What's really behind the Windows 95 curtain?

Microsoft's Windows 95 operating system made its debut last week
amid the most hoopla since Dorothy landed in Oz. Is it worth it?


Yup. If you've got the hardware to handle it properly.


I didn't like Win95 at all the first time I saw it, or the second. But after months of
use, I find it hard to switch back to Windows 3.11. Whether you like Microsoft or not,
within a year this will be the OS of choice for any Intel client machine.


Win95 is a complete 32-bit operating system. There's no MS-DOS underneath, although you
can run MS-DOS-like commands. Win95 takes advantage of fast processors, wide data bus
widths and 16M-plus RAM. As Windows 3.11's successor, it's meant for the average user's
client system not for a power user's Windows NT workstation or the enterprise's NT Server.


If you haven't seen the Win95 interface yet--maybe you were still in Kansas with Auntie
Em--it looks like Apple Macintosh crossed with Motif.


As with the Mac, you get a lot of "Howdy, new UserBuddy" stuff that goes away
before it gets too irritating. Unlike the Mac, this OS gives the client a lot of power in
an organized, Motif-like way.


During installation, you can opt to keep the old Windows 3.x File Manager style we're
all used to, or switch to the new Motif-Mac cross that's much, much better. Win95 has
built-in communications services, a file synchronization system called Briefcase for folks
who work at two computers, and a politically correct Recycle Bin. You'll find a detailed
rundown of features in this special section.


In GCN's laboratory tests, Win95 ran standard 16-bit Windows applications an average of
25 percent faster than Win3.11, although it slowed a bit on tasks involving disk retrieval
and write actions. General Protection Faults have been replaced by a much snootier
application termination statement, but it happens less often than with 3.x. When it does,
Win95's protected mode usually makes it much easier to recover without rebooting.


When experienced users truly trash Windows 3.11, they restart with a "clean
boot" diskette containing the barest possible configuration. Win95 does this on its
own with an analog called Safe Mode.


The OS bundles many of the utilities you used to make or buy separately. There are
network tools, modem and fax communications, disk utilities, rudimentary document
management--you can keep a list of your 15 most recently opened documents right on the
desktop--and multimedia apps. You can schedule regular runs of most utilities quite
easily.


Here's the bad news: Even more than some workstation graphics software, Win95 is a
genuine resource hog. This OS does best on Pentium machines with at least 16M RAM,
500M-plus hard drives and fast, memory-rich video. At a minimum, you want a high-end 486.


Forget the "runs in 8M of RAM on a 386" nonsense. Saying it can run in 4M of
RAM is like saying you can circumnavigate the Pentagon on your knees. Sure, if you have
patience and high tolerance for pain, but why would you?


Win95 needs at least 14M, and if it can't find it in RAM, it creates a swap file on
your hard drive to make up the difference. Win95 on a 16M, 33-MHz 486 is very usable; on
the same machine with 8M RAM, the continual disk spinning slows it to a little worse than
half-speed.


Even as a fledgling, Win95 seems more crashproof than Win3.x, although it might not
look that way at first, because it has an entirely different set of foibles. I've had
problems maintaining Object Linking and Embedding 2.0 links for document printing;
occasional difficulties with old device drivers, particularly video; and real trouble with
ancient SCSI cards and odd color printers.


You can buy the OS kit on CD-ROM or diskette; I recommend CD. If you install Win95 over
Windows 3.x, and most people will, I recommend you pick up a good uninstaller program
first and scrub all unnecessary files, drivers and garbage from your system. Most problems
we've encountered in GCN's lab tests can be traced to old, possibly corrupted Win 3.x
baggage. The cleaner your configuration in advance, the better.


You'll need almost 40M on the drive for a minimum installation, the "laptop"
edition that few people would want even on a notebook these days. A bells-and-whistles
setup takes a little more than 70M. Add another 6M or so to save your old Windows 3.x
stuff in case you want it back. And save room for Win95 apps, which are even bigger than
their 3.x cousins.


CD installation takes about 45 minutes on average, and it's during installation that
you see the first of many neat new technologies: Plug and Play. The setup program looks
for installed hardware and automatically loads the correct drivers. It rarely made a
mistake as long as I remembered to turn devices on before installation and they appeared
in the supported list.


Plug and Play does all kinds of cool stuff. It picked up a new Tektronix color Phaser
540 the moment I plugged it in, asked if it should be installed and politely requested the
Tektronix disks.


On the desktop, the Win3.1 task list has been replaced by the Task bar, a long panel
across the bottom of the screen. Clicking on the bar's Start button brings up a list of
available operations, from application launches to system customization to help files. All
active applications, from folders to tasks to applications, place a button in the Task
bar; buttons shrink or expand to fill the available space. Click the button to activate
the task.


The File Manager has been replaced by the Explorer and two icons on the side of the
desktop: My Computer and the terminally cute Network Neighborhood. My Computer, naturally,
contains all local drives and devices on your system. Network Neighborhood handles LAN-
and WAN-connected components. Inside, you'll notice that directories have been replaced by
friendlier folders, but there's little real difference.


In the old File Manager, you saw everything available to you at once. In the new
Explorer, you wind up doing a lot of clicking and double-clicking to open icons and
folders. Fortunately, Win95 lets you group your most-used programs and data on the desktop
or in the Start menu to save time.


For people who like to keep apps and data files together, Win95's Shortcut
icons--analogous to the alias icons of the Mac world--give you several shortcuts, all
launching the same application, within different folders.


Another Mac (and OS/2) analog: You can have long filenames instead of the 8.3 filenames
of the MS-DOS world. During my first few days in Win95, I created many files with names
like, "That story I promised to send yesterday but will finish up tomorrow." I
spent the next few days changing them all back. Long filenames are great for the all-Win95
future, but they don't work well in a mixed environment.


If you use old Win 3.x applications or, heaven forbid, run an MS-DOS program, all your
lovely long filenames are truncated back temporarily to the old 8.3 style. You might be
unable to reach directories with long filenames from within DOS apps.


Win95 has an uncanny ability to hide useful features. It's far richer than it appears
at first glance, but you have to dig for its best tricks. Clicking on a heading button in
file list panels, for example, sorts the entire folder by that category. Double-clicking
sorts in reverse order.


The best way to discover these hidden features is to use Win95 help as often as
possible. Forget the frequently useless Windows 3.x help--in Win95, it becomes the way you
do unfamiliar tasks.


To attach to another network, for example, click Help, type "Adding new
network" in the pop-up blank, and you'll get an instruction set with buttons that
take you to the right spots.


My favorite feature in this first edition is customizability. Clicking the righthand
mouse button just about anywhere gets you into the properties of the object beneath,
whether it's the desktop, an app or a Win95 icon. You can change most system attributes
without entering any setup utilities.


Clicking on the Network Neighborhood icon, for instance, lets you map new network
drives and even learn who you are in the network scheme of things.


System configurations now reside in the Registry, a great improvement over the old
WIN.INI and SYSTEM.INI configuration files. The Registry is organized by user and
application class. A utility called REGEDIT.EXE, successor to the old SYSEDIT.EXE, lets
you add, edit or delete just about anything under Win95. It's a powerful, if dangerous,
way to control network operations. Fortunately it's well-camouflaged.


Lots of stuff is overly cute, such as papers that fly through the air to the Recycle
Bin when you delete. Much of it wastes resources. You'll learn to empty the bin regularly,
because those files aren't deleted, just held inside the bin.


But for a first-time OS, I have to congratulate Microsoft on a job done well enough
that the question most Win3.x users should ask isn't "Should I migrate?" but
rather "When should I migrate?"


If your Win3.x users are experienced and your applications do an adequate job on PCs
that aren't exactly swimming in resources, stay where you are. Put Win95 on a diet of slow
processors and 8M RAM, and your users will make lots of keypounding, mouse-clicking
mistakes.


I suspect we'll see many complaints about Win95 "stability problems" in
coming months that really were caused by inadequate systems.


Microsoft already has promised an update in early 1996 that will be more stable than
this version and probably better in terms of performance. So if you're not pinched for
fancy new applications, wait till the next rev. By the time you're ready for an upgrade,
you'll probably get a better deal.


If, on the other hand, you're not finding the expected speed gains from adding memory
or a faster processor to your systems, Win95 will pay interest on every penny you've
spent. This is the way to go if you're hankering to make a true 32-bit workstation out of
that fancy new Pentium PC.


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