Software or nightmare? In the world of desktop computers, it's often impossible to tell the difference. Here are hard facts you can use to create the system you intended to have.

What operating system (OS) should you use? This is usually a choice between Microsoft, Macintosh, or two dozen flavors of Unix. Unless you run Apple hardware or know UNIX, you probably should choose a Microsoft OS, -partly because so many applications will run on it. But, many new applications are "cross-platform": they run on most OSs. You may consider other OSs, if they run the programs you intend to use.

Microsoft now provides two OSs. Disk Operating System (DOS) has several variations, including two popular Graphical User Interface (GUI) overlays: Windows 3.x and Windows 9x. While DOS is a 16-bit system, the Windows 95/98 overlays allow it to run powerful 32-bit programs. The other OS is Windows New Technology (NT), which came out with an integral GUI in version 4.0. We'll look briefly at each OS, then move on to some tweaks and tips.

DOS may run a machine that NT won't, and it will run legacy (older) software on legacy hardware. DOS runs laptops without NT's limitations. DOS is versatile. And stable, until you run a GUI on top of it. Unfortunately, Windows 3.x won't run 32-bit applications. Windows 95 will run 32-bit applications, but not efficiently. Unless you run legacy software, legacy hardware, a low-end laptop, or old games, there's no compelling reason to use Windows 95. However, you can bring the speed and stability of Windows 95 to a level satisfactory for low-end operations. The tweaks in this article apply to both NT and 95.

Windows NT is Microsoft's answer to UNIX. NT is capable, powerful, and reliable. However, it's not as fast as UNIX, and it doesn't handle as well. NT will crash more often than UNIX. (Note: This author has run NT 4.0 since August of 1996 without crashing). Also, NT isn't very scalable. High scalability means you can run more processors under a single OS. If your motherboard runs a single CPU, this is irrelevant. But, if you are using NT for a giant network server or massive number cruncher that needs multiple processors, you've got the wrong OS.

Exactly how NT excels over Windows 95 would take several pages to describe. If you want trouble-free computing, NT is going to get you much closer than Windows 95 will. In the bargain, you'll get faster disk access, more efficient data storage, and better memory utilization-in short, more computer for your dollar. This author timed a Pentium 200 on Windows 95 doing a FrontPage recalculation. It took eight times longer than the same recalculation on an old Pentium 100 running NT 4.0.

How you lay out your hard drive(s) has big impact on how fast and reliably your computer runs. Most program defaults put user files on the C: drive. That makes no sense with today's inexpensive drives and dual drive computers. If you have only one physical drive, installing a second will allow quantum leaps in performance and reliability.

A partition is a virtual drive within a drive. NT 4.0 limits the maximum number of partitions per drive to four. Thus, an 8.4 GB drive requires at least one partition larger than 2 GB. A caution with partitions: if you have a network, you may find all or most of the partition letters used up. If so, you must combine a few of these recommended partitions. Think about what their purposes are and combine accordingly. If you must combine, use a folder in place of a partition. Instead of a partition labeled "temp," you may need a folder labeled "temp." Assign your CD-ROM to some higher drive letter, such as K, if you can. Proper partitioning allows for easier backups, less fragmentation, and faster disk read/write operations. It also means less confusion to the OS, which may crash because of poor partitioning.

With the following partitions in place, you double the speed of your hard drive read/writes. On drive No. 1, make one 500 MB partition, one 2GB, one 1GB, and one for your drive's remaining space (Fig. 1, on page 64A). On drive No. 2 (Fig. 2, on page 64A), make one 500 MB partition, two 1GB partitions and one for your data files.

A huge pagefile on each drive allows your OS to write to both drives simultaneously while doing paging operations. With no waiting. This can give you a more dramatic boost than moving up four processor levels, and it's cheaper. On each drive, use a 1 GB partition for your Windows pagefile. This unfragmented pagefile will boost system performance dramatically over a "Let Windows manage..." option. Once you've made this partition, go into Windows and set your pagefile size to 990 MB: somewhat less room than the partition has. Make sure you do not use the whole partition for this.

The 2 GB partition on drive No. 1 is your boot and programs partition. Label this C:, and install only your OS and programs on it. The 500 MB partition is your backup boot partition, with just your operating system on it. Put one of these on each drive, and size it for 500 MB. You can boot from this partition and fix your system with little chance of losing data. The 1 GB partition is for your drive No. 1 pagefile. Partition the remaining space for files that won't change very often. You can label this partition "Archives."

Drive No. 2 also has a 500 MB backup boot partition, holding only a backup installation of your OS. Use a 1 GB partition for your pagefile. Use the other 1 GB partition for temp files, including "temporary Internet files." Then copy the existing temp files from C: drive to this new partition. Be sure to copy your profiles folders. You will need to go into the registry editor and change all the defaults to match the new locations. Using the search function and the F3 key makes this easier than it might seem. The remaining partition will use the rest of your hard drive. Label this "data" or something to denote these are files you generate.

You can prevent or cure many problems with software tweaks (see the Table), but you may need hardware tweaks, too. The pagefile tweak may be the most important you can make. Unsure of where these tweak controls are? Click on your Start button, then Settings, then Control Panel. You'll find all the tweak controls you need. Look at the system performance option: move the slider to the right and see the effect. Since the Internet is so busy with everyone logging into http://www.ecmweb.com, modems are bottlenecks for most users. Go into Settings/Control panel/Modem/Maximum speed, and set it as high as it will go. This speeds up your computer-to-modem data exchange.

What about drags on your system? Screen savers, which have no effect on the life of your screen, are Terminate and Stay Resident (TSR) programs. They have a tendency to terminate your efforts without warning, providing a steady drain on system resources. Don't use text marquees for screen savers; these OpenGL (registered trademark) programs are resource-hungry. OpenGL is for the complex graphics used in Jurassic Park and Terminator 2; not exactly what you want running in the background while you sweat out a CAD project.

Another culprit is Microsoft's Fastfind. Fastfind does thousands of unnecessary read/writes. Then we have third party utilities with all their sensors, monitors, watches, and other loads. One good utility has a poor reputation because of overly tight default settings. If you have such a program, look at all the sensor settings. If you pay attention to your filing system, do you need to know how much disk space you have left every 2 sec? Change this setting or shut it off. Extend the sampling times, so these third party utilities don't wear out your hard drives and your patience. Look at the autobackup/autosave settings on your various programs. Autobackup places a drag on your system, but if you aren't the kind of person who hits the save button every time you make a major change, this small drag is worth it.