V Communications – System Commander 2000 review

multi-OS boot-loader
Photo of V Communications – System Commander 2000
£49

With Linux becoming more and more popular, a couple of ancillary industries have sprung-up around it. One of these aims to make the operation of Linux easier and System Commander 2000 falls firmly into this camp, although previous versions have been around for quite a while (see here, for example). Essentially it’s a boot-loader that sits on the master boot record of your hard disk and comes up shortly after your PC’s POST (power-on self-test) operations. Unlike other boot-loaders, which can only have four bootable OSes (you can only have four primary partitions on a hard disk), System Commander allows a maximum of 99 instances of operating systems.

But it doesn’t stop there. System Commander supports virtually every x86 OS under the sun, including many that most of us have never heard of (mainly obscure versions of Unix ported to the x86 platform). But most importantly, System Commander supports OS/2, NeXT Step, BeOS and, of course, Windows 2000.

However, the program is more than a simple boot-loader. The main System Commander program, which can be launched from the boot-loader, is able to automatically prepare a hard disk for the installation of a new operating system, undertaking the necessary partitioning and formatting work. It’s all done through a Wizard-based interface which makes it surprisingly simple. Select Linux, for example, and the program suggests sizes for the main Ext2 partition along with setting up the dedicated swap partition (it’s a little conservative here, as it happens, so be prepared to bump the sizes up). When the partitioning work has been done, the program reboots and even prompts you to insert the necessary boot floppy.

As you might expect with this sort of arcane operation, it doesn’t always run smoothly. We found that partitioning takes an astonishingly long time. The program doesn’t create the new partitions after the main partition. Instead it shrinks the main partition, copies it sideways, and then installs the new partition at the front of the disk. This takes around two or three hours on an average PC. There might be some terribly technical reason for doing this but we can’t think of it.

Once the partitioning has finished – and you can not only make a cup of tea while it does but visit Tommy Singh and get the leaves yourself – you then have the problem of System Commander only working with a boot floppy. Many OSes, like Windows 98 and many Linux installations, expect you to boot from CDROM using a special feature in the BIOS. System Commander isn’t compatible with this. You can make a boot floppy quite easily but this is where System Commander starts to increase the amount of work you have to do rather than, as it claims, reducing it.

In addition to System Commander’s automation, it’s also possible to have manual control over partition resizing and creation. This is presented as part of the main System Commander OS preparation tool, and comes with a graphical representation of the disk not dissimilar to that used in PartitionMagic. The manual is also very good indeed, covering every aspect of hard disk partitioning and OS installation, and you also get versions of StarOffice for not only Windows and Linux but also for OS/2 and Solaris. You might want to run StarOffice on the free version of TurboLinux that comes supplied; it’s a highly configurable Linux installation.

Company: V Communications

Contact: 020 7221 4600


Verdict
Once we've set our gripes aside, the fact remains that System Commander 2000 is a great piece of software and is fairly unique in its functionality. For this reason alone it's well worth the asking price if you're planning to run additional operating systems while keeping your current setup intact.