Boot Manager Shootout: System Commander Deluxe
By: Walter Metcalf
System Commander Deluxe, as its name
suggests, is a high-end product from V-Communications,
Inc. designed to give you complete control over booting your system and the
OSes installed thereon. It includes a number of sophisticated functions designed
to assist you with OS installation, give you a high-level of security at the partition
level, and a completely customizable OS selection menu. In addition the online help
is thorough, ubiquitous, easy to read, and very professional looking. These features
do come at a cost, of course, yet the price is not excessive when compared with
that of other boot managers, or other software in general.
Installation is achieved by inserting a copy of the first System Commander
Deluxe diskette into your floppy drive, and rebooting. Then simply follow the directions
on the screen. (As the italics suggest it is vital to make a copies of the diskettes
and then use only the copies for installation. More on that later.) I found it was
helpful to at least scan the attractive 165-page soft cover manual, especially chapter
3. System Commander Deluxe's error handling was sufficiently strong that I generally
knew why something had gone wrong, something too often missing from many software
Before proceeding any further, I want to point out that I tested this product
primarily from the point of view of an OS/2 user. There are numerous options specific
to DOS and Windows that I didn't test or report on. I did try to use System Commander
Deluxe to install Windows 95. Unfortunately I didn't succeed. Somehow, OS Wizard
lost my mouse, and I wasn't able to proceed further, but I have no reason to believe
I wouldn't have otherwise succeeded.
Let's now look at a few of System Commander Deluxe's main features.
The OS Wizard, the OS installation "front-end," also has the basic functions
for deleting, resizing, creating, but not moving, partitions. These operations can
be used apart from OS installation.
A large range of OSes is supported, including OS/2, Unix, Linux, FreeBSD, and Windows
System Commander Deluxe has substantial OS/2 support, an pleasant treat at a time
when many other vendors are dropping OS/2. As an experiment, I booted the product,
selected OS Wizard, and told it to install OS/2. The program went ahead, created
and formatted a FAT partition as C:, and prompted me to install the OS/2 installation
disk. (The location and size of the partition were rather strange, however.)
Because System Commander Deluxe's flexibility and OS/2 support, I found it quite
easy to remove the IBM Boot Manager, and run System Commander Deluxe in its place.
By doing so, I can free up a precious primary partition slot in the Master
Partition Table, and gain access to the large array of System Commander Deluxe's
System Commander Deluxe's main menu is completely customizable:
A wide range of colours is available.
The order of items (i.e. partitions) can be set to whatever you want.
Menu display can be limited to arbitrary selection of items (i.e. partitions).
The IBM Boot Manager, if present, may be used or not, as you wish.
3 levels of detail can be displayed for each item.
Icons are available for each major OS, including OS/2.
A long description can be associated with each item.
The drive letter for each OS/2 partition can be locked in to a particular value.
This is one of my favourite features. I have two OS/2 partitions on my computer;
my regular system, which boots as D:, and the maintenance partition, which boots
as E:. This feature allows me to guarantee that whenever I select my regular system,
for example, it will always boot as D:, even if there are no other primary partitions
on my system! If you have ever had your computer crash during boot-up due to a partition
change causing the system drive letter to change, you'll appreciate this feature.
For each OS, System Commander Deluxe allows you to select which primary partitions
you want to allow the OS to "see," i.e. which ones should be visible and
which should be hidden. This is a powerful feature, but it needs to be used with
care or you can get backed into a corner. For example, I normally have two primary
partitions on my 1st hard drive, one for Windows 95 and the other for DOS. Normally
I keep Windows 95 hidden, but once while testing this product, I wanted to make
the Win 95 partition visible. I used Partition
Magic to make the change, rebooted the computer, and when it came back up, I
found that the Windows 95 partition was still hidden. Eventually I realized System
Commander Deluxe had overridden my change! If System Commander Deluxe is installed,
then you should use it and not other programs to manipulate the hidden status of
As mentioned before, System Commander Deluxe contains a powerful password security
system. This security system includes the following features, definable for each
Password expiration date
Limitation on length of time a password may be used.
The ability to force the user to change his/her password(s) the next time he/she
Access control, which locks out both floppy drives and all hard drives until the
correct password is entered.
OS Wizard and System Commander Deluxe setup can separately be locked out.
The entire security system can be disabled by the Administrator without deleting
the usernames, passwords, and other security information.
A record is kept of the last time each user logged in.
Like other boot managers except the IBM
Boot Manager, System Commander Deluxe overwrites the Master Boot Partition,
and so is subject to the higher level of risk associated with tampering with the
most critical sector on the hard drive. However as noted elsewhere, the program
has a number of safeguards in place to minimize the risk.
At installation, System Commander Deluxe by default stores most of its data and
files on C:\SC. Although it gives you the opportunity to change it, there is a warning
against doing so , and I learned from experience that it is best to heed the warning!
This leaves the program vulnerable to changes in drive C:, including deletion of
the partition by a third-party program. Not surprisingly, System Commander Deluxe
has a number of safeguards so that it is able to accomodate almost any such change
to its partition. Normally it reports that change has taken place and update its
files. Even if the entire partition has been deleted, System Commander Deluxe displays
a rudimentary menu that will still allow you to select an OS and boot successfully!
These safeguards greatly reduce the risk of using this program. I found that, once
installed, System Commander Deluxe is quite sturdy and secure.
When System Commander Deluxe installs, it saves a number of key files, and the status
of each partition. At boot time it checks the saved data against the current status,
and if it detects any changes, displays a message to that effect and offers you
the opportunity to update its saved information. (Needless to say, unless you have
a good reason and know what you're doing, you should select the update option.)
This is just another safeguard that reduces the risk of the hard drive failing or
System Commander Deluxe comes packaged with a utility program called SCDISK, which
allows you make certain changes to the boot setup menu without rebooting
your computer. That's a nice extra, especially since it runs from OS/2. (The utility
is a DOS program but when started, it automatically opens a DOS window.)
System Commander Deluxe appears to have been very well thought out and tested,
another treat offered by this program, so I found relatively little to complain
about. However, there are a few problems and/or features I would like to see added.
Only one of the problems is major.
To identify partitions, System Commander Deluxe defines the partition number based
on the order of the partition entries in Master Partition Table (MPT), whereas Partition
Magic, FDISK, and other programs define the partition number based on the starting
sector number. They are not necessarily the same!(If you have repartitioned,
or otherwise manipulated the partitions much during its history, chances are they
won't be.) They certainly aren't on mine, and I found the resulting situation incredibly
confusing. Once I had to actually use a sector editor program to read the MPT to
determine which partition was actually number 1! A second problem deriving from
that unusual definition is that in System Commander Deluxe the extended or logical
partitions are all given the same number, because of course logical partitions are
not in the MPT. I consider this to be a major problem. (Adding clear descriptions
to each OS partially eases the difficulty caused by this problem.)
There was one other annoying problem: the AUTO option of the "Primary Partitions
Visible" entry on Local Special Options seems to be ignored. The online help
describes the special operation of this option for OS/2, but it didn't coincide
with how my system behaved. It's possible that's just a problem on my system. In
the end, I quit using it, and set the partitions manually.
While making and using a copy of the program disk(s) of any product, it's essential
with System Commander Deluxe. That is because on two occasions, UNINSTALLing System
Commander Deluxe caused it to "eat" its program disk by deleting two critical
files. (The uninstall program requires the disk that the disk be write enabled.)
I was very glad I was only using a copy!
OS Wizard needs to have it partitioning capability broadened to include non-FAT
drives such as HPFS and NFTS, as well as logical partitions. In addition, I found
it difficult to read the 3-dimensional partition layout graph. I much prefer the
simpler displays offered by Partition Magic and FDISK.
This is not a bug or other problem, but is a feature I'd like to see added: it would
enhance the security still further if the system could be set so that main menu
would not display OSes that a user was not authorized to access.
There is a trvial matter on the OS/2 installation menu. At one point you are asked
whether you want to install a full OS/2 system or an upgrade. The full OS/2 system
is distinguished from the update as "having a boot disk" OS/2 systems
come with a boot disk.
Another documentation issue is in the password section: the on line documentation
reverses the colours (black and gray) when describing how to tell which OSes are
accessible and which are not.
System Command Deluxe currently sells
for $69.95 from their online
store. System Commander contains
all the features of System Commander Deluxe, except for the OS Wizard and Universal
Mouse Support, currently sells for $49.95 with a $20 mail-in competitive mail-in
rebate included in the package. All prices are US dollars. If you want or need more
flexibilty than IBM Boot Manager provides, either product is highly recommended.
Note: For the sake of complete disclosure, let me state here that V-Communications,
Inc. gave me a free copy of System Commander
Deluxe for this review plus a free copy of Partition
Commander, which I may review at a later date. However, I have taken due care
not to let this affect my evaluation.
For further reading:
Hard Disk Logical Structures
and File Systems, The PC Guide, © 1997-98 Charles
Partitions, © 1998 Walter F. Metcalf
The Partition Table, EDM/2,
March 1998, by Andrew
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