, trying dimms instead of simms, tweaking bios so everything is at minimum settings pulling my hair out (which will be hard cause I have thick hair) I know it was foolish, but, If I could get this to work I can put my old system backtogether and give it to my uncle and cousins, who really could use a omputer for school.  Well, thanks for everything, just so you know I’ve always highly recommended your books to everyone I know that is into computers (some have even bought it too) and I look forward to your next work.

                  Curtis

~~~~~~~~~~

I remember your name; I don’t remember the Compaq problem specifically (I rarely do). Good to hear from you again.

I’d heard of OfficeRecovery.com but I don’t know that I’ve ever tried their stuff out. I certainly will. It’s 11 pm and I just called and left a message on her voice mail that someone who read Optimizing Windows and reads my site had a suggestion for something I could try. Weirdest hour in the world, but I wanted to make sure she didn’t delete the corrupt files if she hadn’t
already. (Authorship has its priveliges–we have smart readers who always know something we don’t, and sometimes are willing to share. Thanks!)

Your question may not be too tough, especially since you do have a working CPU. Indicating a 50 MHz CPU speed usually means the BIOS doesn’t recognize
the CPU properly. Go to FIC’s page and download the very newest BIOS. I’ve noticed most of the reputable Super 7 manufacturers have revved their BIOS lately to support AMD’s newer stuff. So get the newest BIOS, flash the board, load setup defaults (if you have a choice between safe and turbo or safe and normal, go safe–I know the 503+ but it’s been a while since I worked with it), then try bringing up a minimal system (new CPU jumpered properly, just a video card, and a pair of SIMMs) and see what appens. Once you get it working, tweak the BIOS settings for better speed and add hardware, using the good engineer’s method of one change at a time.

I checked FIC’s site for VA-503+ BIOSes, and none of them explicitly list 2v MD CPU support, but it’s possible, especially if you have a particularly old revision, that something about the newest BIOS will allow it to work. They did make a lot of changes related to the K6-III in the past.  And you bring up an excellent point: The two things that usually stand in
the way of CPU upgrades are voltage settings and BIOS support. Sometimes, unfortunately, you have one but not the other. Hopefully this time you can
get both; the 503+ is a pretty good board, and a r
arity these days in that it’s AT, takes both SIMMs and DIMMs, and works with reasonably fast CPUs.

If you get it working, be sure to pair it up with good memory. I’ve always recommended Crucial; another reader wrote in this week recommending Mushkin
(www.mushkin.com), which is more expensive but he says his systems run even more stable with it than with Micron/Crucial stuff. Please don’t buy one of
the commodity DIMMs currently running $53 on  PriceWatch; sometimes those work, frequently they appear to work but then give you trouble down the
line.

Thanks for the compliments on the book, I really do appreciate it! I don’t know when I’ll write another right now; I really enjoyed this last magazine
piece and would like to just keep going that route for a while. I’m signed up to do two more and hopefully that’ll lead to still more stuff down the line. These are UK-only, but there’s a possibility I’ll be able to get them published in the States at some point as well. I may have another Web exclusive coming up soon, provided I didn’t burn too many bridges this week.
It’s unpredictable but it makes it more exciting.

BIOS tweaking leads to successful Linux install

Thursday, 6/15/00
Power supplies and Linux installs… I swapped out a power supply last night for Steve DeLassus (there’s something mildly amusing about an electrical engineer asking a journalist for help with a power supply issue), and I installed Mandrake 7 on one of my PCs so I could get ready to mess with Apache. It kept dying during install, so I reset the BIOS defaults, after which it worked fine. Probably it was memory timing sensitivity but I didn’t feel like messing with it. Linux is much more sensitive to such things than Windows, which may explain some people’s installation difficulties (I think nothing of messing with my BIOS settings until I get it right, but some people understandably never think to check those). Loading BIOS defaults, or, better yet, safe defaults if available, may tame the beast.

Apache… I’m not going to say I can change the world, but some of the things you can do with Apache are totally out of sight. I can’t wait until I can type well enough again to really start experimenting. I’m no pioneer in doing these things, but if I start explaining how to do them, then I will be. If you think I’m looking at this to be one of the big selling points of the next book, you’re dead on.

Until next week…

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