Troubleshooting a PC problem would be easier if files like Autoexec.bat, Config.sys, System.ini, and Win.ini came in an easy-to-use interface that would allow you to modify them together. And wouldn’t it be an ideal way to make changes to your Startup programs, along with changes to your configuration files? Microsoft had the same idea and created the System Configuration Utility as part of Windows 98. MSConfig allows users who are troubleshooting their PCs to create a clean environment in which to work.
MSConfig gives users the power to edit lines within their configuration files (Config.sys, Autoexec.bat, etc.) by remarking out lines and thereby stopping their execution on the next boot. Users will also have the ability to keep certain programs in their Startup group from being loaded. By disabling certain programs, users are able to focus more directly on the problem area.
Setting up the System Configuration Utility
You can access the System Configuration Utility by clicking the Start button, selecting the Programs menu, and choosing Accessories. From this menu, choose System Tools, then System Information. Now, go to the Tools menu and select System Configuration Utility. Or you can go directly to the System Configuration Utility by selecting Run from the Start button and typing Msconfig. This method will place the utility in the drop-down menu under Run.
The System Configuration Utility starts by displaying the General tab. The main box of the General tab lets you select the Startup Type you want Windows to use when you’re troubleshooting. There are buttons for you to create or restore a backup. The Advanced button gives the user more options for disabling and excluding system attributes during troubleshooting.
The next four tabs represent your Config.sys, Autoexec.bat, System.ini, and Win.ini files. These tabs allow you to edit files line by line. You can remark lines out by removing the check mark. Change the order of the lines by selecting a line and pressing the Move Up or Move Down button. You can add new lines by clicking the New button. There is even a button just for editing lines. When you remark out lines within the Config.sys and Autoexec.bat files or disable lines within the System.ini or Win.ini file, Windows will add REM TSHOOT: to the beginning of the line.
Startup, the last tab, lets you prevent specific items or lines from being loaded—you simply remove the appropriate check marks. The information on this tab comes from the Registry’s run and runservices keys, the Startup group, and your Win.ini (run= and load=) file. You will not find virtual device drivers, such as drivers for network devices, on this tab. Refer to the product instructions to learn how to stop these devices from loading.
Click the View menu, which is at the top of the menu bar, to get quick access to several other areas of Windows 98. Control Panel, Device Manager, the Printers folder, Display settings, Multimedia settings, and the Fonts folder are all accessible from this menu. This means that when you’re troubleshooting, you can move from area to area of your system with just two clicks.
Using MSConfig to troubleshoot
To start the troubleshooting process, choose Diagnostic Startup in the Startup Type box on the General tab. You will be working mainly with the Autoexec.bat and Config.sys files in the Diagnostic Startup area. If you look at the other tabs (System.ini, Win.ini, etc.), you will notice that all checks have been removed. Only the lines under the Autoexec and Config files are marked. At this point, click OK and choose to restart the PC. When the system reboots, you will begin in a clean setting.
You will now be at the point where the computer would normally start its process of loading drivers. At this menu prompt, choose the Step-by-Step option. You will be asked to select Y ([Enter]) or N ([Esc]) for each of the boot processes, starting with the System Registry. When you come to Startup Device Drivers (Config.sys), choose N to keep your system from loading anything under your Config.sys file. Continue with the booting by selecting Y for the rest of the processes. Make sure you choose Y for the Device lines and for the Device High lines. Also, make sure you include the line containing HIMEM. Without this line, Windows cannot start. You will now come to the line that asks about loading your Autoexec file. Choose N here, too. Continue with the boot process by selecting Y for the rest of the lines. You are loading only the very basic device drivers for your computer to work.
Since Windows follows the Diagnostic Startup setting, your normal video drivers are not loaded through this method. The boot process will skip these drivers, even if you were to choose Normal Boot on the boot selection DOS screen. Until you enable the Normal Startup option in the System Configuration Utility, the boot choice screen will continue to open.
Of course, it doesn’t make sense to worry about this step if your Config or Autoexec files are empty. If the problems weren’t resolved during the Step-by-Step boot, they won’t exist within the areas that the System Configuration Utility tabs cover. Now, you need to look at the Advanced options, which are designed for advanced users or system administrators. If you aren’t comfortable using these options, leave them alone and call Microsoft or your help desk.
When you click the Advanced button, you’ll see an option that lets you disable the system ROM breakpoint. This option keeps Windows 98 from using the ROM address space between F000:0000 and 1MB as its breakpoint.
The next option disables the virtual hard disk IRQ. Choosing this option keeps Windows from handling the termination of the interrupts and places the process back into the hands of the ROM. Some older hard drives need the ROM to handle interrupts for the HD.
The third option prevents the use of the upper memory area by Expanded Memory and keeps Windows from using any of the upper memory areas as an API buffer. Windows’ memory manager sometimes tries to use addresses in upper memory that are already in use by other devices. As you’d expect, this is where many memory errors originate.
The next option tests for any problem(s) with hard disk drive access. When enabled, this option stops Windows 98 from loading its 32-bit protected mode drivers and using the real-mode drivers for accessing the hard disk drives. Disabling the protected mode drivers will affect the performance of the system, but the drivers for the floppy disk drive will not be affected by this setting.
The fifth option places your video display in the standard VGA mode of 640×480 at 16 colors. The next option helps you determine access problems with SCSI drives. It allows Windows 98 to use SCSI double buffering, if not already required to do so by the drive. If Windows determines that the SCSI drive requires double buffering, then this option will be grayed out. Use this option only if the problem(s) point to drive access.
Select the seventh option if you want the Windows 98 Start menu to appear by default each time you start or reboot the system. This is the same menu that appears when you go through the Diagnostic Startup.
The next option allows the user to stop ScanDisk from running after each improper shutdown. This is a timesaver. If you know that your system normally locks up during the troubleshooting process, there is no need for ScanDisk, and you can disable it for now. Be sure to remove the check mark once you have finished troubleshooting.
The next option allows the user to reduce the amount of physical memory used by Windows. Do not go below 16 MB in this setting; Windows may not run on 16 MB or lower settings.
The next option disables Windows 98’s fast shutdown method and returns to the slower Windows 95 type. This option may already be checked. Some programs may need the slower shutdown and will experience problems if the fast shutdown is used.
With the next option, the user disables the Universal Disk Format (UDF). UDF is a generic file system that covers both hard drives and DVD-ROM drives. Most DVD discs comply with the UDF file system. However, some older DVD movie player software requires the use of MSCDEX, now covered under the CD-ROM file system (CDFS). If this is the case, disabling the UDF file system causes CDFS to take over the DVD player.
The last option lets users enable the protection routine, which works around the problem of Pentium processors hanging when subjected to “illegal instructions.” You shouldn’t select this option if you’re using the system for software testing.
Locating the culprit
If you’ve eliminated the problem by removing your Config and Autoexec files, the next step is to find the culprit. This is a very time-consuming process, so sit back and take good notes. You have to use a process of elimination. You now need to enable options by using the Selective Startup option until the problem reappears.
The selective startup process deals with all the areas in aggregate, which allows you to troubleshoot on a larger scale. First, find the general group where the error is occurring, and then refine the search to that particular group. After choosing Selective Startup, you’ll notice that the lines below the three options in the Startup Selection box are now available. If your Config and Autoexec files are empty, then their selection boxes will remain grayed out. You start the process by enabling one group at a time and rebooting. Be sure to note each group as it is enabled. Once you’ve created the error again, find the tab of the appropriate area and examine the lines listed.
The first four tabs—Config, Autoexec, Win.ini, and System.ini—offer symbols to help with editing. First and foremost is the check box; if it is empty, the line has been commented out (including any line that was commented out earlier). Some Selective Startup settings may be disabled; the Windows logo indicates disabled settings. A yellow pencil will appear in front of any line you modify while using this utility.
Troubleshooting a PC is a difficult process. Moving from system area to system area, making changes, and then keeping up with them is sometimes overwhelming. With the introduction of the System Configuration Utility, Microsoft has made the process much easier. You can now work in various areas through one interface, making changes easier to identify and track. You can also delve into areas that were known to cause problems but were hidden from view. Troubleshooting is finally catching up with the technology we use. If we could just make fixing our cars this easy…
Paul Suiter received his first taste of the deadline rush as a photographer for the Montgomery Advertiser, where he earned four photography awards. After receiving degrees in economics and business management from Auburn University, Paul entered the college book business. After managing two bookstores for three years, Paul became a business analyst for EDS. Four years later, Paul continues with EDS, taking its equipment apart and working with G3 switches and advanced imaging programs. But he’s finally getting back to one of his favorite pastimes—writing. (Of course, he also enjoys spending time with his wife and son.)
The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.