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THE GOODS : Offering Up New Windows of Opportunity


Here's the scary thing about Windows 95: the manual.

Not that it's hard to understand. In comparison to past Microsoft manuals, which read like bad translations from the original Ukrainian, the instruction book that will come packed with Windows 95 when it goes on sale Thursday is basically understandable. And because this relatively slim booklet is packed with drawings and graphics, it's not so deadly as the old, techno-speak-laden tomes of Microsoft's past.

So, what gives one pause when leafing through the Windows 95 manual is not the content. It's the number of pages--exactly 95.

And if you think that's a coincidence (a Microsoft Corp. spokeswoman confirmed it's not), then you haven't been following all the reports about how driven the Microsoft army is, and how much importance it and much of the rest of the computer world are putting on this update of the clunky Windows 3.1 operating system.

After years of development, costly delays and test runs by an estimated million users (making Windows 95 one of the most widely distributed pieces of commercial software, even before it goes on sale), the folks at Gatesland are not about to let any part of the product--including the number of pages in the manual--go unscrutinized.

Just imagine the number of focus-group hours that must have gone into the development of Windows 95. Talk about scary.

But after all the hype, two basic questions for the Windows and home computer user remain:

1. If I am using Windows now, do I really need to upgrade? Answer: probably yes, but also probably not right away.

If you are the kind of person (and I admit to being in this category) who automatically updates your software as soon as the developer makes an upgrade available, then you'll probably get the urge to rush out next week and get Windows 95 if you can find it (you might have to join a waiting list if the demand is overwhelming). Otherwise, you'll feel left behind. It'll cost you about $90.

Also, if you or other members of your household like to play the latest Windows games and other CD-ROMs, you might as well upgrade now or in the near future. Many new CD-ROM releases will come customized for Windows 95 performance.

But if you are reasonably adept at using Windows 3.1, the current version of the operating system, for the usual home computer tasks such as word processing, check balancing and a bit of Internet surfing, and seldom buy new software or CD-ROMs, then there is no reason to upgrade just yet.

When the software you are using becomes hopelessly outdated, you'll likely have to upgrade to Windows 95 to take advantage of the latest products. Or, when it's time to upgrade to a whole new computer, it should come packaged with Windows 95 (unless, of course, you're a Macintosh user, in which case none of this Windows stuff applies).

2. If I do upgrade, just how much more pleasant will Windows 95 make my everyday computing tasks? Answer: It depends on your hardware and how you spend your computing time.

If you're using a computer slower than a 386 or with less than 4 MBs of RAM, Windows 95 won't run at all. Numerous published reports by testers have said that you really should be running at least a 486 with 8 MBs of RAM to take advantage of the upgrade features.

To try out the features of the program, we tested a "final" copy of Windows 95, technically identical to the ones that will be in stores Thursday. (Many previous reviews were based on "beta" copies--the software equivalent of a rough cut--while the program was still in development.) We tried it out on a 433/DX with 8 MBs of RAM and a much faster, newer Pentium 90 with 16 MBs.

First, the good news.

Installing the upgrade was relatively painless, even though it's a major overhaul of the Windows platform. The upgrade CD-ROM (also available on floppy disks) recognized all the various video, sound, CD-ROM and other types of hardware in the machines, slipping a bit only when trying to figure out what modem I was running in the Pentium. On the second try, it got that right, too.

The time it took to set up the 433/DX was 41 minutes, and slightly less for the Pentium.

Both machines seemed to run a bit faster under Windows 95 when doing everyday tasks, although the boot-up time for both was about the same or maybe even a touch slower.

The new interface--what you see on the screen when the program loads--is far cleaner and more handsome than that of Windows 3.1. And it's easy to customize your background, colors and screen savers.

It's far easier to do multi-tasking--running two or more programs at once--with Windows 95, although don't expect to run DOS applications very successfully while still in Windows. There just isn't enough memory on the configurations we used for that. But it was easy enough to quit Windows and go directly to DOS, where those programs (most of the popular games are still in DOS) ran just fine.

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