What Windows users can do to curb crashes and prevent data loss

John McCormick

I know from reader mail that many of you work without a net. No, I don't mean you can't get on the Internet, I mean your work site either doesn't have technical support or it's difficult or time-consuming to reach. You're essentially on your own to support your system.

A decade ago when almost everyone ran MS-DOS, desktop computers came with massive piles of documentation, including manuals to teach the dozen or so important MS-DOS commands.

The number of manuals grew with Microsoft Windows 3.1, which required both MS-DOS and Windows documentation. Nowadays, you get next to no hard copy for the much more complex Windows 9x. Some PCs arrive without even a Windows disk, just a so-called recovery disk of questionable value.

Users who need help the most are getting the least, especially in small offices. Nobody ever tells them how to keep a Windows system running, and Win9x crashes a lot.

What I mean by crashing is that one or more programs will not respond, the cursor freezes, or you get the blue screen of death with an error message in the middle.

Despite what error messages say'their explanations are generally useless'you should reboot whenever anything crashes. Even if you can manage to close the offending program, something about Windows' operations has probably been corrupted.

No end in sight

It gets worse the longer you use the computer. Systems that run Win98 especially do not age well. If your system runs 24 hours, seven days, close everything and reboot at least once a day. That does help.

When something crashes, the first priority is to save your current work. Keep your hands in your pockets'waiting a minute or two sometimes lets Windows clear up the problem.

If that doesn't work, press the keys Ctrl, Alt and Del simultaneously, just once. In MS-DOS the three-finger salute causes a reboot, but in Win9x it brings up a list of running programs. You can selectively close some of them by choosing End Task.

If the troublesome program is not the one with the file you want to save, try closing the top program on the list, which often is the one that caused the crash. Then save files for everything else and reboot.

If you know which program crashed, such as a Web browser, close it first. Leave the program with the vulnerable files you want to save until last. Of course, if that's the problem program, you're out of luck.

How much memory do you have? Extra RAM'128M is desirable'will more than speed up slow performance. The more RAM, the more stable Windows becomes. Conversely, the more peripherals you attach and the more memory-hogging programs you keep open, the oftener Windows will crash.

Check the program bar in the lower right corner on most Windows systems near the clock. Unlike those on the Windows Desktop, these programs all automatically load into memory at startup. Close those you don't need. For example, I found a Compaq help utility I never use, a hot synchronization program for my handheld computer, Real Networks' RealPlayer, a Web book program and a few others I seldom use.

If you're a novice, don't try anything drastic to keep these programs from being read in, especially if you have tech support for your system. Just start your workday by clicking some of them closed. You'll free up memory, which helps crash-proof your system.

I do keep one program always running that you should have if you're allowed to install it. The freeware utility MaxMem, downloadable from www.analogx.com/contents/download/system/maxmem.htm, displays memory use and periodically, or on command, clears junk from closed programs out of memory to make the system more stable.

When Windows is done with a file or program in memory, it doesn't remove it; it just ignores the thing. Clearing things out seems to improve performance.

You also should know about Windows Safe Mode, which runs a bare-bones driver configuration. Novices should go into Safe Mode for necessary maintenance such as disk defragmentation, found under Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Disk Defragmenter.

To run in Safe Mode, reboot and hold down the Ctrl key or, on some PCs, the F8 key. You'll get a keyboard error message, but the computer should boot to a menu where you can choose Safe Mode. You'll see an ugly, low-resolution screen under a basic video mode.

In emergencies you can open and run many programs in Safe Mode, but it's generally used only for system maintenance. The defragmenter definitely does a better job in Safe Mode. To get back to standard mode, just reboot as usual.

John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at poweruser@mail.usa.com.

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