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Windows 95: At Least It Runs

By Jeff Schult


jeff

Picture millions of dazed home computer grunts crouching in trenches, huddling together for support as Microsoft's Windows 95 media barrage changes the scenery around them forever. Face it, some of these people are going to stick their fool heads up and get them blown off. Some of them will relish the challenge. Most of them will simply survive.

Is Windows 95, due out in computer stores everywhere Aug. 24, worth all the attention lavished on it? By contemporary standards, probably; it will certainly outsell, say, Michael Jackson's "HIStory" and will have a longer, more productive shelf life. Can a home PC user afford to ignore the hype? Absolutely _ for now . For all the ballyhoo, Windows 95 *is* still just an operating system _ the software that lets a computer run and manage all the other programs a user crams onto his or her hard drive _ and everybody with an IBM PC-compatible computer already has an operating system, almost all of them courtesy of Microsoft and its pop-icon billionaire chairman, Bill Gates.

Eventually, however, every PC user who doesn't already have a machine on which "95" came installed is going to be standing in a software store, hefting an operating-system-sized box, cursing Microsoft's software wizards and their dark master.

First of all, if you are one of the millions of people who have not yet purchased a "modern" home computer (i.e., a multimedia, modemed, industrial strength, Andre Agassi rock'n'roll machine made in the last year or two) you have nothing at all to think about here. When you do buy one, unless you choose an Apple brand or clone, Windows 95 will simply be the only operating system you'll need to know. You WILL have computer problems _ everyone does _ but you'll have nothing to compare them to. Windows 95 will sometimes make you feel dumber than dirt and will, sometimes, make you want to throw a brick through your monitor. But the consensus of the experts, at this point, is "At Least it Runs." "The gold version of the operating system is far from perfect, but it provides some benefits that could potentially save ... considerable time and money," says PC Week Labs. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but one I can concur with after having thrown the latest test version on my 486DX2/66 last week. It runs.

The aforementioned Apple Macintosh users also can be excused from caring about Windows 95, but that won't keep them from chortling. Mac users, used to being a scorned minority in cyberspace, love to point out _ correctly _ that it has taken Microsoft ten years to finally make an IBM-compatible PC emulate a Macintosh. But the only thing Mac users need to know about Windows 95 is that the software THEY use to make their Macs run Windows 3.11 also apparently will work fine on Windows 95.

Indeed, the first thing the folks at MacWeek Opinion, a newsweekly for Macintosh system managers , did when they got ahold of "95" was hand it off to writer Don Crabb and tell him to make like a merry prankster and take the "Windows 95 Acid Test." Crabb reported, somewhat incredulously, that he was able to get "95" up and running on a variety of Macintosh computers using SoftWindows 2.0, a program designed to make a Mac emulate an IPM PC. The kicker is that SoftWindows was designed to emulate Windows 3.11, not "95", and it worked on "95" anyway. MacWeek Opinion seemed to think their tests said more about the spiffy capabilities of SoftWindows than it did about Windows 95, but what would you expect?

Again, "at least it runs." Macintosh users have more important things to get cranked about than "95", like the time lag between the introduction of cool software for IBM PCs and when Mac versions get rolled out as an afterthought.

That leaves the rest of us. We have no intention of buying new PCs anytime soon because the ones we have are pretty new and we're pretty happy with them. We either have used Windows all our computing life or have grudgingly reached an accommodation with it. Whether we purchase Windows 95 in droves will not make or break the product; corporate buys and new PC sales alone will make Windows 95 incredibly profitable. So _ what's in it for us?

First of all, it costs ninety-nine bucks, a drop in the bucket compared to the $1,500 plus you probably have invested in your current system. If you have a machine with a 486 processor for brains and 8 megabytes of RAM, the amount of system memory most new computers are sold with today, $99 is all it will cost you to find out if you want to have the right to complain about Windows 95 like everyone else, it being the nature of computer users to nitpick even products they love.

If you have an upgradeable 386 or 486SX processor with less than 8 megs of RAM, you probably don't even want to think about running "95" unless you upgrade. Microsoft says it will run OK with 4 megs of memory; friends of mine who are familiar with "95" intimate that what Microsoft is doing when it says this is simply using a popular sophisticated marketing technique known as "lying."

"It might run," says one friend, whom I'll call "Bob" because that's his real name. "But it would crawl. I don't know why anyone would want to do that."

So, a 486DX2/66 chip _ which is what anyone owning a 386 or 486sx chip would probably want if they wanted to do a least-expensive-option upgrade to run "95" _ can be had for about $100-$125 these days; system memory for users with less than the aforementioned 8 megabytes of RAM is going for about $40-50 a meg. Sticking with Windows 3.11--or its more popular alter ego, Windows for Workgroups 3.11--is an attractive option for anyone who plans to get another couple of years out of a PC without spending money on an upgrade that could be saved toward the purchase of a new machine later.

Microsoft actually wants everyone to have 16 megs of RAM to run Windows 95, and the word is most new machines will be sold that way by sometime next year. But chances are if you are the type of power user/computer geek who already HAS 16 megs of RAM, you're running OS/2, IBM's 32-bit operating system that by most objective accounts is more reliable than the current incarnation of "95."

So why buy "95?" Because, as fashionable and as politically correct as it is to demonize Microsoft and Bill Gates, it *is* a big improvement on Windows 3.11. It runs noticeably faster; graphics and multimedia applications look and sound sharper; it uses your machine's memory far more efficiently than bad old Windows.

Those who are used to bad old Windows will have to get used to a different interface, however. No more program manager, no more program groups. It WILL take getting used to. Yes, it's point-and-click, drop-and-drag computing; and it will remind Mac users of Macintoshes more than Windows 3.1 ever did. But, inside a few minutes, most users will find running multiple applications simultaneously far easier than under Windows 3.1.

Jay Shah, vice president of Compu-Tech Inc., a computer and network systems outfit based in Rocky Hill, is an unabashed cheerleader for Windows 95. He would even run it on an older, slower machine with 4 megs of memory _ the product is that good, he insists.

"It's just so much better, so much easier to use than Windows," he commented recently, when asked why home users should upgrade. "I wish they'd had it out sooner. It's faster, you don't have to worry about memory management anymore and it has everything _ it can take you on-line with Microsoft Network, it has fax capabilities, it has e-mail. When Microsoft Office comes out for Windows 95, users will have everything they need for the home office."

A lot of users have all that now, he admits, "but not all in one integrated package."

Shah thinks the "95" multitasking capabilities could stand some improvement, but expects to see it as more powerful software designed to run on "95" comes on the market. He acknowledges that Microsoft "maybe could use a little bit more" in the public relations department.

"They are perceived as greedy, as wanting everything for themselves," he said. But he says Microsoft has done for consumers what no other company was in a position to do _ offer a 32-bit operating system at a price everyone can afford.

Not even Shah's employees are completely sold on "95", however; one technician is a diehard OS/2 fan, another wants her Windows 3.11 back and a third, the aforementioned "Bob", wouldn't put it on an older machine unless ordered to. But they will sell it.

"It will greatly benefit end users," Shah said. "I don't think it will help us sell more systems ... but as a user, I'm very glad to have it."

So it was time to check it out."95" installed on my machine relatively easily; though I didn't really appreciate the friendly, fatuous messages from Microsoft that popped up "during" the process, which Microsoft probably thinks inspire feelings of anticipation and wonder, instead of abject terror. "More fun!" "Friendly!" "Faster and more efficient!" These are not soothing messages to someone already worried that "95" may have been actually built to marketing instead of engineering specifications.

"95" emphatically did NOT like my Windows memory manager of choice, QEMM. Though the software did not come right out and say that my system would plot my personal demise if I left QEMM in place, it did warn that I might have installation problems and that "95" might not be able to do little things like identify what kind of hardware I was using. I heed warnings like that. So I jettisoned QEMM, at least for now, by running Memmaker, Microsoft's own memory manager, which removed references to QEMM in my startup files. Windows 95 is supposed to obviate the need for another memory manager, and I wasn't willing to mess with the wizards on that one, not yet. Including some extraneous tweaking and fooling around and checking on-line help periodically, it took about an hour to have Windows 95 successfully take over my computer's brain.

After it was set up, all my applications ran just as they had before with one exception. An off-line mail reader I use that needs the DOS editor went looking for it in the DOS directory; it wasn't there anymore. It was in Windows. A quick path change in the configuration and everything was, well, swell.

Am I going to leave it on my system? I don't know. Microsoft does give you a nifty uninstall option with "95," which will whisk you back to your old Windows 3.11 configuration in minutes. But as far as I can tell, the impact of the change on my computing life will be minimal _ because I don't NEED "95."

Yet.

But looking down the road, I see us standing in a software store, looking at an array of hot applications packages that NEED a 32-bit operating system. And we will covet them.

And Microsoft will get our money. Not because we want Windows 95, or even Windows 97, or Windows whatever-year-they-get around to updating it. But because of the software it will run, and the changing uses of computers in the home. Without getting into all the technical reasons everyone should be happy that the home computing world is finally making the jump to 32-bit operating systems (all you really need to know is that everything will be faster), consider this: the advent of Windows 95 means that programmers everywhere are going to stop writing software expressly for Windows 3.11. And, eventually, you won't be able to use the best applications, play the coolest games or access the wildest Internet sites unless you're running at 32 bits. For home users, that means Windows 95 or OS/2, and OS/2 failed to catch on in its, er, "window" of opportunity while Microsoft was getting its act together on "95."

Windows 95 is hardly a revolutionary product, in and of itself. Folks who use their computers primarily for word processing, spreadsheets, games and fooling around in the chat rooms of America On-line and Prodigy won't notice that they're missing anything by not having it, for a while.

What Microsoft is selling is not, in fact, what we are buying. The Microsoft Network on-line service? Does anyone believe it will be that different from AOL or Prodigy or CompuServe?

What we are in fact buying in Windows 95, whether Microsoft likes it or not, is a home computing future in which Microsoft is not necessarily going to be the bully on the block forever. Because the future is on-line, and Microsoft, by taking so long to bring out "95," missed out on dominating the marketplace for that. It will be going head-to-head with savvy, deep-pocketed competitors as everyone grabs for your on-line banking business, your shopping, your entertainment dollar, as you spend in entirely new ways.

So, when it comes to Windows 95 ... no, you don't need it at home, today, for anything you happen to be doing right now, no matter what Bill Gates says. But it's going to nag at you until you find out for yourself.


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