By the Bootstraps

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This page is a reprint of an article by Fred Langa.
It was in his newsletter the Langalist on 10/11/1999.

By The Bootstraps...

All personal computers start in stages: There's just enough special, low-level code permanently stored in the system BIOS and inside the CPU itself to get the machine going to the point where the CPU can talk to the hard drive, monitor, etc. Once this tiny amount of initial code has run, the system then looks on your floppy or hard drive for the most basic components of an operating system. If it finds them, it loads and runs them. These core operating system components contain the instructions the system needs to load the rest of the operating system and to complete the start-up process. In this piece-by-piece way, your computer self-starts.

Computers didn't always start this way, and a computer that could "pull itself up by its own bootstraps" was once a novel idea. In fact, when this system of self-starting was first invented, it was called "bootstrapping," which later got shortened to "booting." (And that's where that familiar bit of computer jargon comes from.)

Some computers need special configuration files to boot properly. Different operating systems call them different names, but the idea is the same: Once the core operating system is running, but before the full-blown OS starts, it looks for these special files to see what hardware drivers, software settings, and so on, are needed by the machine.

These special files transform the generic, low-level operating system into a version that's specific for the machine it's running on.

On PCs, two of these configuration files are called "Config.sys" and "Autoexec.bat." The former is a text file that can tell the OS what low-level memory managers, hardware drivers (etc.) to run. The latter is a series or "batch" of commands that run automatically at startup.

Together, these two files create the software foundation for everything a PC can do. In the Dark Old Days Of DOS, "power users" often would spend hours honing and perfecting these files to wring out every last iota of memory and performance from their PCs. (continued in next item...)

 10% More Memory For Free?

Today, some Windows system ship with no Autoexec or Config file at all. Others ship with a vestigial file that's either just an empty placeholder, or that contains just a few simple commands. If you only run Windows applications, that may be fine. But chances are, even if you think you run only Windows apps, you actually do run DOS apps from time to time.

For example, I use PartitionMagic and Drive Image to manage disk space and create super-fast-loading backups of my Windows PCs. Although PartitionMagic and Drive Image have Windows front ends, they do their real work from DOS!

Likewise, some utilities such as ScanDisk or Norton Disk Doctor sometimes do their work from DOS!

And many games still run in DOS, even if you launch them from inside Windows.

What's more, Windows 3x and 9x are still rooted in DOS: Although many of the OS functions (especially in 9x) happen "above" the layers controlled by DOS, the old DOS foundation still is there, and can materially affect how your system behaves.

More specifically: The presence or absence of a properly-done Config.sys and Autoexec.bat can greatly affect how your OS and apps like these run. And, alas, the generic settings Windows provides for DOS usually aren't as good as what you can do on your own.

In this week's WinMag column, I'll post specific cut-and-paste examples of ways to set up your Config and Autoexec files. Because they'll be on web pages, you'll see the examples in the correct format, and without the weirdness and errors that text-wrapping email applications may introduce. (I learned my lesson about sending format-sensitive examples by plain email <grin>)

By posting the examples on a web page, you'll be able to simply copy the properly-formatted content right from your browser, and paste it into the proper files on your system (I'll tell you how). Chances are you'll see an instant benefit!

What benefit? On a test system here, my little cut-and-paste trick freed up 11% more "low" DOS memory than Windows could on its own! This was memory that was totally going to waste!  This low memory is the foundation for all your Win9x and DOS software: DOS apps usually live entirely inside low memory, and Windows' deepest roots are anchored there. Making the most of your "low" memory isn't an idle exercise, and may improve the way your machine runs.

So if you want to gain more "low" memory for free or just learn more about Autoexec and Config files, click on over to the WinMag site for more info and fully-formatted, cut-and-paste ready samples. If you're a DOS Expert, please join in to share your best DOS tips, tricks, batch files, and tweaks. If you're a DOS Novice, please read the column and then post your questions and comments. Let's help each other!

The column should be live by the end of business (EDT; GMT-5) on Monday Oct 11th. Look for the link via the WinMag front page!

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Last Revised: 10/21/2000