How to diagnose Windows. (diagnostic software) (Software Review) (Compute's Getting Started with Windows Utilities) (Evaluation)
by Mark Minasi
PCs are complicated beasts. The mere fact that you can plug them in and hear the fan whir isn't a necessary and sufficient condition for stating that your PC's in top shape. Ever since computers were invented, people have used the marvelous ability of a computer to diagnose its own problems. But diagnostics go beyond the does-it-work variety; diagnostics include
A benchmark program boils the immense complexity of the PC down to a number or two--numbers that speak to the pure performance ability of your PC. After all, what good is the fastest machine on the block if you can't prove it?
The diagnostic software market has always been lively and well-served for DOS. With the popularity of Windows, many of these vendors are jumping into the Windows market. Here's a look at a few diagnostic tools designed to reduce the pain of Windows.
Dariana is the company that brought us System Sleuth, a popular diagnostic program for DOS. It's no great surprise to see that Dariana has come up with a Windows version, called WinSleuth Gold (Dariana, 5241 Lincoln Avenue, Suite B5, Cyprus, California 90630; 800-892-9950; $169).
I'll take my hat off to anyone who tries to build a hardware diagnostic program designed to run Under Windows. After all, one of Windows' major design features is to shield your software from your hardware. Prying off the fire walls that Windows erects between hardware and software is impressive.
WinSleuth starts off with a cutaway diagram of your PC (actually, it's a generic diagram of the inside of a PC). You click on one of those parts--the disk drive or video, for example--to get more information about it. WinSleuth comes with several file viewers--GIF, ASCII, TIFF, and others--but the list of supported file types isn't long; you won't find support for most spread sheet programs or word processors.
A program such as Sleuth should be able to identify interrupt hardware in your system. Before I explain how Sleuth works, however, let me provide a little background on interrupts.
Any board installed in your PC may use an interrupt level--a kind of private line between a peripheral and the CPU that the peripheral uses to get the CPU's attention. For example, when the keyboard has a keystroke sitting in its buffer, the CPU must get that keystroke quickly, or it will be lost with the next keystroke. Consequently, the keyboard interface is connected to your system's CPU via interrupt number 1. When you press a key, the keyboard controller chip phones up the CPU on its private line, interrupt 1. The CPU drops what it's doing, gets the keystroke, and resumes its normal activity.
You have a limited number of interrupt lines, and an ever-growing list of peripherals that want to use them. If you've installed a Sound Blaster in your system recently, then you've used up another interrupt line; ditto for LAN boards. More important, however, is the fact that two boards can't share the same interrupt. That means that before you configure a new board for your system, you need to know which interrupts are currently in use. You should be able to find this information in the documentation for your PC and its add-in boards, but, as many of us have mislaid that documentation, another solution a software solution--is needed.
WinSleuth has an Installation Assistant that attempts to do this, but it doesn't always work properly. For example, it couldn't locate the Sound Blaster in my system, which was using interrupt 5 to produce multimedia sound. It's in good company, however: So far I've only found one program that can recognize the Sound Blaster--QAPlus, a DOS-based diagnostic program.
WinSleuth is nice, but its edges seem rough. A similar product with a slightly sturdier feel is called SkyLight For Windows (Rena-Sonce Group, 5173 Waring Road, #1 15, San Diego, California 92120). It's similar to WinSleuth, and worth a look. Also Skylight is less expensive than WinSleuth versus $99 $169.
The versatile Norton Desktop For Windows has a place in your diagnostic-and-tuning toolkit. While I don't like the Desktop itself--I find it too intrusive--the utilities that come with it are interesting. One of these utilities is called SysInfo, which is modeled on the SysInfo program that ships with the Norton Utilities for DOS.
SysInfo gives you the same kind of information you get from WinSleuth.there's also a processor benchmark that compares the CPU speed of your system against an XT, AT, and a 33-MHz Compaq 386DX. A RAM viewer shows you which programs you have loaded in memory, and how much space they take.
Another neat feature of the memory viewer is that it shows you how much discardable and nondiscardable memory each program is using. Well-designed programs have a fairly small amount of nondiscardable memory.
A quick browse of my system memory, for example, indicates that most I use employ very little nondiscardable memory--kudos to the folks who wrote those programs. Notepad, as it turns out, is two-thirds nondiscardable.
The fun doesn't stop there with SysInfo. It will tell you which of the many graphical operations that Windows requires are handled in hardware by your video board, and which must be emulated in software--a process that slows down program execution.
And speaking of program execution, anyone wondering just how fast their computer really is when under Windows should get on ZiffNet and pick p Windows Benchmark .0. The program, WinBen.exe, costs no more than the download time on CompuServe, and it's something no one tuning his or her system should be without. WinBen tests the graphical capability of your computer and reports the results in winmarks. About one million winmarks is par for the course for a 20-MHz 386 with a VGA board. Pop a fast video coprocessor in a 486, however, and you can clock over 12 million winmarks! I use this as a test when buying PCs or video boards; it's quick and easy to run, and provides a practical benchmark for anyone who buys PCs primarily in order to run Windows.
You can monitor system performance with a pair of programs that ship in a book and-disk combination, called Windows Resource Kit (Microsoft, One Microsoft Way, Redmond Washington 98052; 206-882-8080; $19.95). In addition to a lot of information about Windows (provided in book form), WRK comes with a disk containing a collection of utilities. The two you're probably going to like most are SysMeter and SMART-Drive Monitor.
SysMeter is a program that displays the current' memory status as well as the amount of free system resources. The resource information is more detailed than what Program Manager reports when you click on Help, About. Where Program Manager provides an amalgamated number based on four data areas--one owned by the Graphical Device Interface (GDI) and three owned by the user.exe user-interface manager--SysMeter shows you the status of the GDI resources versus the User resources.
The percentage of the free amounts of memory are expressed as a histogram that starts out green with lots of free space, then turns yellow as you drop below 60-percent free, then red below the 30-percent level.
SMARTDrive Monitor is another nifty WRK utility that lets you manipulate the way that SmartDrive works, and tells you on a minute-by-minute basis how effectively SMARTDrive is working. The monitor lets you change whether SMART-Drive is read caching, read and write caching, or not caching at all.
I like that because explaining to people how to set up their AUTO-EXEC. BAT files to enable or disable caching is an arduous process. It's much nicer to have them click on the radio button, then let SMARTDrive Monitor update their AUTOEXEC.BAT. The Monitor also can show a moving histogram of the percentage of disk accesses satisfied from the cache.