By BRIT HUME and T.R. REID
With Windows 98 hitting the streets, this was to be a column about installing it. In fact, it was to be a column about how easy it is to install. We had tried it on a desktop unit and the process went without a hitch, taking about an hour and leaving things just as it had found them in Windows 95 in terms of screen colors, desktop contents, even the programs included in the startup group.
The next test was to try it on a Windows 95 laptop. Everything was going fine until the setup program began the process of copying the new files from the Windows 98 CD to the computer. At that point, disaster. The system locked up. What to do? Here was a computer that was part Windows 95, part Windows 98, and frozen.
A reboot was attempted. The familiar Windows 95 logo appeared and things seemed to be going normally. It appeared that Windows 98’s setup routine had left intact enough of Windows 95 to get us started again. But midway in the boot process, a message appeared announcing that some obscure but crucial file was missing. The boot process dumped out to a black screen with a DOS prompt.
Well, perhaps we could recover from here. Alas, the system was unable to recognize the CD-ROM drive, so there was no way to get back to the setup process for Windows 98 and no way to return to Windows 95 either. We were stuck. There was one possible hope. The last thing Windows 98 setup had done before the ill-fated attempt to copy files was to make a recovery floppy disk.
Such recovery disks are for just such emergencies. A single floppy does not contain enough files to permit a full Windows startup, but just enough to get to a DOS prompt. Most of them contain as well some diagnostic programs that can help fix the problem that keeps you from being able to boot normally. The problem here, however, was that we didn’t have access to the all-important CD-ROM drive which contained the files needed to get us going again.
We put the recovery disk in the drive and restarted the computer. But it went straight to the hard disk, bypassing the floppy, and we were soon back where we had just been. We tried again, this time hitting the computer’s F2 key at the very beginning of the process to get into the computer’s own basic setup routine. This led to a menu whose options allowed changes to the system’s startup routine so that the computer would look first to the floppy disk instead of the hard drive when starting.
Now the computer booted from the Windows 98 recovery disk, which led to some choices, one of which would provide access to the CD-ROM drive. Hope! With this chosen, the system booted to a DOS prompt, but with the ability to access the CD-ROM. Here, however, things could get a little tricky.
The floppy disk boot-up routine had created what’s called a RAM disk, which is a portion of memory the computer uses as if it were a disk drive. This was designated as drive “D,” which is the letter normally used by the CD-ROM drive. We happened to notice this as the boot-up process was happening, and knew that if the RAM disk were designated drive “D,” the CD-ROM drive would become drive “E.”
Ironically, perhaps, most users would never confront this problem unless they had a bit of knowledge about MS-DOS, and knew enough to go looking for the proper drive to gain access to the CD-ROM. In fact, all a user has to know upon getting to the end of the DOS startup process is that the next step is to type the word “setup” and press the enter key. Memo to Microsoft: You should tell the user this with a clear on-screen message posted at the end of the DOS startup routine.
When “setup” is entered, DOS will then go looking for a program by that name and will not stop looking until it has checked all drives, including the CD-ROM, which is where the DOS-level setup routine is found. Once “setup” starts, it takes you right into the Windows 98 installation routine and you’re back where you started before all the trouble. Assuming all goes well, and that this time the system does not lock up when it tries to copy files from the CD to the hard disk, you should soon be running Windows 98.
The moral of this story is: Things go wrong, so whenever you are asked to make a backup, or emergency startup disk, do it.
T.R. Reid is London bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at firstname.lastname@example.org and Brit Hume at email@example.com.