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Help Me: Windows Me PC Health features examined

Originally, I had planned to provide "Look At Me, Digital Photography" as the second installment in this series on new features in Windows Me, but a bizarre problem requiring the use of System Restore prompted me to look at the PC Health features in Windows Me first. I'll examine digital photography the next time around, but I'm relieved to say that I now have first-hand experience with Windows Me's reliability improvements, and they really do work.

Windows Me, as you may realize, is a minor upgrade to the Windows 9x product family; I've described it as "Windows 98 Third Edition" in the past, and that moniker isn't too far off the mark. But some of Windows Me's most compelling new features are under the hood, providing users with the reliability and stability enhancements that I think make this release worth having. Through the addition of features such as System File Protection (SFP), Help and Support Center, AutoUpdate, and System Restore, Microsoft has been able to give Windows Me a level of robustness that simply escapes Windows 95 and Windows 98. It's no Windows 2000, of course, but Windows Me does occupy an interesting middle ground between its Windows 9x predecessors and Windows 2000.

System File Protection
System File Protection (SFP) works in the background to ensure that new application installations cannot overwrite key system files (such as DLLs). Identical in concept to a feature in Windows 2000 called Windows File Protection (WFP), SFP answers a key defect in the architecture of the operating system: Poorly written applications are otherwise able to install older or incompatible versions of key system files, overwriting a newer version that is required by Windows or other applications. This has been the leading cause of instability in Windows, and the addition of SFP to Windows Me means that this OS will be more reliable and stable than its predecessors. <% ' Added so can inventory as Connected Home articles. kw = "CH" %>

SFP is deceptively simple: The SFP Monitor maintains a database of system files that it will monitor, while providing copies of each of these files in a hidden location on the disk. When one of these files is overwritten or deleted, the Monitor restores the original version of the file, unless the new version is a more recent version. If the new version of the file is more recent, then SFP stores a copy of that version in its hidden cache. The process is silent and occurs without user intervention.

In Windows Me, almost 900 files are protected by SFP; you can find the list of protected files in the Windows Me Restore directory (C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM\RESTORE\FILELIST.XML by default). Note that these files are considered core system files: SFP will not protect data files, third party files, and the like.

Overall, it's impossible not to like SFP: If you're using Windows Me (or Windows 2000), you've probably been spared some grief simply because this feature is included with the OS. You may never realize it's there, but thankfully it is.

Support Automation Framework: Help and Support Center
The HTML-based Help and Support Center takes advantage of a new set of technologies called Support Automation Framework (SAF), which provides users with online, automated support that can proactively prevent problems from happening, provide helpful information, and automate the resolution of problems. Help and Support collects support information from Microsoft and third parties such as hardware makers into a single, easy-to-use HTML-like application that I've discussed previously in my look at Activity Centers.

SAF and its Help and Support Center user interface provide users with a single location to obtain support for Windows Me. This providers users with the ability to launch a single application to obtain all their support needs, eliminating guesswork and browsing between help files. SAF also provides an automation feature that lets Help and Support interact with Microsoft and third party support sites, providing users with the most up-to-date support information automatically.

In real-world use, Help and Support Center is the first iteration of SAF and therefore somewhat limited. The user interface is markedly different from the rest of the Windows Me UI (it does share this look with System Restore, however, see below) though anyone familiar with Internet Explorer should feel at home quickly. But the first-generation feel of Help and Support is most obvious when you receive Windows Me with a new system: Currently, no third party help is available through this interface, though that will hopefully change over time. So the dream of one-stop support is still that, a dream.

On the other hand, Help and Support was designed to be easy to use, and it's sports a hierarchical help structure that does make sense. A Help "home page" shows upper-level help topics, as well as a list of recently viewed help topics for easy navigation. And you can drill down into help, or view the Index as you could in the past.

Overall, I'd have to give Help and Support a middling grade, with the caveat that this feature will just get better and better going forward.

AutoUpdate is an optional tool that allows your system to automatically look for and install critical software updates as required, keeping your system secure and up-to-date without any user intervention. The more paranoid among us have suggested--wrongly--that this feature will somehow send secret information to Redmond, but AutoUpdate is really just designed to prevent problems proactively. And like SFP, this is a good thing.

With Windows 98 and 2000, users can manually check for system updates by using Windows Update, and this is a nice feature, but it requires too much forethought on the part of the user. To alleviate this need, Microsoft instituted a stopgap measure called "Critical Update Notification," and that works, but it still requires the user to go in and set it up first. With AutoUpdate, the user is notified automatically that the feature is available, and then you can configure it to operate the way you want. If you'd like it to be fully automated--that is, it will automatically check for updates and install them without user intervention, that's an option. If you want to be told about available updates before installation, it will do that too. Paranoid? No problem: You can turn it off.

AutoUpdate is, essentially, a subset of what you would get from Windows Update, but it's the most important subset, those updates that Microsoft labels as "critical." I strongly recommend that Windows Me users keep this feature up and running, because it can work silently in the background to ensure that your system is up-to-date and as reliable as possible. But note that Windows Update is still available and still, in my mind, a crucial component of Windows: Be sure to visit Windows Update regularly.

System Restore
System Restore is an interesting feature, and one that recently saved me from a complete reinstall of the operating system. It acts like a safety net, allowing you to return your system to a previously known state in the even that an application or driver installation wrecks havoc with the system. It's not a backup program, like Microsoft Backup, and it doesn't have the full-fledged features of recovery packages like Adaptec GoBack. But System Restore works and, like I said: I have proof.

System Restore works in two ways: Manual and automatic. By default, System Restore will actively monitor your system and note changes made by application installations and the like. It will automatically create restore points, which are "snapshots" of the system as it is at that point in time. Note, however, that System Restore will not affect data files at all, such as anything contained in the My Documents folder. This is good and bad: You will have to backup your data manually as before, but you can also be sure that System Restore won't delete any of your data files by mistake. When something goes wrong with the system--say an application installation causes Windows to throw up error messages--you can use System Restore to restore your system to an earlier point. And this has several repercussions that need to be discussed.

First, System Restore doesn't perform a standard backup/restore operation as you might be familiar with from various backup programs. This means that System Restore will not return your system to the exact same state it was in before. Instead, System Restore notes certain changes that have occurred between restore points, and reverses those changes. But these are changes that occur at the system level--such as overwritten DLLs or other system files--so when you restore your system with System Restore, you may see several artifacts of aborted installations.

Here's an example: Let's say you install a game and then discover that the installation is corrupt for some reason and you can't get your video mode to run above 640 x 480. You attempt to uninstall the game, but the uninstall routine won't complete. In the past, you'd be stuck: Downloading new video drivers might fix the problem, but it might not. And you'd have no way of knowing what files were overwritten during the installation of the game. So your system would be left in sort of an unknown state. With Windows Me, however, you can restore your system to some point before you installed the game, returning your video to its previous, working condition. But the artifacts of this restore operation might include such things as leftover game icons in the Start Menu and the remainder of the game's installation directory in Program Files. Once you're sure that everything is up and running, you can delete these artifacts or, if desired, attempt the installation again.

This example--which is a variation of a situation that did actually happen to me--also brings up another interesting point. If you didn't manually create a restore point before installing the game, you'd be forced to use the most recently created restore point instead. Hopefully, this restore point was created in the near past, but it might be days old: Either way, you will probably lose other applications that you installed since that restore point was created. So you'll probably have to reinstall these other applications after your system is restored.

I think most people would agree, however, that the benefits of System Restore outweigh the cost: A few application reinstalls are a small price to pay for getting your system back to a working state. But System Restore can also eat up a lot of disk space: These restore points, while compressed, can still take up a lot of room on your hard drive. Fortunately, you can determine how much space it can use, and therefore how many restore points it can create. Note too that System Restore uses a simple First In, First Out (FIFO) system for storing restore points. If the restore point cache is full, the oldest restore point is discarded--forever--when a new one is created. This might give you pause (and it should), as some of the intermediately created restore points might not be as important as the ones you created manually a few weeks ago. Managing restore points is suddenly a crucial skill.

Back to managing the space used by System Restore: To see and change how much space this feature has set aside, right-click My Computer and choose Properties. Then, navigate to the Performance tab and click the File System button: You'll see a "System Restore disk space use" options under Settings. By default, Windows Me puts aside 12 percent of the total space on the system partition (usually C:) for System Restore, which can be a lot of space on modern hard drives. However, remember that changing this setting will also lower the number of restore points you can create. And if you've got less than 200 MB of free space on the system partition, you won't be able to use System Restore at all.

System Restore will automatically generate restore points in response to specific events. For example, newer applications (that is, applications that take advantage of Microsoft Windows Installer 1.2 or higher) will cause a restore point to be taken before the installation proceeds. AutoUpdate also does this before applying updates. And when the user decides to restore the system, a restore point is generated just in case. System Restore also creates a restore point once for every 10 hours of use.

If desired, you can turn off System Restore and use it manually. But I don't recommend this: I think that you should manually create restore points when installing applications, but I also believe that you should let System Restore do its thing, silently, in the background. Only through continued monitoring can System Restore do its job and ensure that your system is protected. And this brings me back to my original story: About a week ago, I was playing around with Windows Me's digital movie features in preparation for an upcoming feature article. I used Movie Maker to import video from an 8mm camcorder, and some third party utilities to further enhance those videos. After I was done, I decided to play Half-Life for a while, but the game complained and refused to run. I rebooted the system and was confronted by an odd 320 x 240 desktop, which was coincidentally the exact size of the videos I was working with earlier. Because this screen was too small to render Display Properties, I had to TAB along using another machine as a guide, and after a reboot, I was stuck in 640 x 480 x 16 color hell.

When I've had video problems like this in the past, I've simply reinstalled my video drivers and continued. That didn't work this time, however, so I tried to download and install the NVIDIA reference drivers for my card's chipset. That didn't work either. And after numerous failed attempts at getting my system back the way I wanted it, I was getting frustrated, and considered simply reinstalling the OS. But then I gave System Restore a shot: What the heck, I thought, I'm going to reinstall anyway. Coincidentally, System Restore had created a restore point earlier that day (though I'm now more careful about making my own restore points) and I proceeded to restore my system.

It worked fabulously. My system game back up in the 1024 x 768 x 16-bit color mode that God intended and all was right with my world. Not only that, but I've been using the same system since then, with no need for a reinstall. Hey, this stuff really works.

Many people look at Windows Me features like Windows Media Player 7 and Windows Movie Maker and wonder why they should upgrade. But this OS' real strengths are its reliability and stability improvements such as SFP, System Restore, and AutoUpdate. And these features make Windows Me a worthy successor to Windows 9x and an interesting intermediate step to Windows 2000/Whistler. The Windows 9x family will never be as stable or reliable as Windows 2000, but the PC Health features in Windows Me really do make a big difference.

I've seen USENET newsgroup threads where people have suggested such inane things as turning off AutoUpdate and System Restore: Don't do it. Disabling these features will simply give you a prettier version of Windows 98 SE. But Windows Me can make your computing experience less painful if you just let it do its job. Windows Me can also make your computing experience more fun: I'll begin looking at some of its digital media features next week.

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