Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
 Product Review 


ERD Commander 2002
by
Chris Taylor

I have always enjoyed working with Windows. I started back with Windows 286 and, almost without fail, each new version I have used has presented a more stable platform to run my applications. I have still not blue-screened Win2K in over two years of running it on multiple machines.

But each new version of Windows brought with it challenges that made fixing problems more … well, challenging. With Windows 95, I could no longer fix a driver problem by simply booting to DOS and editing ystem.ini.  Now I had to deal with the registry, which required special tools to access. Windows NT brought the additional stability of a robust, journaling file system – NTFS – along with the headache of not being able to access it from a DOS boot disk, should something prevent NT from loading.

Microsoft always throws you a few bones that help. For example, the Recovery Console will get you to a command prompt if Windows 2000 won’t load and Resource Kit utilities allow you to access the registry from a command prompt. About the kindest thing I can say about Microsoft’s recovery tools is that they generally do what they say they will do. But they are awkward to use and limited in their capabilities.

To fill in the gaps, you need to go elsewhere.  I have found one of the best places to go – Winternals Software. Started by Bryce Cogswell and Mark Russinovich, their first big product was NTFSDOS, a very nifty program that allows you to access an NTFS partition from a DOS boot disk. From there, they went on to create a number of very useful utilities for Windows users. I recently had a chance to look at their Administrator’s Pak v3.0, which is a collection of five of their programs. This month, I will look at the flagship product – ERD Commander 2002. In the next couple of months, I will look at the other components.

Anyone who supports users on Windows NT, 2000, or XP really should have ERDCommander in their toolkit. If you ever have a problem booting into Windows NT/2K/XP, ERD Commander is probably the best chance you have of recovering that system. And it is so simple; it is really a joy to use.

You start by booting from the ERD Commander CD-ROM. It brings up a modified version of Windows XP. Big deal, right? If you have multiple partitions, it is a really simple matter of installing multiple instances of any NT-kernel-based Windows. You can then boot the system into the alternate instance of Windows. Ah, but it’s what you can do after ERD Commander is loaded that makes the difference.

When ERD Commander loads, it finds a DHCP server and configures the network components so that you can access other machines on the network. If you don’t have a DHCP server, you can manually configure the TCP/IP settings. It then finds all installed copies of Windows on the local machine and lets you choose which one you want to repair.  The full graphical interface loads and ERD Commander provides some customized tools that will help you repair the broken copy of Windows.

Say the problem is a driver that is causing Windows XP to crash on loading. No problem. Just click the Start button and load up the Service and Driver Manager. Up pops a list – not of the currently loaded Windows set of services and drivers – but those of the copy of Windows you are trying to repair. You can change the configuration of the problem driver to not load on startup.

What if some setting in the registry is causing problems? Again, no problem.  Fire up ERD Commander’s RegEdit and you will have complete access to the registry of the broken Windows. Browse the registry and make any changes you need.

Don’t know where the problem is that’s preventing Windows from loading? Run the Event Viewer, which loads the logs from the broken Windows. Browse through them looking for clues as to what is causing problems.  Then, go fix.

What if you forget the password to get into Windows? With Win9x, this is no big deal.  Press Esc when prompted to logon and Windows will continue loading. Not so with the NT kernel. A scenario all too common in the Windows NT/2K/XP world; you install Windows and assign some memorable password to the Administrator account. You then join a domain. A few months later, you decide to rename your computer. Well, you can’t do that while you are part of the domain.  So, you leave the domain and join a
workgroup, which requires a reboot. When Windows comes back up, you are prompted to log onto the local machine. Now what was that memorable local Administrator account password?


I have known more than one person who was forced to re-install Windows at this point. If they had ERD Commander 2002, it would have been a simple matter or loading it up, selecting the Locksmith application, and resetting the password on any of the local accounts, including Administrator. Very slick!

For those of you who think this is a big security hole, rest assured. If you have physical access to any machine running any operating system, security bets are pretty much off. 

Another thing that happens all too frequently is people shoot themselves in the foot by tightening permissions on files and directories too much. All of a sudden, they find that no usershave any rights to critical files and Windows won’t even boot any more. With ERD Commander, you can use the modified Explorer application to reset permissions anywhere on the file system.

If you support a large number of Windows
NT/2K/Xp machines, run, don’t walk, and get
yourself a copy of ERD Commander 2002.

What would a trouble-shooting environment be without a command prompt? Of course, ERD Commander provides a Console Shell that allows you to do things in character mode. Along with the standard built-in commands such as attrib, type, del, etc., it includes clones of xcopy, chkdsk and a service control manager.

You can run non-ERD Commander applications from within the program – sometimes. Officially unsupported because Winternals can never be sure of the effect of an unknown program, I was able to run many relatively simple Windows applications, such as Windows Commander (a wonderful shareware replacement for Explorer) and Windows Paint. When I tried to run Word 2000, it loaded up the starting screen fine, but then popped up an error “Microsoft Word has not been installed for the current user. Please run setup to install the application.” And promptly shut down. (Once again, Microsoft, where the heck is the “Not OK” button?)

Having access to network resources means you can get any files you need from other computers. In the worst-case scenario, if you find you simply can’t fix the broken copy of Windows, you can at least copy all your data to another machine before you reformat and start over. Another excuse why I don’t need to do backups … just kidding.

ERD Commander does have a few, very minor, rough spots. 

The PDF documentation did not explain the simple step you needed to take to see workgroups/domains on the network other than the default “Workgroup”. A quick communication with tech support straightened it out. It turns out the on-line help had the required info. In the words of Homer Simpson, “D’Oh!” On the positive side, the PDF file is being revised to add the instructions.

The registry editor does not support security, so if your problems stem from registry keys that have security settings that are too restrictive, you are going to have to delete the existing keys and recreate them. As you cannot export and import registry keys, this is a completely manual process.  I suspect very few people will be affected by this.

The final problem I had really left me scratching my  head for a while. I started up ERD Commander on one machine, and for whatever reason, the mouse didn’t work. I didn’t even get a mouse pointer.  I figured no problem; I’ll just use the keyboard.  Well, Ctrl-Esc didn’t work to bring up the Start menu. Tab didn’t move the focus around the desktop. I later found out that the Windows key will bring up the Start menu and it is possible to use the keyboard to operate the program.

All in all, pretty minor issues with a really terrific trouble-shooting product.

Is ERD Commander 2002 a panacea? Not at all. If you are unfamiliar with trouble-shooting Windows, ERD Commander is just going to provide you with the gun with which to shoot yourself. In most cases, you really have to have considerable experience before ERD Commander will help. But if you are skilled at troubleshooting, ERD Commander does a fantastic job of providing you with access to a dead Windows installation so you stand a fighting chance of fixing it without resorting to “format c:”.If you support a large number of Windows NT/2K/XP machines, run, don’t walk, and get yourself a copy of ERD Commander 2002.

The licensing for ERD Commander
is a breath of fresh air

In these days of strange licensing such as Executive Software requiring a license for DiskAlert for each physical disk in your computer, Microsoft not permitting you to transfer an OEM license to a new machine, and Oracle requiring you to pay by the MHz and number of CPUs in the server, the licensing for ERD Commander is a breath of fresh air. It is licensed to the user. You are free to use it on any number of computers you support. Well done, Winternals! 

Next month, I will continue my review of other components of Administrator’s Pak v3.0 and let you know how they can help you trouble-shoot Windows problems. 

Administrator’s Pak v3.0 price US$699

ERD Commander 2002 price US$399

System requirements:
• 233MHz x86
• Windows NT, 2000, or XP
• 64MB RAM
• Must be able to boot from CD-ROM

See the Winternals web site at www.winternals.com


Bottom Line:

ERD Commander 2002
US$399
from Winternals Software
Web site: www.winternals.com


Copyright and Usage
Ottawa Personal Computer Users' Group (OPCUG), Inc.
3 Thatcher Street, Ottawa, ON  K2G 1S6

The opinions expressed in these reviews may not necessarily
represent the views of the OPCUG or its members.