Software // Enterprise Applications
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7/23/2003
02:16 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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The Explorer: Do AOL6 and MSN Explorer Destabilize Your System?

Tracking what these major new products do during installation.

Sweeping generalizations are often false. In this column, however, I'm going to start with three that I believe are absolutely true:

First: When set up and run properly, Windows offers highly satisfactory levels of stability and security. Second: The key to system stability and security often lies in avoiding needless complexity. And third: Few Windows setups are done properly; those that are, rarely stay that way for long.

Long-time readers know that many of the past "Explorer" columns focus specifically on ways you can get your system running reliably; and how to keep it that way. Once you achieve that state -- and it's really not that hard -- you'll achieve a level of stability that is completely at odds with most people's experiences of (un-tuned, un-optimized) Windows. Properly set up, your system will purr along day after day after day -- perhaps even for weeks and months -- and will be all but immune to hack-attacks from online sources.

Why am I telling you this in a column about AOL6 and MSN Explorer? It's because of that second generality: The key to system stability and security often lies in avoiding needless complexity.

You see, both AOL6 and MSN Explorer needlessly increase the complexity of your system setup. One of them makes an almost unbelievable number of unnecessary and even dangerous changes to your networking setup. At best, these changes will make your system less stable; at worst, your system may also be wide-open to hackers, crackers, and other online miscreants.

The Tests
I clean-formatted a testbed system: a fairly plain Gateway PII/400 with 128MB of RAM. On the empty C:\ partition, I installed a fresh copy of Windows98SE. I set up the system's networking so it could access my LAN, and through that, my cable modem (for Internet access). I ensured that the networking setup was correct and contained no security holes, and then verified the setup's correctness with the tools at DSL Reports and Gibson Research. I then downloaded and installed all to-date "critical updates" and security patches from Windows Update. I also installed a new copy of IE 5.5 SP1, with 128-bit encryption. I then ran the Windows Maintenance Wizard and the Langa.Com "CleanAll" tool to delete all junk files from the system. I ran Microsoft's RegClean, Norton's WinDoctor, and Windows' ScanReg (with the /OPT switch) to ensure the system was set up okay, with no Registry errors. I then ran Scandisk and Defrag to ensure there were no problems with the hard drive or the files themselves.

With the system in as perfect condition as I could get it, I then used Drive Image to create a byte-for-byte, sector-for-sector image of the hard drive. Working from this image, I would be able to restore the test system to the exact same starting condition for my tests of both AOL6 and MSN Explorer. This way, each program would be given a clean, perfect system on which to work; and any changes made by one program would not affect the other.

Much has been written about the features and functions of the new AOL 6.0 and Microsoft's new MSN Explorer, so there's no need to replow that ground. If you need to get to speed on the basics of what these services are and what they offer, check out the related resources at the end of this article. .

In my tests, my focus was narrow: I wanted simply to see what these programs did to my system's setup.

MSN Explorer: Modest Changes
Refreshingly, there's not much to say about MSN Explorer's impact. It downloaded (it's about a 5MB download) and installed smoothly, with no glitches. The MSN Explorer setup program added two new elements to my networking setup (see table below): It installed an unnecessary Dial-Up Adapter, and then bound the TCP/IP protocol to the new adapter. In doing so, it correctly did not enable "File and Print Sharing" for that adapter and protocol. Thus, although it added a small measure of additional and unnecessary complexity to my system, it created no new networking security problems -- a good thing.

In operation, MSN Explorer consumed about 5 percent more system resources than my original copy of IE, which was left untouched by the addition of MSN Explorer: Everything worked fine in both IE and MSN Explorer.

From the viewpoint of system stability, MSN Explorer's small increase in networking complexity and modest decrease in system resources should, by themselves, have no major effects. The software also introduced no discernable changes in system security at all. Although I personally didn't see anything in MSN Explorer that would make me want to use it all the time, if it does offer benefits you desire, then you probably can install and use it without a seriously negative impact on your system's operations or online safety.

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