Langa Letter: The OS Inside The OS - InformationWeek
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Software // Enterprise Applications
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4/27/2006
01:51 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: The OS Inside The OS

Fred Langa shows how a simple tweak turns XP's low-level Recovery Console into a complete, standalone mini-operating system--in effect, an XP DOS!

Windows XP's Recovery Console is a very restricted version of XP that's been stripped to its barest fundamentals--it's got just enough to get the operating system going, with none of the usual bells and whistles. This skeletal version of the operating system is intended to effect repairs and perform low-level maintenance, and for those purposes it's a very good tool.

But it's also very limited. By default, it restricts you to working in just a few systems folders, refusing you access to any other part of your hard drive. It prevents you from using "wildcards" (such as "*.exe" to represent all files ending in "exe"). It won't let you copy files to removable media such as floppies. And you're always prompted when overwriting each and any file.

Fortunately, a simple tweak that can be performed in under a minute removes all those restrictions and frees up Recovery Console to let you work anywhere on the hard drive, access and use removable media such as floppies, use wildcards to work on large groups of files or folders at once, and skip the overwrite warnings if you so choose.

With this tweak, Recovery Console becomes, in effect, a general-purpose XP DOS, serving much the same function as did DOS boot floppies for earlier versions of Windows. With the Recovery Console's limitations removed, you can then access any file or folder anywhere on your hard drive and run any of the following commands:

ATTRIB
BATCH
BOOTCFG
CD
CHDIR
CHKDSK
CLS
COPY
DEL

DELETE
DIR
DISABLE
DISKPART
ENABLE
EXIT
EXPAND
FIXBOOT
FIXMBR

FORMAT
HELP
LISTSVC
LOGON
MAP
MD
MKDIR
MORE
NET

RD
REN
RENAME
RMDIR
SET
SYSTEMROOT
TYPE

So you see, with this tweak, the Recovery Console really does become a kind of lightweight XP DOS--a much more powerful, all-purpose mini-operating system, making it enormously more useful than otherwise.

Recovery Console's Restrictions
The idea behind Recovery Console's restrictions is safety. By default, Recovery Console forces you to work slowly (basically one file or folder at a time) and prevents accidental overwrites by making you confirm each one. And by preventing floppy access and limiting where you can go on the hard drive, Recovery Console's restrictions make it a little harder for an unskilled or unauthorized person to move user data files off the system.

But sometimes those protections are counterproductive. For example, if you're trying to pull a critical data file off a crashed system, the Recovery Console's default settings get in the way. You can't get to the Documents and Settings folder at all, and even if you could you wouldn't be able to copy the files you need to a floppy.

The Recovery Console's restrictions can also actually hinder other repair work by making mass deletions or overwrites a very laborious one-at-a-time thing.

Many IT staffers and power users now simply sidestep the Recovery Console's prohibitions by booting to a specially configured XP repair CD, or to XP or Linux on a USB flash drive. (See "A Must-Have Repair And Recovery Tool"; "XP On Your Thumb Drive"; "Solving USB Boot Problems"; and info on the free and excellent Puppy Linux.)

Booting to an alternate operating system works, but isn't terribly convenient just to do some basic, DOS-like work such as make file copies or deletions. It's much nicer simply to remove Recovery Console's arbitrary restrictions and thus prevent the need to use external tools and operating systems for DOS-like maintenance, repair, and recovery work.

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