The Trials and Tribulations of My First Windows NT Installation

The normal rules of engagement in Chinese checkers describe my experiences installing Windows NT Server rather well. I can't say that these experiences were unusual; if nothing else, my time with computers has taught me patience. There's almost no operating system that doesn't take longer to install than promised. NT was just a bit worse for me than usual. Mostly, the delays were an hour here and an hour there; but pretty soon, you're talking about real time.

Mistake One
I watched the Windows NT pre-installation video, the one that comes with the documentation kit, but I was clearly the wrong audience for it. Not a bad video, it's very "corporate-centric," talking about large networks of NT Servers--the planning for and feeding of. It discusses the basic concepts of network use from a Microsoft perspective.

I used Windows NT Server Version 3.5, Build 807. My computer is attached to the network here at Chaos Manor, which means I'll have the opportunity to test NT connectivity to most of the popular OSes and NOSes in future columns.

For my "zeroth" NT test install, I tried an IBM Dominator 2000, a prototype Pentium computer we had around. NT didn't "autorecognize" anything except the IDE hard drive. Since the Dominator had a built-in CD-ROM and sound card and no hardware description files for NT, it was clearly time to switch.

For my next test subject, I used what is "sniffily" called a "legacy computer system." It already had DOS and Windows 3.11 on it, so I thought I'd use the existing FAT (File Allocation Table) file system, instead of NTFS (the NT file system). I booted from the NT installer disk, fed in disk two, and let it autorecognize the available hardware. This test was worse than the first: NT's installer couldn't even find the hard drive! Pournelle's first rule of NT: Use Current Hardware.

Mistake Two
After much examination--and some cussing--I discovered that the old PSI SCSI hard drive controller was at fault; it talked to the hard drive in a non-standard way. A shame, too; the PSI had 4MB of cache RAM. So I had to back up the drive and install a new controller. We happened to have a new kit, complete with NT drivers, so I used that.

After a couple of false starts, and several days of transferring files, I was finally back where I'd started--but with a supported SCSI controller. Of course, I had forgotten to enable software caching for the hard drive, so Windows 3.11 was dog-slow. It took longer to figure out what I'd missed than to fix it!

For video, I thought I'd use a Diamond Mach 64 LocalBus video card. Diamond ships its cards with NT drivers, but they were from the NT 3.1 era. The company is quite good at updating its drivers, but I needed to identify the exact version I had by the model of video controller chip on the board. I took some amusement in downloading all my drivers with an IBM PS/2 running OS/2 Warp and Procomm for DOS--if NT only knew.

Wrestling with video cards led to Pournelle's next rule of NT: Download the Latest Driver and Unpack as Directed. NT's Setup program won't let you install from a different directory or even a different drive letter; you must install all third-party drivers from the A: drive. If the OEMSETUP file for NT isn't in the root directory, you need to rearrange files or defer installing a particular piece of hardware until after NT is up. Once NT is installed, you can use the Control Panel and NT Setup programs to install from any directory or drive.

For a CD-ROM drive, I tried the Creative Labs Quad-Speed kit with Sound-Blaster 16 sound card and controller. It comes with a 4X-speed IDE Mitsumi drive. As you'll see, I never have gotten that setup to work, even with the latest downloaded drivers. Pournelle's third rule of NT: Just Because It's on the Hardware List Doesn't Mean It's Easy to Install. And a corollary: When In Doubt, Use SCSI. SCSI hard drives are more expensive than IDE drives, but NT, like most advanced operating systems, supports SCSI devices first and most thoroughly. The price difference between SCSI and IDE is maybe 10%--plus the $150-$200 SCSI controller--but you can hang any supported SCSI device on a single controller.

There are true bargains available in "older" hardware; we recently bought 3GB SCSI hard drives for $650 each, wholesale, on close-out, because they were 51Ž4" full-high size. Similarly, the early Exabyte 8mm tape drives--also a 51Ž4" form factor--are very inexpensive and hold 2GB uncompressed, which beats a Colorado Memory Systems 350MB drive any day. More advanced tape drives, such as the Digital Linear Tape 20GB models, only come as full-high devices or external SCSI devices.

Getting Lucky
NT's Setup didn't automatically recognize any of my hardware. Even when told what to look for, it didn't see the SoundBlaster sound card/CD-ROM controller, the CD-ROM drive itself, or the video card. None of these devices was atypical. Ironically, NT didn't even recognize the Microsoft Natural Keyboard--that's the curved one with the hump in the middle--as anything but a standard 101-key keyboard. It did recognize the GlidePoint "mushpad" pointing device as MS Mouse-compatible. Clearly, plug-and-play has a long way to go.

Well, one more detour: NT's Setup insisted I didn't have enough room on my C: drive--after I'd spent two days getting everything back there! Teach me to read manuals! So once again I rebooted under DOS and did some disk shoveling. Then, back to the too familiar blue screen of NT's Setup. Manual setup! Feed it the disk for the AdvanSys; that worked. Feed it the disk for the video card; nope, not recognized--ditto for the SoundBlaster.

My reading of the Usenet NT setup group (comp.os.ms.windows.nt.setup, etc.) and discussions with other NT users suggest that it's often easier to add hardware after the initial install is done. So I just used the regular VGA driver until I had the system completely installed. Besides, by this time I was really eager to get a working NT system.

So I pulled a SCSI CD-ROM drive off our Mac, a Toshiba XM-3301TA double-speed unit, and hung it on the AdvanSys. A quick check of the Windows NT Hardware Compatibility list showed that other models of Toshiba SCSI CD-ROMs were supported, even though this one wasn't. With SCSI command sets being pretty uniform within a manufacturer's line, I figured I had a good chance.

I got lucky. NT recognized the Toshiba and its CD, and I was finally ready to install.

Pournelle's next rule of NT installation: Unless You're Utterly Certain You Have a Supported CD-ROM, Get the NT Install Kit on Floppies. It's 20 disks, but it's better than not having NT installed when you need it. However, in this case, the Toshiba CD-ROM drive worked fine.

Hip, Hip, Hooray!
Praise be! NT is finally installed! It autorecognized the Intel EtherExpress Ethernet card, settings and all. So I let it finish and put in most of the network protocols for future use. My mostly successful install occurred on an IBM Alaris 486 motherboard (white processor socket); the Intel OverDrive/4 chip; and 16MB of fast page-mode memory. My SCSI setup includes the AdvanSys ABP-842 LocalBus SCSI controller, the Toshiba XM-3301TA double-speed SCSI CD-ROM drive, and the AdvanSys drivers for NT.

My Windows NT system also includes the Microsoft Natural Keyboard, the GlidePoint pointing device, and the Intel EtherExpress 16 ISA Ethernet card, set at I/O 300, IRQ 10.

I won't say I clapped my hands and danced around the room when the install was complete, but I thought about it. NT was finally installed, at least the basics, and it even booted up when I asked it to.

Master of Orion
One nice feature of NT is its little Boot Manager. It lets you start NT normally, boot NT with a standard VGA driver, or go into DOS if it's available. That second choice is quite important. In Windows 3.1, I have been bitten dozens of times by improper video installations. They keep it from running properly so Windows exits without starting.

Worse is the video driver that conflicts with the monitor, so the screen is unreadable, scattered all over, doubled, etc. Like any other software-support person, I've gotten quite good at running Windows blind, exiting applications without seeing a thing, etc.

The usual solution for bad video is: Exit Windows, run its setup in DOS, and fix the video driver. If the video driver install messed up and I forgot to back up SYSTEM.INI, it's time to manually edit that file.

Those choices are not available in NT; there's no DOS underneath as a last resort, and no visually readable .INI files to mess with. All the initialization and setup information is handled by the Registry, a descendant of Windows 3.1's REG.DAT file. (You will doubtless hear plenty about the Registry as we explore NT.)

With the previous escape routes to system configuration gone, it's a plus that NT provides the VGA choice at boot time. It also means you'd be very wise to choose a video card that supports VGA--although you'd be hard-pressed to find one that doesn't, these days. The DOS reboot, only available if you stay with a FAT file system, lets you run DOS games that won't work under NT. Without that, I might never have become Master of Orion while I should have been finishing my taxes.

NT's Program Manager is a slightly enhanced version of Windows 3.1's. It's a perfectly serviceable front-end, which is good because you can't replace it with Norton Desktop for Windows or the like--it says so right in the Install manual. (Microsoft has promised the Windows 95 Program Manager for future versions of NT.) The biggest difference I've seen between NT's and Windows 3.1's Program Managers is: When you resize a group, NT rearranges the group icons while you're dragging the mouse around. This is a bit disconcerting at first, but a welcome change from the resize tweaking game you have to play with Windows groups.

With NT running, I could install the Diamond Stealth 64 VL/LocalBus video card with the Diamond Version 1.03 NT drivers and get the SoundBlaster 16 ISA card "multimedia home" package running--it's set at I/O 220, IRQ 5, DMA 1, Hi DMA 5, Port 330 (MIDI). However, I still couldn't get the Creative IDE QuadSpeed CD-ROM drive running, even with its newest NT drivers; however, it works fine under Windows 3.1. The NT File Manager recognized the Windows for Workgroups servers on the network, and the Windows applications already installed worked fine.

Next Month
In the next installment from the NT corner of Chaos Manor, I'll tell you more about the installation, networking, and the like, and my impressions after using Windows NT for a month.

Contact Info
AdvanSys
408-383-9400
Cirque (GlidePoint)
800-454-3375
Creative Labs
408-428-6600
Diamond
408-736-2000
IBM
512-823-1705
Intel
800-538-3373
Microsoft
206-882-8080
Toshiba
714-583-3000