Supercharge your PC. (includes related article on interleave) (hardware enhancements)
by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, Tony Roberts
Every time you pick up a copy of your favorite computer magazine, they're there waiting for you: bright, shining new PCs with powerful 386 and 486 main processors. You tear your eyes away from them and turn the page, and there's more temptation--computers powerful enough to hold off the front line of the New York Giants. Your old, faithful PC, XT, or AT looks smaller and weaker by the moment. You start to reach for your checkbook or VISA card when reason steps in. You glance at the price tag attached to the hulking 33-MHz 486 of your dreams. Gulp!
Someday, you'll be able to afford a zip-bam-boom desktop supercomputer, but not today. Don't take your frustrations out on your home computer. It was great in its day, and, more importantly, there's a lot you can do to put some more bang into the old machine. It may even be possible to make it the equal of a top-of-the-line machine, because there are plenty of inexpensive ways to get the most out of your PC today.
Let's start with your hard disk. What's that you say? You don't have one? A hard disk is easily the biggest performance booster you can get for any MS-DOS-based machine. Many modern-day programs absolutely require one.
Choosing a hard disk isn't easy. There are hundreds of different models for sale, but there are a few things that you should look for when shopping around. The first is a good warranty. It doesn't matter how fast the hard disk is if all it does is sit and blink its lights at you. Second, if you own an AT or a fasxt XT (10-MHz or better), you're best off getting a drive with an access time of 28 milli-seconds or less. Slower machines can get by with 40-millisecond drives. It's easy to make recommendations about how big a drive to get: Buy the largest hard disk you can afford.
No matter how many megabytes of storage you get, you'll run out. Everyone does. So you might as well put off that day as long as you can. The problem is that even if you're good about trashing old files, disk space is grabbed up by fat modern software. You can easily fill a 20MB hard disk with no more than three or four of today's heavyweight programs.
Double Your Drives
If you already have a hard drive, think about adding another one. Most computers can handle two drives without any problems. For that matter, you may want to think about replacing you current drive. Newer hard drives are bigger, faster, and cheaper than their immediate ancestors. Check with a knowledgeable friend or a technician before putting your dollars down, but the odds are that you can dramatically improve your storage capacity.
If you don't know the first thing about your computer's insides, you may hesitate to install a hard drive. It's not a difficult job, but if you're like me and can't remember which end of the screwdriver to use some days, you may be better off going with another opinion. That other path is to add a hard card to your system. These cost more than hard drives, but almost anyone can install them. All that's usually required is for you to find an empty slot in your PC and push in the card.
Plus Development makes my favorite hard cards. They're more expensive than some of the others, but they're great performers. Their two main cards are the Hardcard II 40 and 80. Respectively, the hold 40MB and 80MB of data. They can access this information at speeds well below 28 milliseconds.
Another advantage of these cards is that they'll take up only one slot in your computer. Many hard-card companies claim that their cards use only a single slot, but the large size of their disk compartment makes that debatable.
If a second drive is beyond your budget or your computer's capabilities, there's a way to squeeze more information into the same old disk real estate: data compression.
There are two ways of using data compression to get more room on your disk. The first is to use a program like PKZIP. This is a hardware program that's widely available on online services and bulletin board systems. If you don't have access to a modem, you're not out of luck. There are several companies that will sell your disks containing PKZIP and similar programs. You'll still have to pay their makers if you decide to use the programs, but they're quite inexpensive.
How They Work
These programs work by taking your files and encoding them in a space-saving format. Usually, PKZIP will shrink a file down to about 50-66 percent of its original size. It'll work even better or database files and spread-sheets. You can't use these files while they're in their mashed-down state, but it only takes a few seconds to restore them to full size when you need them. These programs are ideal for storing away old files that you may need someday or even software packages which you don't access every day.
There is only one real problem with data-compression programs; they're a pain in the neck to use. You don't have to be a computer wizard to use them, but it doesn't hurt! Fortunately, there are several applications that tame compression software for home use. Two excellent examples, which are also available online, are SHEZ and ArcMaster.
There's an even easier, faster way of crunching information into smaller packets now coming onto the market. Boards and disks with dedicated data-compression chips will soon appear on store shelves. There will enable you to pack into your disks half again as much information as you can now store. This isn't the first time that those claims have been made, but previous products didn't live up to expectations. This new generation of data-compression chips, from InfoChip Systems and Stac Electronics, should make the promise of fast, transparent data compression a reality.
Cache and Carry
Getting more storage is only part of the hard disk story. If you're like most users, you want more speed. Nothing is more boring than sitting around waiting for an application to load. There are two ways to improve this situation. The first is to use a disk cache. Any hard disk will act like a hot rod with a cache.
Let's face it--no matter what you do with a disk, you're still stuck with moving parts. There's no way a mechanical subsystem can compete with electrons coursing through doped silicon. Caches put frequently used information into memory, where it can be found in a fraction of the time it takes to find it on a disk. How much of an improvement do you get? In tests over the years, I've found that caching with disk-intensive programs like database managers cuts the time spent reading and writing to disk by 90 percent. Can you say vroom?
There are two basic ways you can add caching to your computer. If money is no object, you can take the expensive route and add a caching drive controller to your system. These controllers not only take care of managing your hard drive, but their dedicated RAM holds frequently used data for superquick access. Caching controllers can really give your tired old drive a rocket boost, but their speed comes at a price.
The SmartCache controller from Distributed Processing Technology is an excellent example of its kind. this full-length card comes with 512K of memory. Any AT-compatible system with the common ESDI, MFM, or RLL hard drives will get a jet-assisted performance boost with this controller. Programs like dBase IV that usually seem to take forever to load will leap onto the screen. If half a megabyte of cache isn't enough, you can attach 2MB or 4MB daughter-cards to the main card. With that much additional RAM, even notorious disk slowpokes like Windows 3.0 will snap to attention on your monitor. So why not run out and get one today? Many users will find the price tag of $1,230 a mite steep for their tastes.
Because of their price, caching controllers may only appear in business offices. Don't despair; there is a way to get almost the same benefits at home with software caching.
The best thing about software caching is that you already have some basic caching tools in DOS. The BUFFERS parameter (in your CONFIG.SYS file) stores data in 512-byte chunks. If you set buffers to 10 (BUFFERS = 10), for instance, you'll have a small cache of 5K.
If you have MS-DOS 3.3 or above, you can get a boost from another free goody: FAST-OPEN. This denizen of CONFIG .SYS stores the location of your most recently visited directories in RAM. By doing this, changing directories goes faster. The increase is small, but it is there.
While the DOS commands have the sterling virtue of being essentially free, commercial caching programs are much better at improving your disk input/output. I have two favorites here: Multisoft's Super PC-Kwik and Golden Bow's Vcache. Both will happily use any kind of memory you have: expanded, extended, or (if you have to) conventional. Both are easy to use and get really high-octane speeds from your drive. The only thing you need to be concerned about is that they use up at least a little of your 640K of conventional memory. It's a small price to pay for the gains they provide.
Another way to put some bang into your old machine is to use a RAM disk. This is simply using a program (most MS-DOS variations come with one named either VDISK.SYS or RAMDRIVE.SYS) to set aside a chunk of memory to act like a disk drive. This is different from a cache in that a cache just speeds up data moving to and from a hard disk. In a RAM disk all the information is kept in high-speed RAM as if it were on a disk. You wouldn't want to keep an important spreadsheet in one, since an accidentally pulled plug on a momentary power failure would mean the end for them. What you can do is put application programs--or at least parts of them--into the RAM disk.
Take for instance that old warhorse of aword processor, WorldStar. Like many other programs, early versions of WorldStar came in several parts, including the main program and what are called overlay files. Overlays contain routines that aren't used as often as the heart of the software. To save memory, these procedures are left on disk until they're needed. By placing these files in a RAM disk, you can speed up WordStar by as much as 200-300 percent. Many other programs will show similar increases from the same treatment.
If you have room for a truly large RAM disk (several megabytes), you can load entire programs into RAM. Quattro Pro, Borland's popular spreadsheet, performs phenomenally when used in this way. If you've never used one, you can't appreciate how much faster a RAM disk makes things go. It's like the difference between a dump truck and an Indy 500 racecar.
Of course, while software caching and RAM disks are wonderful things, there is this one tiny problem. They all require more RAM. One straight-forward way of improving your system is to add more memory. As I write this, in late February 1991, RAM prices are down to $50 a megabyte. Prices will probably continue to drop. One of the best ways to get more out of your PC is to add memory. You can't afford not to do it.
Adding memory chips can be tricky, so you may want to call in professional help. Some systems won't accept additional memory or will only take a small amount.
Memory chips are packaged in four different ways: Single In-line Memory Modules (SIMMs), just the chips themselves (usually called DRAMs for Dynamic Read Access Memory), Single In-line Pin Packages (SIPPs), and Dual In-line Pins (DIPs). Chances are about 999 to 1 that you PC can use only one of these forms of RAM. The others would be worthless to you. You also need to be certain to buy only memory of the same capacity and speed. It's sometimes possible to mix, say, 256Kb (kilobit) and 1 Mb (megabit) chips or 80ns (nanosecond, access time of billionths of a second) and 100ns chips on the same motherboard, but that's game that only professionals should play.
RAM added to the motherboard is generally set up as extended memory. Extended memory can only be used with the 80286 and later CPUs. Another option is expanded memory. Their names are similar enough to confuse most nontechnical people. The 80286 and its newer cousins can access many megabytes directly, eliminating the concept of conventional RAM and the 640K barrier. Older CPUs must use special techniques to move information between conventional RAM and added RAM. Expanded memory swaps a certain section of conventional RAM with expanded RAM. This technique was wildly popular when it first emerged, but with many users turning away from the 8088 and 8086 machines and embracing the more advanced CPUs, expanded memory is declining in popularity, and extended memory is in ascendancy.
Expanded memory is one way to quickly and simply add memory to a system without sweating over memory chips. Exapanded memory is sold on expansion cards that you can buy already populated with RAM. Normally, these cards support LIM 4.0 expanded memory. This kind of memory is used by many popular programs like Lotus 1-2-3 and DESQview.
Even if you need to add RAM to an expansion card, it's usually much easier to add chips to one of them than to your motherboard. After all you can set the card down in a position that's well lighted and comfortable. Unless you feel confident enough to tear your machine apart, that's more than you can do with the motherboard.
I've used several of these cards over the years. The clear winner has been Intel's Above Board Plus I/O with 2MB. It's a mouthful of a name, but it's a heck of a board. This full-size gem of a card comes with 2MB of RAM, an easy-to-use software installation program, and excellent technical support. When you're working interfaces like Windows 3.0 to their limits, you can add up to another 12MB to the board.
You may be able to get more memory out of the system you already have. Sound incredible? It is incredible, but it does work. DOS is a rather messy operating system, and it doesn't take full advantage of the memory in your system. Programs like quarterdeck's QRAM for 8088 and 80286 machines and QEMM for 386 machines can liberate almost 100K of memory for direct use by programs. These programs, and others like them, won't always work. That's because not every machine's architecture has hidden memory treasures. If you're willing to live without programs that use graphics, these programs can almost always let you grab an additional 96K of RAM.
The Tsars of TSRs
If you're feeling severe RAM cram from overly plump programs and a surfeit of terminate-and-stay-resident (TSR) programs, Mark and Release (part of a freeware package from TurboPower known as TSR Utilities) are two programs that let you rein in out-of-control TSRs.
The programs work in tandem. Mark loads TSRs into memory, and Release takes them out of memory when you need every last K you can get. It's not as nice as having additional memory, but it is the next best thing. The most attractive thing about this powerful pair is the price. You can download and use this utility package at no charge or purchase it from TurboPower for $20.
Boards and Chips
If you're a spreadsheet fan or you use serious graphics software, you can help yourself by adding a math coprocessor. These specialized chips can do in a flash the heavy math that bogs down any CPU (except the 80486). There are many different math coprocessors, but you will want to be sure that yours is completely compatible with your software. For that reason, it's best to ignore price advantages and stick with the Intel 80287, if you have an 80286, or the 80387, if you have an 80386 under the hood.
Math coprocessor prices range from $142 for a 5-MHz 8087 to $994 for 33-MHz 80387DX. Generally, you need a processor that has a designation matching your CPU (such as the 8087 coprocessor for the 8088 CPU) and that operates at the same speed as your main processor.
Now and then you may become so frustrated with your old PC that you may be tempted to replace the motherboard. Don't fall prey to that temptation. I've had several friends try this, and they always ran into a host of problems. Most typically, they came face to face with extremely odd compatibility problems that no one had ever seen before. They were not happy campers.
If you're an electronics hobbyist, go ahead and give it a try. Just don't do it expecting to realize big performance gains. You're probably not going to get them. If you're still inclined to try, think about building a computer from pieces instead. You'll have the same kind of fund and a much better chance of having a fast PC when the soldering iron and screwdrivers are put away.
A less drastic altenative is to replace your main processor. There are several accelerator cards that can turn humdrum PCs into tigers. Some of the most popular ones are supplied by Intel: the Inboard series.
Intel has a full range of 80386 boards. The main two are the Inboard 386/AT for AT compatibles and the Inboard 386/PC for PCs, XTs, and XT compatibles. The 386/AT also can be bought with installation kits for the hard-to-fit Tandy and Compaq AT compatibles. These boards replace an AT's 80286 or an older machine's 8088 with a 16-MHz 80386 chip. This won't give you a dramatic boost if you're replacing a modern 12.5-MHz 286, but it will give your system a real kick in the pants if your CPU runs at 10 MHz or less. Installing these boards requires some finesse, but electronics handymen wont' find it too much of a problem. You can use the same boards to add na 80387SX to a system, if you need more number-crunching power.
Staying in the Race
As you have seen, these are many ways to put your PC back into the thick of the computer race. Some of them are quite pricey, while others won't cost you a dime. The moral of the story is simple: Not only can you teach an old dog new tricks, but armed with the right tools, you can even make him jump through hoops.
Power users and novices, unite! Here are several super utilities that let you test your system's performance. You can do anything from repairing a disk's file allocation tables to restoring the CMOS memory to your system setup. You can even use these programs to test your floppies to see if there are any system, data, or file errors.
You'll do a double take when you run this high-quality file-management utility. Quick Filer can display two sorted disk directories at the same time; copy, move, and delete files; rename files and directories; view text files with your favorite text lister or editor; and run applications within Quick Filer. You can even view, extract, or create archive files utilizing one of the more common archive utilities.
It's one of the few DOS shells with full mouse and EGA/VGA display support. The author is Kenn Flee of Jamestown Software in Madison, Wisconsin, who requests a $20 registration fee.
The program is designed to work on any IBM or compatible PC with DOS 2.1 or higher; however, DOS 3.0 or higher is preferable, since some of the options depend on the presence of DOS 3.0 enhancements. You'll need at least 256K of RAM plus additional memory to run applications from within Quick Filer.
With GoFile it doesn't matter if you remember the exact spelling of the filename or directory that you're looking for as long as you remember part of it. Once GoFile finds the file or directory, it either takes you there or gives you a list of all the matches, whichever you prefer.
The utility was written by Justin Langseth of Warwick, Rhode Island. It's a shareware program, and the author has set the registration fee at $15. GoFile runs on any IBM or ocmpatible PC with DOS 2.1 or higher.
The Command Line Utilities
For those dyed-in-the-wool command line practitioners, here's collection of handy utilities written by Erik Skamser of Digital Data Systems that makes issuing DOS commands a little easier.
Two of the utilities, Move and Movesafe, do what DOS should have done from the beginning; they copy files from one location to another and then delete the original files.
Anyone who uses one or more archiving utilities will appreciate Extract. This small but useful utility supports all of the familiar archive formats, such as ARC, ZIP, PAK, SDA, SDN, DWC, LZH, and ZOO. Extract knows which compression utility to use to extract the archive file. Of course, the compression utility must be available in the current directory or in a directory specified in your PATH.
The Command Line Utilities requires an IBM or compatible PC with 256K of RAM and DOS 2.1 or higher. The registration fee for the complete package is only $5. The author also offers a disk with the most recent version of all the supported archive utilities for an additional $2.
The next time your system won't boot because your CMOS setup information has been trashed or your battery has been disconnected, CMOS can save the day. This tiny utility saves a copy of CMOS memory to a file or restores the information in the CMOS memory from a disk file. This can be used to quickly restore the configuration of your machine without your having to remember the pertinent information contained in CMOS.
This public domain utility was written by Alan D. Jones of Farpoint Software in League City, Texas. There's no registration fee, but the author does offer several shareware utilities including DiskDup (a disk-duplication program), DiskEmu (a DISKCOPY emulator), TPW (a password security program), EPW (a file-encryption utility), and more. The author requests a small registration fee of $25 for these utilities.
You'll need an IBM or compatible computer, DOS 2.1 or higher, and 256K of RAM to run the program.
Don't spend your hard-earned money for a commercial program that fixes the FAT on a trashed disk until you've tried FatFix--File Allocation Table Manipulation, a handy utility included on this month's disk. The program was written by Michael A. Hotz of Techniform Industries in Fremont, Ohio.
Working with disks at the sector level is dangerous, especially when dealing with the organizational structures. This program works in two ways. The first option lets FatFix repair file allocation tables by letting you copy one FAT to the other and allowing you to create a backup file first. The second option lets you restore the FAT of a disk from a backup file if the program doesn't work as you expected or makes matter worse.
As always, it's best to try this type of program on a floppy disk first. It's nice to knew there's a way to repair a disk if it gets trashed, but the rule of thumb is always to make a backup of your disks, especially your hard drive. Then if the fix-it program doesn't work, you can reformat and still restore your data. The program requires an IBM or compatible PC, DOS 2.1 or higher, and 256K of RAM.
Interleave Adjustment Utility
Does your computer measure up? Let IAU (Interleave Adjustment Utility) check the speed of your hard drive and adjust the disk's interleave if it's not working up to its full potential. The program works with most RLL, ESDI, and SCSI drives.
IAU performs a low-level format on the hard drive to adjust the interleave.
The author of IAU is Dave Bushong of Dracut, Massachusetts. The program runs on any IBM or compatible PC with a hard drive (it may not work on some hard cards), DOS 2.1 or higher, and 256K of RAM.
Equiplist and DiskTst
Need system statistics or bad disk sector information? Try Equiplist and DiskTst, two utilities from COMPUTE's Productivity Manager disk. They're your free of charge. If you'd like to receive 37 more useful utilities and bath-file extensions, you can order the Productivity Manager from our Greensboro, North Carolina, address for $14.95 for the 5 1/4-inch disk or $15.95 for the 3 1/2-inch disk. (See the COMPUTE's Disk Products ad in the Information and Extras menu option when you run COMPUTE's Menu (Operating System on the disk.)
Equiplist is a tiny utility that displays your computer's system information, including the CPU type and speed, number and type of installed floppy drives and hard drives, installed mouse driver, number of serial and parallel ports, amount of used and available memory, type of monitor, and more.
With DiskTst, you never have to waste your time copying files to damaged disks again. The program checks for damage in the system and data areas. Then it checks for disk errors where each file is located.
The programs run on any IBM or compatible PC (Equiplist may not work on some Tandys) with DOS 2.1 or higher and 256K of RAM.