Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 113 / OCTOBER 1989 / PAGE 76



Dan Gookin

People agree: MS-DOS isn't the prettiest pan of a PC. Bui don't put all the blame on Microsoft and IBM. DOS borrows its Lin pleasant approach from early microcomputer operating systems, all of which were designed before graphics interfaces became popular and before user friendly became a catch phrase. Except for typing cryptic commands and complicated codes, there wasn't any other way to use a personal computer.

Yet, the unfriendly face we associate with DOS has had an interesting side effect: It has spawned shell programs that insulate us from the command line interface and present a more attractive face to our eyes. Quite a few computer age entrepreneurs have made their fortunes by getting between you and DOS. If you haven't looked at some of their efforts, now's the time.

The Shell Game

DOS shells arc those nifty programs that give you access to DOS's features in a simple, friendly manner. Gone are the command lines and enig­matic phrases. Say hello to one-key commands, easy-to-follow graphics interfaces, and a simpler way of doing things.

Before you rush out to buy a shell program, however, take some time to learn how DOS works. You don't have to use it; just know the basics. It's like learning how to operate a car and 10 make minor repairs, but not calling yourself a mechanic. You're just a conscientious owner.

With that in mind, there are five DOS makeovers covered in this feature. They arc Tandy's DeskMate, IBM's DOS 4.0, Delta Technology's Direct Access, Peter Norton's Norton Commander, and PC Dynamics' Menu Works. Thai list isn't complete, by any means. An argument can surely be made for Microsoft Windows and GEM, but for our purposes we will classify them as more complete operating environments in themselves, rather than as handy DOS shells.

Generally speaking, to use any of these packages, you need only an IBM-compatible computer. If you have a color monitor, these DOS shells will look better. With a color monitor, it's that much easier to see what the programs are doing. Your PC should also have more than enough memory, either 512K or 640K. A mouse is also a handy addition. And you need a hard disk. You can use a few of these applications with a floppy only system, but that adds overhead to your basic computer operations.


Just because DeskMate comes from Tandy doesn't mean that you need a Tandy computer to use it. This wasn't always the case, but Tandy has made some adjustments to make DeskMate compatible with other PC clones. There's a lesson there somewhere.

Overall, DeskMale (version 3.0) is oddly interesting. It works best if you have a mouse and a color display, though neither are required. If you do use a mouse, you may notice some sluggishness. You do need DOS 3.2 or later, and 640K of RAM really helps. There's no installation program; you can move the same application to a different computer and DeskMate will figure out which computer you have and how to configure itself lo best serve that hardware. I like that.

DeskMate is only about 40-percent DOS shell, however. The rest of the program consists of an operating environment where you can use other, built-in applications, such as a mini-word processor, a spreadsheet, a database, and the standard programs you find in most integrated software packages. It's a jack of all trades, designed primarily to whet your appetite for more powerful and capable software.

But let's confine ourselves to DeskMate's DOS shell. It's not as graphic or intuitive as are some other shells. The "tree mode" is cumbersome, and file management offers little more than scattered menu options. It lacks file utilities and does little in the ease-of-use category. In short, there's not much to brag about.

Still, the shell does boast several fine attributes. You can, for instance, install your own applications into DeskMate. This excellent feature lets you bring in your own software, along with some data files, for quick launching from DeskMate's desktop. It runs slick and is enough to keep DeskMate on your PC even after you tire of its built-in applications.

Overall, DeskMate is an excellent first-time application for the home user. In fact, it will probably last you for several months (until you decide whether or not you need a more complete software application). As a shell, DeskMate lacks character. But as your first introduction to computers, it's nice. And you can continue to use DeskMate, installing new applications and so forth, as long as you own your computer.


PC-DOS 4.0 has many interesting trivial aspects about it. It's written totally by IBM (a good job, too); it lets you format a hard disk larger than 32 megabytes as one drive; you can use EMS memory with some of the DOS commands; its simple installation procedure lets you upgrade from older DOS versions (very nice); and it comes with an interesting, customizable, graphic, mouse-driven shell program called DOSSHELL (that's original).

But don't run out to your nearest computer dealer to pick up a copy of PC-DOS 4.0 so you can upgrade your old PC-DOS—there's no hurry. Version 3.3 is the version you should use. Until more software supports DOS 4.0, or something miraculous happens with DOS 4.1, the only reason to look into it is for its shell application.

DOSSHELL blows DeskMate away, as far as usefulness is concerned. It's full of utilities, it's configurable, and it has plenty of valuable features, including password protection and the ability to install your own programs into its menus. Its only major stumbling block is that it's not intuitive. There is no "feel" to it.

Presently, DOSSHELL only recognizes official IBM hardware. Though there's a driver for the Microsoft Mouse, there's no Hercules video driver, nor is your favorite Epson or Panasonic printer likely to be listed among the IBM-only options. However, considering that DOSSHELL comes free with PC-DOS 4.0, and that it provides an effective and comfortably interesting environment, it's not that bad of a deal.

Direct Access

Now this is a DOS shell. In fact, it's one of the most popular DOS shells on the market. Direct Access beautifully uses the PC's uncomplicated text-based abilities 10 make using DOS simpler. It doesn't use graphics to trick you into thinking your PC is a Macintosh, but what it does, it does well.

The program is easy to set up. In fact, you can just copy the files over to your hard drive. If you use the INSTALL program that comes on the disk, watch out—it will modify your AUTOEXEC.BAT file whether you tell it to or not. (I hate it when programs do that.) To be safe, make a directory for Direct Access and copy its files to that directory.

Today's Menu

1400 One Tandy Center
Fort Worth, TX 76102
(817) 390-3011

Direct Access—$89.95
Delta Technology
1621 Westgate Rd.
Eau Claire, WI 54703
(715) 832-7575

Menu Works—$24.95
PC Dynamics
31332 Via Colinas
Suite 102
Westlake Village, CA 91362
(818) 889-1741

The Norton Commander—$89.00
Peter Norton Computing
100 Wllshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(213) 453-2361

PC-DOC 4.0—$150.00
900 King St.
Rye Brook, NY 10573
(Contact your local authorized IBM dealer)

Anyone can use Direct Access. Office computer gurus can use it to quickly set up a menu system for the less wizardly. Even the most computer-fearful will understand and enjoy using it because it beats the pants off writing batch files.

To set up Direct Access, you create menu categories for things like spreadsheets, databases, word processors, and all your major hitters. Adding and manipulating menu items is a snap and is intelligently done. Once everything's in place, you're ready to use your system. Press a key and—zap!—you're using that application. If you're a complete computerphobe, you can stick Direct Access into your AUTOEXEC.BAT file so that you never have to see DOS.

Aside from running applications quickly and quietly, Direct Access also has password access/protection (ideal for use in education environments), and it performs some time-management functions, tracking computer usage according to user and project. A very clean system.

The only drawback is the program's lack of real utilities. You can't create a directory, move files around, or manipulate them in any way. But you can use the program to run other utilities that do all those things. Delta Technology claims only that Direct Access is a hard disk menu manager—and it's a good one.

The Norton Commander

From Peter Norton, the Utility God of the computer world, comes the The Norton Commander. It's most definitely a DOS shell, but it's also overflowing with interesting utility features, probably stemming from Norton's reputation for programs that do everything. In that respect, it doesn't disappoint.

The Norton Commander has all the standard features of a DOS shell: handy menus for performing DOS tasks, quick launch of programs, the ability to make your own menus, and an interface that's simpler to use than the old cryptic DOS command line. On top of that. The Norton Commander adds several features Norton Utilities lovers have come to cherish, including the ability to search for files; view files in either text, 1-2-3, or dBase formats; select groups of files for manipulation; or perform a host of other nifty computer jobs.

As if that weren't enough, The Norton Commander even supports the 43- and 50-line mode of EGA or VGA graphics (as well as the Microsoft Mouse), But it doesn't operate in graphics mode and, unlike some other utilities, you can't change the default colors. It presents a pretty busy screen, but you can turn everything off if you just want to look at the boring old DOS prompt. At a touch of a key. The Norton Commander snaps back to attention.

The only problem you might have with The Norton Commander is its overabundance of utilities and display formats, or panels. All that stuff makes the program a bit cumbersome. You really need to sit down with the manual to learn how things are done. I know what you're thinking: Oh no, a whole new set of commands to memorize. But once you get them down, The Norton Commander does its job effectively.

Menu Works 2.1

Unlike Direct Access, Menu Works does most of the setup work for you. Its amazing INSTALL program will search your entire hard drive for the nearly 1000 software applications it recognizes; then it will assign them to proper menu categories, create custom menus, and send you off on your merry way. There's nothing else to mess with, no reason to.

Unfortunately, the INSTALL program will modify your AUTOEXEC.BAT file unless you tell it not to during the installation process. (Stubbornly, it ignored my request and stuck three extra lines in there anyway.) On my computer it also put a blue border that I didn't want on my screen. I had to reboot to get rid of it.

Other than that, I found Menu Works immediately useful. It recognized a whole slew of files I had on my system, even such bizarre ones as old Norton Utilities, PC Magazine's Benchmark series, and shareware like PC-Style and List. It got confused by my two versions of WordPerfect (4.2 and 5.0; I still haven't gotten used to 5.0), but other than that everything worked smoothly.

You can customize Menu Works by adding your own menus with optional passwords and original names. You also gel some disk utilities and mouse support. All in all, it's a nifty package for beginners, and not a bad deal for power users, either (although they might frown at the pretty windows and zippy sound effects).

Out of My Shell

Developers have blessed us with a delightful assortment of makeup to cover those unsightly DOS blemishes. For those getting started, there's DeskMate and its easy graphics access to DOS, plus its own set of starter programs. Next comes DOSSHELL, which, if you own PC-DOS 4.0, you should investigate (everyone else, don't bother). The Norton Commander, with its bounty of DOS utilities, occupies the high end of the DOS-shell spectrum. Or, there's Menu Works, with its intelligent INSTALL program. My own favorite is Direct Access, It's what a DOS Shell should be: easy to use, easy to customize, and a clean presentation.

You can choose your favorite DOS shell based on your needs. With the variety available, there are plenty of ways to hide DOS's ugly face. If all else fails, you still have batch files

When he isn't taking a serious look at DOS, Dan Gookin writes COMPUTE!'s "Off Line" column.