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The Explorer /
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

When Win95 Tells Lies
You can't trust My Computer/Properties to show you the correct version of Windows.

It all started innocently enough. I recently got a new laptop. As I always do with any new system, I went spelunking to see exactly what was on the drive and to make a note of how things were configured.

I called up My Computer/Properties and saw the system was running Windows 4.00.950a. That's the designation for an original, pre-OEM Service Release 2 (OEM SR2) copy of Windows 95 that's been modified with Microsoft's Service Pack One and/or other OS patches and upgrades. That was fine with me-I didn't really need OEM SR2 (the 950 B version that ships with many new systems and includes a 32-bit file allocation system for very large hard drives). And my year-old desktop system was running 950a, so I'd have no compatibility or version skew problems, right?

Wrong. I started finding elements of OEM SR2. For example, the video display applet had extra features and included a taskbar tray applet that looked like PowerToys' QuickRes. The Dial-Up Networking and ScanDisk applets looked and acted differently. And DriveSpace3 was different from the one that's part of Plus Pack.

What version of Windows was this? Clearly it wasn't Windows 950a, despite what My Computer/Properties said. The manuals were no help. I couldn't check the CD or floppy disk set, because the laptop used one of those tedious 30-disk "build your own install floppy set" deals to generate the original install disks, and I hadn't had the time to generate the floppies yet. Microsoft's Web site didn't help. Tech Support wasn't sure: They agreed it sounded like OEM SR2, but said they weren't yet shipping OEM SR2 on laptops, so it must be an altered version of the original Win95. Gee, thanks, guys.

Was this some unpublicized minor revision or hybrid version of Windows? An OEM hack or vendor-specific upgrade? My motive wasn't just curiosity: I wanted to know how it would interact-or fail to interact-with the standard version of Win95 I ran elsewhere. The last thing I needed was for some weird version incompatibility to hose one or both of my systems as I moved files around.

Eventually, I figured it out. But along the way I found a few interesting things, not the least of which is that Win95 may lie to you. You can't trust My Computer/Properties to show you the correct version of Windows.

It turns out that System/System Properties does no version sniffing. It simply reports the SubVersionNumber in the Registry's HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion key. WinMag staffer Dave Hafke played around with this and found he could alter this key at will with no apparent ill effect.

Any piece of software, any patch or any upgrade can similarly alter this setting. If you or your system vendor patches Win95 B with a system update (available at http://www.microsoft.com) intended for Win95a, the patches can rewrite the Registry to show "Win95a" in your System Properties dialog. Third-party software can do the same thing-and some software is notorious for applying "upgrades" even if they're unnecessary or downright wrong. Bottom line: It's way too easy to run a mongrel mix of OS components on a system that misidentifies itself.

So how can you tell what you're really running? The WinMag staff is building a site that contains everything you need to identify which version of Windows and what patches you're running, no matter what or how your system reports itself. You'll find a preliminary version at http://www.winmag.com/windows/files, and the site will soon include information on every current version and variation of Windows.

Meanwhile, here are a few quick ways to scope out what you're running, for the two main versions of Win95. If you try all the following and they all agree, you're probably okay. If you get different results from different tests, you probably have pieces of different versions of Windows running on your system, and version skew problems may loom.

-- Right-click on any hard drive in Explorer and select Properties. If the dialog reports FAT32, you're running OEM SR2/950 B. If it reports FAT16, you're probably running OEM SR2, but in the FAT16 implementation. If the dialog doesn't mention anything about FAT versions, you're likely running Win95 or Win95a.

-- Open a DOS box and type VER. The original Win95 (both the standard and the "a" version) reports itself as version 4.00.950. The OEM SR2 version reports itself as 4.00.1111.

-- Open Display/Properties/Settings. The OEM SR2 version offers an Advanced Properties button lacking in the original Win95 (plain and "a") versions.

-- Finally, if you have access to your system files on CD-ROM, look at WIN95_02.CAB. In the original, unmodified retail version of Win95, CAB2 has a date of 7/11/95 and a size of 1276KB. In the original OEM version, CAB2 has the same date, but a size of 1272KB. And in the OEM SR2 version, CAB2 has a date of 8/24/96 and a size of 454KB. This also isn't conclusive, because what's on the setup disks may not be what's on your system, and OEM versions may differ somewhat from vendor to vendor.

Yes, it's a mess. That's why it took me a while to figure out Tech Support was wrong (surprise!), and my laptop was indeed running OEM SR2. Some patch or add-on had rewritten the Registry key where the OS information is stored. I reformatted the drive, reinstalled everything from the newly minted "original" floppies, and the problems went away.

I have no idea what patch had been applied, or why.

You'll find a longer version of this column with additional quick and easy ways to version-check your system at the site I mentioned, along with other information to help you avoid all this pointless confusion. We'll guide you through all the variations until you're certain of what you really have on your system. Combined with services such as Mike Elgan's Win95 Update Center (http://www.winmag.com/win95/update95.htm), which links you to the latest Windows patches and bug fixes, you'll have the info you need to ensure your system is as it should be, and to make sensible, safe upgrades when needed.

Fred Langa is vice president and editorial director of CMP's Personal Computing Group. Contact Fred via his home page at http://www.winmag.com/flanga/hotspots.htm or at the e-mail addresses here.

Windows Magazine, July 1997, page 37.

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