Manufacturer: V Communications
Price: $99.95 per license; 10 licenses for $649
Reviewer: Terrence Miller
If you run more than one operating system, System Commander can provide a no hassle method for alternating between them.
After reviewing System Commander for a week or so I can say that this program does exactly what it says it does—somewhat. Before I get into details, let me say a few things about my experiences with the program. All testing was done on a generic laptop using a 486DX-33 with 4MB RAM.
To begin with, I was anxious to get started when I received my review copy, and the first thing I did was break into the package and begin to scan the owner's manual. Perhaps it was just the copy I received, or perhaps I was overly rough in my eagerness, but the manual did not seem to hold up well to handling—within minutes the spine was beginning to separate from the pages. My first thought was that if this was any indication of the quality assurance program at V Communications, I was going to be in trouble. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. While the manual was the weakest link physically, it turned out I didn't need to bend the pages often enough for it to matter. It has got to be one of the best laid out manuals I've run a cross in a long time. Got a question on the installation? If the manual doesn't cover it, the on-line help probably will.
As to the System Commander program, you will need about 1/2MB uncompressed hard disk space for the installation. Each copy is licensed for a single user only. The installation program has a basic Master Boot Record virus checker and prompts you several times to read chapter 3 of the manual regardless of how secure you feel in the installation process. Personally, as easy as the program is to use, I HIGHLY recommend you read the manual thoroughly. There are some quirks specific to certain operating systems that can really cause headaches.
Something to consider before using System Commander is exactly which OS you will be using. Some preliminary planning and decision making prior to beginning can save you many hours of frustration, as I found out the hard way. Unless you really enjoy backing up your hard drive and repartitioning two or three times you might consider getting a copy of Partition Magic or a similar program to save time. If you have already partitioned your drive and have several different OSes already, you are ready to roll—unless you are masochistic enough to want to install Windows 95 later. Suffice it to say, the manual devotes MANY pages to the installation “quirks” of Win95. Once you have your hard drive partitioned the way you want/need it though, the rest is a snap.
System Commander lives up to its promise of being easy to use and fairly intuitive. It also delivers on the promise to remove itself completely from RAM after your OS selection is made. While the specifics of how it does this are beyond the scope of this review, it works.
There are a few things though that disturbed me. The manual says nothing about backing up your original disk and using the backup for the actual installation. This should be obvious to most seasoned users, but it is particularly important in this instance. The installation process places System Commander on your hard drive and saves the original boot record to the floppy for later restoration should you decide to uninstall. I don't know about you, but in my opinion, anything that writes back to the disk needs to be run from a copy.
Another inadequate feature of System Commander is something called “user ID”. This feature is supposed to let you leave personal information for later identification should the computer be stolen. The problem is that it is too easy to remove. The same problem occurs in the “password” protection routine. Supposedly, if this option is chosen, the system cannot be used without the password. Unfortunately, if you don't (or can't) set the CMOS to boot from the hard drive before the floppy, the entire point is moot—any old system disk will boot you up. Even worse, if you set the password and forget it, it is going to cost you to get access to your system again. V Communications has a “special” service for getting you back into the system. You best have your dialing finger and credit card ready though before you call. The upshot is, most people will figure it's not worth it to turn on the password function, which totally defeats its purpose.
Another tiny glitch I ran across involves warm boots. While I know most people don't do some of the things I do with my system (I REALLY like to test things out), if you start the system and then give it the CTRL+ALT+DEL salute while the selection menu is on the screen, the system locks totally. Not a problem for most people, but it leaves a little tiny nagging doubt in the back of my head: “If this locks the system, can anything else do it too?” Fortunately, it didn't happen in any other situation.
Now, back to my earlier statement. System Commander really does what it says, somewhat. The advertising expounds the ability to run up to 100 OSes on the same computer. However, this is true only if you count MS-DOS 3.0, MS-DOS 3.1, MS-DOS 4.0, 5.0, 6.0, PC-DOS 3.0, 4.0, 5.0, DR-DOS 5.0, 6.0, etc., etc., etc., as separate operating systems. If I were to be generous, I might say that MS-DOS, DR-DOS and PC-DOS are different operating systems, but not the different versions of each. You also have to count Win95 (English version), Win95 (Spanish version), etc., as separate operating systems to make the count reach 100. But then, who would want two, (or, shudder at the thought, THREE) copies of Win95 on the same computer? I guess if you want to get technical about it, it does run 100 OSes, but most of us will probably not have more than two or three.
So, what are my overall thoughts on this program? Well, as for what it claims to do, I give it a big thumbs up. As to its practical uses, I give it a conditional thumbs up. If you regularly use two widely different operating systems, you may want to consider this system. It would probably be very useful to someone who uses Win95 and another OS. I would also declare that it might prove useful to those who do a lot of cross-platform programming. However, I am a bit turned off by the price tag. If you use only Linux and DOS for instance, you probably would be satisfied with LILO, and would consider System Commander to be LILO with eye-candy added. If you use OS/2 with DOS 6.x, you might find it interesting. If you use Win95 with older DOS versions, you would probably find it useful. I just have a hard time with the suggested list price of $99. I'm sorry, but I'm a cheapskate at heart. If the list were more like $30 or even $40, I wouldn't hesitate. Perhaps those who use operating systems such as Solaris and Xenix or QNX wouldn't mind the price, if it saves them some trouble. Being unfamiliar with those systems, I can't say for sure. The bottom line is, how much is it worth to you? It is easy to use. I'd check my other options first, and if they were just too much trouble, then I'd consider System Commander.
Terrence Miller is a part-time hacker/breaker of computers who drives a truck in his real life. (Yes, some truckers do have cognitive powers!) He is the ultimate cheapskate when it comes to buying things except when he really wants them!