Time to reload Windows

Question: We’re about ready to throw our computer into the North Saskatchewan River! It’s a P-75 with 16 megs of RAM and a one gigabyte hard drive. We run Windows 95 and have installed an ordinary complement of programs including Netscape Gold 3.0. Whenever we try to run more than one application at a time, we get a “Fatal Exception” error. The Details button reveals it’s a General Protection Fault. We then get a series of error messages that indicate explorer.exe or msgsrv32 and other things have caused an error. All we can do is reboot. This has happened regularly since we bought the computer a year ago. It used to occur mainly when the modem was running, especially with Netscape, but now the problem has generalized to just about any other program. Anything you can suggest would be greatly appreciated. —J.H.

Answer: You’re going to hate my answer, but it’s the best I can do without actually coming over to your house and sitting at your computer and working my way through mugs of coffee and your cookie jar.

So here’s a solution. Reinstall Windows 95.

Hundreds of people may be groaning right now, but let me tell you why I suggest this. At the office we have about a dozen Pentium 90s, all loaded with Windows 95. They take a lot of abuse because we are constantly loading new software, including the occasional beta version. Some of the more daring folks use Netscape Gold 3.0, which we’ve discovered can be finicky. More than half a dozen times in the last year we’ve found that performance on the machines slowly deteriorates over time and typically the frequency of GPFs increase as a function of time. In a couple of instances, people would walk away from their computers to grab a coffee and return to find what has affectionately come to be known as the Blue Screen Of Death (so frequent that it’s now abbreviated BSOD). That’s when Windows 95 crashes and a bright blue screen appears with an extremely discouraging message.

The most obvious solution was to ensure that the latest Windows 95 service packs and associated patches from the Microsoft web site were installed. (For info on patches and other troubleshooting strategies, see our spring-cleaning column.) The next step, assuming that strategy didn’t help, was a complete reinstall from scratch. My cohort Manni Wood, who has become the office hardware caregiver, likes to back up key data (.txt, .doc, and other data files) to floppies and then nuke the hard drive clean with a format c: at the DOS command.

He then installs a fresh version of Windows 95, then reinstalls all the applications and the backup data. It’s as inconvenient as washing socks one at a time, but the results are guaranteed.

GE Capital’s Jeremy Schmuland tends to agree. “I am inclined to recommend a good formatting of the hard drive and reinstallation of all software. (I do it every couple of months).”

A more conservative approach may be in order beforehand. For example, you might want to try a reinstall without the reformat as a first step. If that works you’re all set, though a complete rebuild of your hard drive once a year is still a good idea. It also might help to put your applications back one at a time. “Being that the errors involve explorer.exe and msgsrv32, I would suspect that some app has caused havoc with Windows 95 itself,” said Schmuland.