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\emm386.exe noems

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.

The joy of teaching

The joy of teaching. Remember that Pentium-75 that was limping along under Windows NT’s heavy yoke? She didn’t complain to me about it (probably because she knew I did a lot to try to make it usable), but she did complain to some other people. One of the other IT guys did some lobbying. And when I said that a Mac would be an improvement over that thing, it got some people’s attention. (I’m not exactly known as a Mac zealot at work. Some call me exactly the opposite.) So she got another machine.
Well, as it turns out, she’s taking a class titled Management of Information Systems. She called me up yesterday to ask me a few questions relating to the class. Sure, says I. She asked about a mainframe’s place in a Webcentric world, which really made me think. I’m not of the mainframe generation, and I left the computer science program at the University of Missouri because the only thing they were interested in cranking out at the time were IBM System 370 administrators who knew VM/CMS and JCL. Gag me. I’d rather use and fix Macs. But retrofitting certainly makes more sense than outright replacement in many cases.

Then she asked about NCs. I laughed, because my now-defunct Linux book was to have a chapter about NCs in it (and how to roll your own). “Why didn’t they catch on?” she asked. Two reasons, I said. Poor marketing, for one. Larry Ellison assumes that everyone hates Microsoft as much as he does, so he releases this overpriced box and says little about it other than “Not Microsoft.” The second reason, of course, is versatility. People like the versatility of their PCs. NCs have none.

Then she asked a sharp question. “Isn’t this the same thing we do with Reflection?” (Reflection is a very high-priced VTxx terminal emulator from WRQ, Inc. that we use to connect to a cluster of VMS boxes.) Ah, she gets it! Yes, only NCs pull Windows and Windows applications (or another GUI and GUI applications) instead of text-based programs.

“This stuff doesn’t even seem real,” she said at one point. “And here you are, talking right off the top of your head about it.” But at the end of the conversation, she seemed to get it.

And that’s what’s cool about writing books or maintaining a Web site. Lighting up the darkness. Making the unfamiliar make sense. Or at least a little more sense.

My phone was ringing off the hook today. I made a comment about my popularity rising. One of my office-mates suggested I run for president. Well, I said, I couldn’t do any worse of a job of carrying Florida… But I won’t be of legal age until 2012.

I guess that’s the last thing I have to look forward to. At 16 you can drive. At 17 you can get into R-rated movies. At 18 you can vote. At 21 you can drink. At 25, your insurance rates go down. And at 35, you can run for president.


I remembered seeing an article a while back concerning this person’s issue:


It is an optimization guide for the K6-2+ (also K6-III+, but not
explicitly stated) processors, and it includes a board compatibility guide.

According to the guide, the FIC VA-503+ will only support the new
processors with a beta bios (doesn’t mention specific versions) and revision 1.2 of the board.

I’m CC’ing a copy of this to Curtis.


Dustin D. Cook, A+

I didn’t get this message, except when Curtis replied to me. I’ll have to investigate.
Thanks much for the tip.

Doesn’t anybody else feel impelled to mention that a 50MHz (for in this case >12.5%) speed gain is completely valueless? As you surely know, Dave, in ordinary use people don’t usually notice any speed change that’s much finer than 2x. I’d take a 12%-faster CPU and pop it into my system if 1) somebody gave it to me for nothing, and 2) it was a no-brainer plop-in install. Otherwise, there are better uses for $60. Ya think?

Peter A. Moore
ITS Engineer
Precision IT, a division of Precision Design Systems

in reference to:
My understanding was he wanted to get that CPU because he was using his 400 MHz CPU in another system.

Yes, you are entirely right, a 50 MHz gain generally isn’t worth it. You could make an argument for when it’s a 50 MHz gain accompanied by something else, say, an upgrade from a K6-2/400 to a K6-III/450, in which case you’d get a larger gain, maybe 25-35 percent, due to on-chip cache. But with CPU speed being a fairly small factor in overall system performance, that 35% increase definitely won’t work miracles.

When upgrading a system, I generally attack system RAM and the hard drive first. It’s amazing what a difference dropping in a 7200-rpm hard drive makes. I recently made a P200 boot Win95 in 15 seconds by replacing the drive, dropping in another 64 megs of RAM, then doing a fresh Windows installation and tweaking msdos.sys. Very nice.

Good observation. Thanks.


Quittin’ time. That means a big bowl of chicken soup, reflection and mail. I usually make my own, but yesterday when I was getting sickness supplies I also picked up some of the instant powdered stuff. Faster that way.

A Mac tech at his limits. One of the organizations I support has asked permission to bring in an outside consultant because they’ve, in something close to their words, found a problem Dave can’t seem to solve. Never mind they didn’t ask me to fix it. And never mind they’re probably chasing the Bogeyman. In my estimation, 90% of Mac problems are either related to extensions conflicts or disk/filesystem errors. This machine loads maybe a dozen extensions, so that’s not an issue. But it’s a wannabe server, so of course it has filesystem errors constantly.

Not that that’s the issue. Find me a tech who isn’t almost always at his/her limits. If they aren’t, they’re not growing. This industry’s so constantly changing that it’s nearly impossible to stay away from the fringes of your knowledge.

And good night. My songwriting partner asked me to call him today if my voice was cooperating. It seems to be. I wrote no usable lyrics yesterday. But I can give him a leftover that I wrote back in 1997 or early 1998. It’s a total Seven Red Seven ripoff, but seeing as that band’s hardly a household name, I don’t think anyone will know, and the song I ripped off from was itself a ripoff of Depeche Mode’s Never Let Me Down Again. That’s all assuming we even use the thing, of course.

I’d best make that phone call… Mail’s all answered and sent, so it may make an appearance tonight. Otherwise, look for it tomorrow.

Strange Windows development. While working on one Win98 box, I decided to see if I could figure out once and for all the optimal disk cache settings for Win98 on another. The preliminary answer is very surprising. On this partcular machine at least, 3072 bytes (3 megs) seems optimal. With higher settings, you get slightly (and I mean slightly) higher benchmarks, insignificant enough to appear not worth investing even one more meg. The difference between 4 megs and anything higher is even less significant.

I’ll have to try this out with some other systems and other benchmarks, of course. I figured optimal wouldn’t be any higher than 8 megs, but I’m a bit surprised to see it at 3. Optimal may depend greatly on the drive involved, however. But I thought a good percentage of you would be interested in that.

Whatever the results, it appears the conventional wisdom of using 1/4 to 1/8 your system RAM for disk caching may be incorrect, at least on today’s high-memory PCs.

I see Naviscope mistakes my logo for an ad. I’ll have to rename the file to fix that. Naviscope is an ad/cookie blocking program that doubles as a DNS cache. A Linux box sitting on your network is more versatile and capable at both, but Naviscope is easier.

Want a real computer? Amiga has changed its mind yet again about the hardware aspect of its strategy. Will we be running on commodity hardware? At least not exclusively, if The Register has its story straight. Unfortunately, at this point I’m afraid anything they might do is likely to be too little, too late. It’s hard for any system, no matter how good it is, to survive seven years of stagnation. Sure, Amiga was 8-10 years ahead of its time. In 1985. By 1993, their lead was really dwindling. And of course, by 1995 the masses got preemptive multitasking and everything else they would have had if they’d bought an Amiga in the first place. And they didn’t seem to mind the wait. That last bit troubles me, but hey.

I’d still love to see them come back and mop up the floor using the rest of the industry (Microsoft and Apple need some humiliation), but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Outta here. I seem to have caught cold, so I’m going to cut myself short. Hopefully it’ll be a slow day at work so I don’t run myself into the ground.