Boot Manager Shootout: System Commander Deluxe

By: Walter Metcalf
Date: 09/30/98

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 products.

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.

  1. 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.

  2. A large range of OSes is supported, including OS/2, Unix, Linux, FreeBSD, and Windows NT.

  3. 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.)

  4. 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 features.

  5. System Commander Deluxe's main menu is completely customizable:
    1. A wide range of colours is available.
    2. The order of items (i.e. partitions) can be set to whatever you want.
    3. Menu display can be limited to arbitrary selection of items (i.e. partitions).
    4. The IBM Boot Manager, if present, may be used or not, as you wish.
    5. 3 levels of detail can be displayed for each item.
    6. Icons are available for each major OS, including OS/2.
    7. A long description can be associated with each item.

  6. 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.

  7. 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 your partitions.

  8. As mentioned before, System Commander Deluxe contains a powerful password security system. This security system includes the following features, definable for each user:
    1. Password expiration date
    2. Limitation on length of time a password may be used.
    3. The ability to force the user to change his/her password(s) the next time he/she boots.
    4. Access control, which locks out both floppy drives and all hard drives until the correct password is entered.
    5. OS Wizard and System Commander Deluxe setup can separately be locked out.
    6. The entire security system can be disabled by the Administrator without deleting the usernames, passwords, and other security information.
    7. A record is kept of the last time each user logged in.

  9. 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.

  10. 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!
    1. 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!
    2. These safeguards greatly reduce the risk of using this program. I found that, once installed, System Commander Deluxe is quite sturdy and secure.

  11. 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 becoming unusable.

  12. 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.

  1. 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.)

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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 M. Kozierok

Partitions, © 1998 Walter F. Metcalf

The Partition Table, EDM/2, March 1998, by Andrew Pitonyak

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