The Explorer: Save Your Butt With DOS

DOS-free ones <NOBR>--</NOBR> can benefit from a top-notch DOS toolkit.

Fred Langa, Contributor

August 6, 2003

5 Min Read

The impending release of Windows Millennium or WinMe will begin the final move away from DOS for the Win9x family. Yes, DOS is still there in WinMe, but it's far less accessible than ever before.

Other versions of Windows already have gone more or less "DOS-free." Windows NT was the first Windows without DOS; Windows 2000 was the second (Windows CE is a special case so we won't include it here). Although both NT and Win2000 support DOS emulation from within the OS, neither lets you truly "boot to DOS" the way other versions of Windows do.

WinMe is actually a halfway step: Although DOS is still there in normal operation, it's kept far away from you. If WinMe suffers a bad crash, for example, it will run Scandisk upon reboot like other versions of Win9x. But with WinMe's "bad shutdown" Scandisk runs from inside Windows rather than from DOS. In fact, in normal operation, you'll never see a plain-vanilla DOS screen in WinMe at all. While that'll help protect utter newbies from self-inflicted system woes, it'll make some tasks harder for Windows experts. Of course, Microsoft intends that experts will switch to Win2000 -- but that's a DOS-free Windows too.

The move away from DOS might make you think it's obsolete, but it's a plain fact that regardless of your Windows version, powerful "command-line" DOS tools can be a lifesaver. Let's say you want to make your current Windows PC dual-bootable, so you can choose between running Windows or, say, Linux or another operating system. Let's also say something goes wrong (a not-uncommon thing with some versions of Linux) and you're stuck with a mangled Master Boot Record that has left your hard disk completely unbootable. (This actually happened to me once.) With a mangled MBR, you can't access anything on the hard disk at all -- the machine simply won't boot -- and that means you can't access Windows. So, if you're running a DOS-free Windows, your Windows-based tools are unavailable to you, and thus are utterly useless. You're toast. Yikes!

But with a properly set-up DOS diskette, you can rebuild your hard disk's Master Boot Record in literally about five seconds. In doing so, you can regain access to your full Windows setup and all your files, exactly as you left them. Here's how: You insert a DOS disk that has the FDISK program on it, and type FDISK /MBR. That's it -- five seconds later, your Master Boot Record is restored without touching anything else on your hard drive.

While some DOS-based command-line tools can be harder to use than Windows-based tools (that's the downside), they also can put you in total control of every element of your system (that's the upside). If you're serious about knowing what's going on inside your PC, and you want to have it under your full control and not vice versa, then it's worth your while to get familiar with DOS commands and tools.

In this and the next several Explorer columns, we'll explore a range of DOS tips and tricks, and will help you assemble a powerful DOS-based toolkit you can store on floppies and keep in a safe place. Then, no matter what version of Windows you run -- now or in the future -- and no matter how inaccessible Microsoft may try to make DOS, you'll have the best tools at hand.

Think of it as a way to keep DOS from going extinct. <g>

We'll be covering a lot of ground, so the first step is to make sure we're all starting from the same place. To help you out, I've assembled this DOS mini-reference that will give you one-click access to a world of DOS/Windows information that's already been presented over the years at WinMag.Com and elsewhere. (Go as deep or as shallow as you wish.) Start by clicking through the list, and making use of the tons of suggestions, tips and how-tos you'll find here:

In the discussion forum attached to this column, please add your favorite DOS references and articles to the list. Also, please tell us what specific DOS-related issues you'd like covered in detail in future columns.

Together, we'll produce an awesome DOS toolkit that will be useful now and for years to come! Join in the Discussion!

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Fred Langa's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Fred Langa, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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