Last Updated on September 30, 2010 by Dave Farquhar
Case study: Revitalizing a PII-300
It took me three and a half hours one night to squeeze another year or two of useful life out of a PII-300.
A fellow member of the Board of Directors at my church approached me one night. “Would you reinstall the OS on my computer?” he asked. He had a PII-300, not a barn burner by any modern measure, but not a slouch of a computer either. But as a performer it had been very much an underachiever of late. I had walked him through reinstalling the operating system over the phone back around Christmas and it had solved some problems, but not everything. It appeared his computer needed a clean start.
When I looked at it, I agreed. It wasn’t particularly stable and it definitely wasn’t fast. He had a Castlewood Orb drive to facilitate quick backups, so I had him copy his data directories (named Documents and My Documents), along with his AOL directory, over to the Orb. I also spotted a directory called Drv. As an afterthought, I grabbed that one too.
I proceeded to boot off a CD-ROM-enabled boot floppy. Tepidly, I typed the magic words format c: at the command prompt. Quickly I noticed a problem: the words “Saving current bad sector map” on the screen. As the drive formatted, Rick asked the magic question. “What do you think of partitioning?”
Dirty secret #1: Any time you see bad sectors, you should absolutely FDISK the drive. Bad clusters can be caused by physical problems on the disk, but they can also be caused by corruption of the FAT. No disk utility that I’ve ever seen (not Scandisk, not Disk Doctor, not even SpinRite) fixes that. The only way to fix that (verified by a technicians I talked to at Gibson Research, the makers of SpinRite) is to fdisk and format the drive.
Dirty secret #2: FAT16 is much faster than FAT32. Since Rick wasn’t opposed to partitioning the drive, I created a 2GB FAT16 partition. You do this by answering No when fdisk asks if you want to enable large disk support. This partition holds the operating system.
I exited FDISK, ran it again, and this time answered Y when it asked the cryptic large-disk question. I created a partition that spanned the rest of the drive. Then I rebooted, typed format c: then format d:, and watched for bad clusters. There were none. Excellent.
End result: I had a 2-gig FAT16 C drive and a 6-gig FAT32 D drive.
Dirty secret #3: Never, ever, ever, ever, ever (unless someone’s holding a gun to your head) install Windows as an upgrade. You have a Windows 95 CD and a Windows 98 upgrade CD? So what. Install Windows 98 on the bare drive. Setup will find no Windows installation present and ask for your Windows 95 CD. You insert your Win95 CD, it investigates it to make sure it’s not a blank CD with win.com on it somewhere, then asks for your Win98 CD back. End result: a clean install. Even if you install Win95 immediately followed by Win98, you get extra garbage you don’t need. And it takes twice as long.
Windows took about 30 minutes to install. I tackled his applications. When I installed MS Office, I did a complete install with one exception. I drilled down into Office Tools, found Find Fast, and unchecked it. Find Fast is a resource hog and doesn’t do anything useful.
I installed Office to drive D.
He’d bought Norton Systemworks on sale one weekend, hoping it would help his performance. It didn’t. I showed him a trick. Rather than install Systemworks directly, I explored the CD, drilled into the Norton Utilities directory, and ran Setup from there. I intentionally left out almost everything. Speed Disk and Disk Doctor are the two superstars. I also kept the Optimization Wizard. I left out most of the rest, because the other stuff doesn’t do anything useful but it sure slows down your system. When it asked about running Disk Doctor at startup, I said no. It just slows down startup and doesn’t do anything useful. I did let it replace Scandisk with Disk Doctor. That way if you get an improper shutdown, Disk Doctor can clean up the mess before Windows starts and makes a bigger mess. But Disk Doctor should run when you need it. Not all the time.
Then I drilled down into the Norton Antivirus directory and installed it. Then I did the same for Ghost. I needn’t have done that. Just copying the Ghostpe.exe file out of that directory onto a boot floppy suffices. More on Ghost later.
I installed this stuff to drive D.
Next, I installed his scanner software, Lotus SmartSuite, and his DVD decoder.
I copied the data back over from his Orb disk, noticed his modem wasn’t working, and installed the device driver I found in the Drv directory I’d copied over to the Orb as an afterthought. (I’d much rather back up too much stuff than not enough.) Then I copied his AOL directory over to drive D and installed AOL 5.0 over the top of it. It picked up all his settings.
I cleaned up c:msdos.sys and rebooted, watching the time. It booted in about 45 seconds, including POST. I was happy. Rick was very happy.
I did the other standard Windows optimizations outlined in chapter 2 of Optimizing Windows. I cleared out his root directory on C. Then I ran Norton Speed Disk. I had it do the full file reordering and directory sorting bit (also described in Optimizing Windows). Clearing out the root directory makes disk access much more efficient, but only after Speed Disk discards the now-empty directory entries. Directory sorting makes disk access more efficient by putting the important files early in the list so Windows finds them faster. The results are marvelous.
Finally, I ran Ghost. I copied the Ghost executable to a boot floppy that contained the Castlewood device driver internal.sys, then booted from it and Ghosted his drive to the Orb drive. Fifteen minutes later, he had an image of his system, so he can return back to this state any time he wants.
End result: Rick’s P2-300 with an 8-gig Quantum Bigfoot drive (a notoriously slow hard drive) and 288 MB RAM received a new lease on life. Despite its slow processor and hard drive, it performs better than a lot of consumer-level PCs available today.
That was a good investment of 3 1/2 hours.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.