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Why New Hardware May Mean It's Time for a New Version of Windows

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Why New Hardware May Mean It's Time for a New Version of Windows

"Change is Good". Maybe, but if you're like more and more computer users, you probably believe that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". As long as your system stays the same, you're happy and productive. But guess what ... the next hardware upgrade you make may mean that it's time to upgrade or update your version of Windows - whether you want to or not.

Why would new hardware require a new version of Windows? It's because of how Windows has changed the way that hardware is supported. Traditionally, device drivers in your computer's motherboard ROM BIOS chip were responsible for handling hardware such as hard drives, floppy drives, serial and parallel ports, and the keyboard port. When MS-DOS ruled, add-on devices that didn't fit into those categories, such as mice, CD-ROM drives, and other devices were controlled through supplemental device drivers installed in the Config.sys or Autoexec.bat configuration files

The development of Windows, especially 32-bit versions of Windows such as Windows 95 and its successors, changed the hardware support picture. 32-bit versions of Windows use Windows-based drivers (.DRV and .VXD) files for hardware devices, including devices such as drives and I/O ports that the 16-bit drivers in the ROM formerly handled. Since Windows itself is now in charge of your hardware, from shortly after boot-up until you shut down your computer, the version of Windows you use controls what hardware you can use - and how you can use it.

Windows 95, for example, has served many people well, especially in its much-improved Windows 95 OSR 2.x (Win95B) release that was preinstalled on many computers from late 1996 through early 1998. But, if you want to make any of the following upgrades to your system, it's time to toss it aside and upgrade to a newer version of Windows such as Windows 98SE or better.

Most people are well aware of Windows 95's lack of support for such features as multiple monitors, IEEE-1394 (Firewire) and DVDs, as well as its inadequate support for USB. But even if all you want to do is add a larger hard drive to your system, you'll want to upgrade Windows first. There are two reasons: capacity and performance.

All releases of Windows 95 have a 32GB hard disk capacity limit and no way around it. When Windows 95 was being coded, this limit seemed as far away as the end of the universe. But times (and drives) have changed; 40GB or larger hard drives are no longer unheard of or even exotic. Buy a drive larger than 32GB and Windows 95 can only reliably use its first 32GB of storage space. And, if you are using the retail upgrade version (also called Windows 95 OSR 1 or Windows 95a), you'll need to create a bunch of 2.1GB or smaller disk partitions to use up to the 32GB you can access. That's because Windows 95a is cursed with the old FAT16 file system, which can only work with 65,535 allocation units (clusters) per drive. Windows 95B, at least, gives you the option of using FAT32, which allows you to use your entire drive as a single drive letter if you like. You can read more about this problem by searching the Microsoft Knowledge Base for article: Q246818.

Even if you're satisfied with no more than 32GB of hard drive space, you may be in for an unpleasant time if your motherboard uses an UDMA-compatible IDE host adapter. For maximum performance, you should install bus-mastering drivers. Windows 95B supports Intel chipsets, but if your motherboard uses a Via Technologies or other non-Intel chipset, you'll have the "fun" of downloading and installing the bus-mastering drivers manually. Without the proper chipset drivers, your system loses performance and can experience a variety of problems. While you may still need to add motherboard-specific drivers to Windows 98 or Windows Me (if your motherboard is too new to have its drivers included on the CD-ROM) the process works much better in these newer releases.

So, what if you've already upgraded to Window 98 or above? These operating system include the bus-mastering drivers you need for the major motherboard chipsets along with support for DVDs, IEEE-1394 and USB ports. Are your hardware troubles over? Not by a long shot. Depending upon the upgrade you have in mind, you may be looking at Windows patches, configuration changes, or - yes - even an upgrade to yet another version of Windows.

Windows 98 has its own kinds of issues with hard drives over 32GB, although these problems qualify as irritants rather than fatalities. Problem #1: if you faithfully run ScanDisk ("Error-checking") from within the Windows 98 GUI on systems which use a Phoenix BIOS with BitShift translation (rather than true LBA mode), ScanDisk reports every cluster over 32GB in size on your hard disk as bad! They're not really bad, but it's scary the first time you see it. Fortunately, the cure isn't a new hard disk, but a new IDE hard disk driver from Microsoft. You can read more about this problem (and get the replacement ESDI_506.PDR driver file) by searching the Microsoft Knowledge Base for this article: Q243450. Fortunately, not many BIOS use this translation technique so this problem is rare.

Problem #2 doesn't show up until you buy one of those super-sized (over 64GB) hard drives now available from vendors such as Maxtor and IBM. Run Fdisk on these drives to start the preparation process and watch as the capacity seems to vanish! A bug in the Fdisk program reduces the reported drive capacity by 64GB. See Knowledge Base article #Q263044 for details and a replacement version of Fdisk that accurately reports every gigabyte you paid for. Similarly, if you run Format from a command prompt on these large drives, the size isn't reported correctly, although the entire drive is formatted.

Windows Me solves these Windows 98 woes, but it isn't immune from the latest upgrade glitch: too much RAM. Yes, with Windows 9x or Windows Me, installing over 512MB of RAM can cause "out of memory" errors when you try to open a command-prompt session or even when you try to start Windows. What's happening behind the scenes is that the Windows Vcache disk cache driver has to allocate so many memory addresses to handle large amounts of RAM that there aren't enough memory addresses for command-prompt sessions or memory apertures used with AGP video cards. This is most unwelcome news at a time when memory prices are at an all-time low for PC100/PC133 SDRAM modules and everybody with a spare buck is trying to fill their motherboards to 768MB or more. The solution? There really isn't one except to adjust the Windows configuration to report only 512MB of RAM to Windows - or reduce physical memory to 512MB. More details are available from Microsoft Knowledge Base article #Q253912.

Chances are if you really need more than 512MB of RAM that you should be running Windows 2000, which is available at a reduced upgrade price to users of Windows 9x. But is Windows 2000 the answer for everyone? Unfortunately, no. Because of differences in how it handles hardware, many multimedia devices that work well with either Windows 98 or Windows Me aren't supported in Windows 2000.

So, before you upgrade your hardware, look carefully at your system to see if you need to upgrade your operating system as well. Use this handy table as a quick reference to the changes you may need to make before you whip out the electric screwdriver.

Compatible with

Upgrade Windows 95a Windows 95B Windows 98 Windows Me Windows 2000
Hard disk up to 32GB Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Notes Not recommended for Windows 95a due to FAT16 file systems 2.1GB limit per drive letter; Win 95 lacks built-in support for UDMA busmastering host adapters from non-Intel vendors
Hard disk over 32GB No No Yes Yes Yes
Notes Windows 98 may need ScanDisk patch on some systems; Windows 98 needs Fdisk patch on all systems
IEEE-1394, USB, AGP, DVD No No Yes Yes Yes
Notes AGP support may require chipset-specific minidriver support with Windows 98; contact motherboard vendor for details; some devices supported by Windows 98/Me are not supported by Windows 2000
RAM up to 512MB Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Notes Motherboard design limits total amount of RAM possible
RAM over 512MB No No No No Yes
Notes "Out of Memory" errors on all but Windows 2000

© Copyright 2002 Pearson Technology Group. All rights reserved.

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