Wednesday 29 December 2004

Enhancing Windows 2000/XP stability

Responding to my post about abandoning Windows and returning to the Macintosh, Ed Bilodeau wrote:

I’m always interested in hearing stories from people who have made the switch, if only because I still see a Mac somewhere in my future. Jonathon covers all the major reasons I can think of, although the points relating to Windows XP’s instability are, IMHO, off the mark.

I suspect that “off the mark” combined with “IMHO” is how well-mannered people say: “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Maybe I was dreaming when, late on Christmas day, I came home from my mother’s house and turned on the Windows XP computer to check my email—only to find myself running at 800x600 resolution. (It was 1152x864 when I shut down the computer that morning). Windows, apparently, had forgotten my NVIDEA GeForce FX 5600 video card and reverted to the generic video settings. I shrugged my shoulders, reinstalled the video driver, rebooted the computer, and everything looked normal again.

The following morning I turned on the same computer but, instead of the login screen, encountered the following error message:

Windows could not start because the following file is missing or corrupt:
\WINDOWS\SYSTEM32\CONFIG\SYSTEM

You can attempt to repair this file by starting Windows Setup using the original Setup CD-ROM.
Select ‘r’ at the first screen to start repair.

I pressed ‘r” and, in the Recovery Console, used ‘help’ to list the available commands and—because it seemed like a good idea at the time (I wouldn’t want to give the impression I knew what I was doing)—ran the ‘fixboot’ command (although it might have been a better idea to have done a Windows XP Repair Install). The machine booted properly and I copied the few files that had changed since the previous night’s backup to my second internal hard drive.

When I tried to run Norton SystemWorks, the following error message appeared:

The InstallShield Engine (iKernel.exe) could not be launched. The RPC Server is unavailable.

As I’d suspected, my Windows XP installation had gone from annoying through unbearable to unusable in a 24 hour period. It was Ghost time:

  1. I booted from a Ghost recovery floppy and restored the image of the fresh Windows XP install I did in April.
  2. I installed the Windows XP Service Pack 2, updated ZoneAlarm and Norton SystemWorks, then made and verified new Ghost images on the auxiliary hard drive and on DVD.
  3. Where necessary I updated the other applications to the latest versions and created (and verified) another set of Ghost images.

Why am I explaining all this? Because, if you’re stuck with Windows, Ghost vastly reduces the pain of reinstalling the OS and all your applications and utilities.

Over coffee this morning, I asked my friend Karl whether he thinks Windows XP is as stable as Ed Bilodeau implied. “Not at all,” he replied, “but you can make it run reliably.”

“How?” I asked him, although I thought I already knew the answer.

“Restore from a Ghost image regularly,” he said.

“How regularly?”

“I do it about once a month. It only takes a few minutes because I keep all my documents on a separate partition.”

I knew he’d say “restore from a Ghost image” because I turned him on to Ghost and Partition Magic. But I didn’t expect him to do it every month. Perhaps that’s the key to making Windows 2000/XP run reliably: reinstall the OS every month. It certainly eliminates the Windows half-life problem. Karl’s Windows XP machine never gets the chance to become annoying—let alone unbearable or unusable.

Perhaps my problems stem from having a custom-built PC, albeit one constructed from high-quality components. As Ed correctly pointed out:

…since there are many, many, many more Windows users then there are Mac users, and Windows is running on all-sorts-of-only-god-knows-what machines, yeah, I would expect there to be more Windows people overall who have run into big problems. The Mac systems, built on a stack that is, for the most part, closed and proprietary, don’t have that problem.

Then again, perhaps not, since my Dell PC running Windows 2000 wasn’t particularly stable. The most reliable machines I’ve had so far have been notebooks:

  • a Toshiba Tecra 500T running Windows 95 then 98; and

  • an IBM ThinkPad 600E running Windows 2000.

Maybe that’s how you enhance Windows 2000/XP stability—it might even be a viable alternative to the Ghost method—run Windows on what is (effectively) a closed system: a notebook computer.

I’m counting the days until (hopefully) I won’t have to think about this nearly as much.

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Comments

When I started working in academic IT, I was astonished at how often Windows users expected to reboot, and expected to reinstall their OS. It wasn't seen as extraordinary at all. I've only rarely had to reinstall the OS on any of my Macs; when I have, it's because of something Seriously Wrong. I've done it twice, once with OS 9 and once with OS X, since 1993, when I got my first Mac. (This is of course ignoring things like installing a major OS upgrade, like moving from Panther to Tiger, when the time comes; I take a new version as an opportunity for house cleaning, so to speak).

What amazes me is how often people shut down a server to do a reinstall of the OS. That's just . . . weird. But it seems fairly common in the Windows world.

Posted by Lisa Spangenberg on 30 December 2004 (Comment Permalink)

The main point I was trying to make was that I don't think it is meaningful to generalize based on a few incidents. I'm not disputing the fact that people have bad experiences with Windows machines. As I mentionned in my post, I've enountered plenty of madness with Windows machines, and have been frustrated with several of Windows' 'by-design' issues (ex. the inability to run our home PC in anything other then admin mode!).

I have never personally used the current Macs to do real work, but I know several people who swear by them. I have also heard of several people who have had nothing but problems with their machines. But those few bad experiences, along with my own bad experience using a Powerbook/MacOS 9 for 9 months, will not stop me from considering buying a Mac in the future.

On the subject of 'closed' systems, what I meant was that Apple controls both the hardware and software, and so has less variability to deal with. They know, more or less, what hardware their OS will be running on. That's why so much stuff on the Mac 'just works'. The fact that the 'just works' so often on Windows machines is even more of an achievement.

Finally, regarding Ghosting, my IBM Thinkpad has that functionality built in! ;) You can do more or less the same thing, I believe, with the System Restore features built into Windows.

(As an aside, I know of one lab tech at McGill who was forced to have a few Windows machines in his mostly-Linux lab for students to use word-processing, etc. His solution: have Windows reinstalled every time the system was booted!)

Posted by Ed Bilodeau on 31 December 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Ed, while I agree with you that one can't generalize from a limited sample, one's own attitudes are inevitably formed by one's own experiences. My unhappy history with a number of desktop PCs leads me to believe that if I *had* to purchase another Windows machine, it would definitely be a notebook.

I agree with you that it's a miracle that so much "just works" on a Windows PC but, after eight years, I hunger for more than something that merely works. That's the mediocrity I'm longing to leave behind. My only fear about returning to the Mac is that I might encounter more than the normal share of problems. Better to be optimistic, I guess.

And thanks for the story about the McGill tech--reinstalling Windows every time the system boots seems like the perfect solution to the problem.

Posted by Jonathon on 31 December 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Interesting. I'm still swinging in the breeze. I have had the same OS's running on the same laptops (Tecra then Thinkpad)...I would like to get beyond something that 'just works'. I'm glad I get to see what happens here before I take the plunge...

Posted by beth on 6 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

I have had my own fair share of windows problems. The key to making it all work is the same basic one that Apple uses. Use only hardware that is known to work well together and use only well behaved software. Even a Mac or Linux machine can and sometimes will crash when used with ill-behaved software or really cheaply designed hardware. My system at home is actually using similar hardware to the Macs, ie. AMD athlon xp 2000+(which performs like a PIV at 2.4 ghz), 512 MB DDR RAM, ATI Radeon 7500 Video Card (Not the best, but it has been very stable on my 8x agp bus), GeForce 100/200 video card, AC 97 and sound blaster sound cards. The Macs acutally use ATI and Nvidia for their video cards as well as DDR RAM and the AMD processors are closer to Mac performance than Intel's line. This configuration that I have at home only crashes with one program that I have and it's playstation 2 equvilant is known to do the same. All of my hardware is boxed hardware, that is I purchased it all myself then assembled the system myself. Truth be known, windows is actually the only PC-OS that will work with my configuration both seamlessly and be stable. Linux works with all of my hardware just not all at the same time. I have actually stability tested this configuration and found that for windows it is quite stable and it runs circles around Intel based machines running at the same clock speed(1.7ghz). In fact, I once had the stability tester running while playing streaming audio off of the internet in winamp, while having winamp do visualizations, while having GIMP 2.0 do a blur function, while having my processor benchmarked, all spread across two monitors(two plus a tv now). When it was all said and done the system bounced right back waiting for more.

Posted by Sir Lancelot on 21 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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