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Windows networking's big flaw, and how to fix it
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
Simple gray rule

Windows networking's big flaw, and how to fix it

Technofile for January 3, 1999

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

As fine as it is, the networking built into Windows 95 and Windows 98 has a serious flaw. I'll tell you what it is and how to fix it.

Networking, as many of you already know, is the catchall term for connecting computers by cables, wires or other means. PCs and Macs that can connect to the Internet are actually connecting to a network, and that means there are millions of personal computers in this country that are networked every day.

But the kind of networking I'm talking about this time is the simple kind—connecting one PC to another by a network cable. Windows 95 and Windows 98 provide a way for two or more PCs to connect to each other through what is generically called peer-to-peer networking. A "peer" is an equal, as in the phrase "peer group," so peer-to-peer networking is the connection of computers that are equal in abilities. (They can be unequal in speed or power, but are considered equal in other ways.)

The main thing this means is that peer-to-peer networking doesn't use a separate computer called a server. In peer-to-peer networking, files and other items are "served" to other computers just by the process of sharing data. If your computer is connected to mine, I can share my documents with you by right clicking on the documents folder and turning on the "Sharing" option. Your computer can then open up the stuff that's in the documents folder on my computer.

Peer-to-peer networking is ideal for a home that has two or three computers or for an office that has a dozen or less. (With more PCs than that, you probably need to use a server-based method, although peer-to-peer networking can work OK with a lot of PCs if sharing is held to a minimum.) One huge advantage, even if you don't ever think you'll share many files among the computers in your home or office, is the way printers can be shared. Everyone can use one printer that's plugged into the back of a single PC.

But the dumbest part of the way Windows handles peer-to-peer networking can be seen first-hand every time you open a window to copy or move anything from one PC to another. Windows Explorer, which runs when you double click a drive or folder icon or when you run it from the Start Menu, is inexplicably wimpy when moving data around a network. It's so slow that it's almost useless if you have to copy or move a lot of large files.

If this seems like a minor problem, think again. One of the biggest advantages of peer-to-peer networking is the ease with which entire folders full of files can be copied from one PC to another to make backups. (If you have such a network, you'd be crazy not to back up files from one computer to another across the network; it's the ideal way to handle an otherwise tiresome chore.)

But copying hundreds of megabytes of files from one PC to another across a Windows peer-to-peer network using the standard file-copying routines in Windows can take hours. It should take only a few minutes—and it can, if you forgo Windows Explorer and use another method.

Three alternatives are available. Old-timers may be tempted to use is File Manager, the file-and-folder-management utility that has been part of Windows for many years. It's a bad choice, however, because File Manager destroys modern file and folder names (called long filenames) when it copies or moves anything. Another possibility is DOS. From a DOS window, you can copy or move anything you want from one PC to another, and all operations will be fast. Modern file names are preserved, too. The disadvantage—and it's a very big one—is that you have to know how to use the copy, move or xcopy commands in DOS. In some ways they are intuitive, but in other ways they are arcane and inconsistent.

My suggestion is the third option. Use a program other than Explorer to copy and move files. You'll find many third-party file-and-folder managers on the Internet, and some of them are free. You'll also find commercial versions that are full of features, but most of use the same slow code that Explorer uses. So the best choice is a file manager written to be as fast as possible, one that doesn't use the buggy routines in Windows Explorer.

Luckily, the best in this category is also the cheapest—because it's free. It has one of the oddest names in the software world—Servant Salamander—but ignore the name (or just call it "Sal") and give it a try. In addition to its much faster speed on your network, Servant Salamander can also do every other task that Explorer does, and it does nearly all those things better.

Servant Salamander was developed by Petr Solin, a programmer in Czechoslovakia. You can download Sal from a U.S.-based mirror site, Salamander is free freeware, not "trialware" or "nagware."

In addition to its speed in copying and moving things across a network, Servant Salamander differs from Explorer in many ways:

    • Salamander's windows open to the size and shape you tell them to, while Explorer's windows often do not.
    • You can create a new folder by pressing F7 (whereas Explorer no single keystroke for that purpose).
    • Salamander lets you make "sticky" selections of files and folders in a window that can't accidentally become unselected (as can happen in Explorer).
    • You can rename many files at the same time.
    • Going from one folder to another, even on another drive, takes only a single operation.

There is much more. Even without its speed in network operations, Servant Salamander ranks very high on the list of utilities every serious Windows user should have. Add the network speed and you've got a program you won't be able to live without.

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