All PC techs have come across OS problems that are so serious, the only recourse is to reformat the drive and reinstall Windows 9x. Before you reformat, however, I advise you to do some homework. There is a lot of information you’ll need to put the PC back into its previous, working configuration. This article highlights the ins and outs of getting an OS back up and running.

OS versions are important
First, you need to know which version of Windows 9x that you will need to replace. It is suggested that you install the same OS that was on the hard drive previously, unless ordered otherwise. Many organizations support a certain version of Windows only, such as Windows 95, and don’t want other versions of the operating system in their fleet.

Something else to keep in mind: It is not only a matter of choosing between Win95 and Win98 to install on the system—you also need to know what version you are updating. Are you replacing Windows 95 Retail? Maybe you need to install Retail with SP1? Or perhaps OSR2 is in order? On the other hand, you may need 2.1, 2.5, or even 3.0! If you’re replacing Windows 98, do you need the original or has your company upgraded to Windows 98 SE? Before you just throw in any version of Windows, check the other machines in your office to see what they’re running.

Gather all the important information
Once you know the Windows version you will need to use, you’ll need other information to install it successfully. It is a good practice to make notes of the registered user name and registered company of the machine and any CD or license keys necessary to reinstall the product.

Write down such networking data as computer name, workgroup, and any other network settings you may be required to restore, including shared folders and printers. If it’s a Novell network, see which version of the Novell client your company is running. Odds are that you will want to replace this with the same version, too. It’s also a good idea to make notes about any other considerations: corporate wallpaper, screensavers and timeouts, display settings, and so on. It’s also a great idea if you check the machine’s basic hardware. Which video, audio, NIC, and other drivers will you need? Windows may be able to auto detect these, but don’t count on it.

What if you can’t get into Windows to get this information? There are two excellent DOS tools I recommend that will give you most of the info at the prompt: DIAG+ and SUMMARY, both from 62NDS Solutions. DIAG+ (diagplus.exe) reveals most of the Windows data you need, including version numbers, license numbers, user and owner names, computer and workgroup names, share names, display settings, and much, much more. SUMMARY gives you a look at the hardware, including the video chipset. Working demos of each utility can be downloaded free. Registered versions give you more features, US$12 for DIAG+ and US$5.50 for SUMMARY. I suggest you take the plunge and purchase both.

Finally, I suggest that you visit the PC manufacturer’s Web site and look in their support area for any maker/model-specific drivers you may need. Compaq, for example, is notorious for maker/model-specific drivers. Download any special system drivers you may need and save them to disk or CD. This will help you ensure the PC will run the way the manufacturer intended and get rid of big yellow question marks in Device Manager.

Some important things to consider
Now that you’ve gathered all the information and special drivers you need, you’re ready to blow out the hard drive and have some fun, right? I don’t think so. You may be working on a PC that saves its CMOS Setup and Diagnostic software on the hard drive, rather than on a chip as most new PCs do.

Launch FDISK and choose option 4, Display Partition Information. Look to see if there is a small, non-DOS partition listed either before or after the DOS partitions. If so, it’s probably a diagnostics partition and should be left alone. Older Compaq PCs have this partition, ranging from 4 to 24 MB, at the head of the hard drive. If you remove it, the only way to get it back is to re-FDISK the drive. And just in case if you didn’t know, that means losing everything that the drive contains. Compaq has the tools you need to create the partition. Remember this if you have to put a new hard drive into one of these PCs.

Let’s get formatting!
Now you’re ready to format. You should have a bootable floppy with CD-ROM support and major system utilities on it, such as a Windows 98 boot disk. Boot to the floppy and use it to format the hard drive where Windows will reside, which is usually the C drive. After the drive has been formatted, use the md and cd commands to create the directory C:\WINDOWS\OPTIONS\CABS. Afterwards, copy the contents of your CD’s Win9x directory to it. You can do this by typing the following at DOS prompt:
copy x:\win9X\*.* c:\windows\options\cabs

Please note that x:\ represents the drive letter of your CD-ROM, and the Windows directory on the CD may be different from what we have listed here.

So why do you need to copy the CD contents to your hard drive? There are several reasons for doing this, rather than running Windows Setup directly from the CD:

  • C:\WINDOWS\OPTIONS\CABS is the “professional, industry standard” hard drive repository for Windows installation files. If you put them somewhere else, another tech may have difficulty finding them or may wonder if the CABs in C:\WINCABS are the correct ones.
  • Hard drives are faster than CD-ROMs, so your Windows installation will be faster.
  • When Windows reboots during Setup, it won’t be looking for a CD-ROM.
  • Windows will set the registry SourcePath to “C:\WINDOWS\OPTIONS\CABS” and know where to look for its system files from now on.
  • When later installing device drivers, you won’t be bombarded with “Please insert your Windows CD” messages.
  • You’ll be glad you did when the user “misplaces” the Windows CD.

When you run Setup for the first time, you may be prompted to install Windows into a “C:\WINDOWS.000” directory. Change this to “C:\WINDOWS” and ignore the caution messages, as the directory is empty and there is no risk of overwriting anything.
MSBATCH.INF for custom configurations
One more thing you should consider before running Setup will be whether you’ll be loading this version of Windows to several PCs. If so, or if there are a great number of system settings that will need to be configured, consider learning how to use BATCH.EXE. You can find the installation files on the Windows CD.

This program has nothing to do with batch files. BATCH.EXE will let you create a file called msbatch.inf from an existing PC containing all your custom configurations for product keys, workgroup names, network settings, printer defaults, and more. You can even streamline your Windows installation by adding msbatch.inf instructions to bypass the End User License Agreement screen and to reboot during setup without user intervention. Copy the file to C:\WINDOWS\OPTIONS\CABS, and Windows will find it and use it automatically during Setup, configuring Windows to your specifications.

This is only the beginning
Now that you’ve gathered all the important information, reformatted the drive, created the CABS directory, and copied the Win9x files to it, go ahead and type SETUP at the command prompt. DO NOT PRESS ENTER YET! There’s a lot more you can do before and after that keystroke, but that’s another story.

John Kowaleski is the Webmaster of TechSetGO!, The Fast Lane For Techs and a desktop/laptop PC support specialist. He is an A+ certified technician, a CompTIA member, and has many product certifications from such manufacturers as Compaq, Dell, HP, and Lexmark. John also holds Windows 9x Administrator and Master Windows 9x Power User certifications from

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