Special Report: ANNUAL GUIDE TO COMPUTERS: Software
GET WITH THE PROGRAMS
You've brought home a blazingly fast Pentium computer. It has Microsoft Corp.'s new Windows 95 operating system and meets all the specs that your techie friends insisted you had to get. What's more, the computer contains gobs of software that the manufacturer bundled in for free.
But you're not finished shopping yet. When you start playing with some of those "free" programs that came with your machine, you'll discover that many--including Intuit Inc.'s popular Quicken personal-finance program that comes with many PCs--are not the complete versions. You'll have to fork over some bucks for the full-fledged package. The good news: The software selection has never been better. To help with your shopping, BUSINESS WEEK took a look at some of the hottest new software packages hitting store shelves, as well as some classics that a PC owner shouldn't be without.
WIN-WIN? First, a few words on Windows 95. In most cases, any PC built since September will automatically come with the new Microsoft program. But for owners of older machines, is Windows 95 worth all the hoopla? For starters, Windows 95 will give you a less cluttered screen and organize the contents of your PC into practical groupings, designated by such icons as My Computer and Network Neighborhood. AutoPlay is a handy feature that lets you run a CD-ROM by simply loading the disk and clicking on a few icons--a welcome improvement if you've struggled with installing CD-ROM programs. With Plug & Play, a new hardware specification, Windows 95 also simplifies installing new hardware. Overall, Windows is faster and less prone to crashes than before, and it's a better platform for games.
What can you do with Win95? The expected flood of new programs is now just a trickle. Microsoft, naturally, is leading the parade. In addition to its mainstay Office "suite" of business programs, the software giant has come up with a raft of new consumer titles that work only with Win95, including 3-D Movie Maker, which lets kids create their own animated movies, and new versions of its Cinemania movie guide and Money personal-finance program.
TUNING UP. The first Win95 packages from other software makers include some valuable "utility" programs. These packages handle basic housekeeping for your PC--managing disk space, scanning for viruses, and generally keeping your system humming. Norton Utilities for Windows 95, a new version of Symantec Corp.'s perennial favorite (about $129), does a pre-installation tune-up, preparing your disk and files for Win95. Norton's Disk Doctor diagnoses and repairs disk problems, and it can help you recover files that disappear into the ether when--inevitably--your computer goes kerflooey.
Norton AntiVirus, a $79.99 package, can detect and eliminate viruses that elude pre-Win95 virus protection programs. Microsoft Plus!, a $39.99 assortment of programs for use with Windows 95, comes with helpful disk-compression software (as well as an addictive electronic pinball game).
Now you're ready to roll. If your PC didn't come with a basic all-in-one package, you will want to get one. Similar to the office suites many people use at work, these combos include such basics as word-processing programs and database managers geared for home use. Two good ones for Win95 are Microsoft Works ($99) and Claris Works ($99), from the Apple Computer Inc. software subsidiary. Novell Inc., meanwhile, has come out with its first Win95 program: PerfectWorks for Kids, a $49.95 package bundling basic writing, painting, and drawing programs for kids ages 4 through 12.
A good general-purpose electronic encyclopedia is a must for families. The leading programs are from Compton's NewMedia, Grolier Electronic Publishing, and Microsoft--which will run you up to $100 apiece. This year, they include online links that let you keep current on fast-breaking situations, such as the war in Bosnia. Microsoft BookShelf and Compton's Reference Collection are handy reference disks with thesaurus, dictionary, quotations and other resources. For kids, there's Knowledge Adventure's My First Encyclopedia and The Random House Kid's Encyclopedia, for ages 3 to 6 and 7 to 12, respectively. Both cost about $45.
If you have been to the software aisles of your computer store, you know that there are CD-ROM programs on hundreds of topics. A recent trend has been a spate of eye-pleasing "coffee table" disks covering the fine arts. One standout is A Passion for Art, from Corbis Publishing, a software company owned by Microsoft's Bill Gates. The $49.95 program covers the splendid Postimpressionist paintings of the Barnes Foundation. Le Louvre, a new title published by BMG Interactive, gives you a tour of the Paris museum, with detailed discussions of more than 300 works, from the Mona Lisa to Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa. If you are a photography or travel buff, check out Against All Odds' Passage to Vietnam. The beautifully crafted program ($39.95) brings you along with some of the world's top photographers on assignment in Vietnam.
CHICKEN JULIA. Whether you want to get up to speed in a new hobby, refurbish your home, or brush up on an old pastime, there's bound to be a CD-ROM to help. Microsoft's $39.95 Julia Child CD-ROM is drawing raves. Once you master chicken a la Julia, you may be inspired to redesign your cooking space. 3-D Kitchen, the latest "how-to" title from Books That Work, lets you whip up your dream kitchen down to the tiniest detail. It's a bit difficult to master, and even on a Pentium PC, you wind up waiting for 3-D Kitchen to render a photo-realistic sketch of your plan. But the program's tips can help you avoid costly mistakes. For other do-it-yourself jobs, try Weekend Home Projects, a $45 CD from IVI Publishing.
There is even software that lets you turn your PC into an electronic scrapbook. Echo Lake, from Delrina, is a $59.95 multimedia family album that lets you keep pictures, videos, and sound clips of the entire clan, along with captions or stories you type in. For genealogy fans, Banner Blue Software's $60 Family Tree Maker helps you to track and record your family's history.
And of course, there are hundreds of programs for kids. Dr. Seuss's ABC, $40 from Living Books, brings the beloved Dr. Seuss characters to life in a multimedia CD-ROM, for ages 3 to 7. For the 12-and-up set, try Sierra On-Line Inc.'s The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain, which challenges youngsters with entertaining puzzles and brain teasers. Microsoft's $39.95 3-D Movie Maker lets budding filmmakers (ages 8 and up) mix and match characters, settings, sound effects, and actions to create their own movies, which can be saved and played back.
What about games for overworked adults? If the last game you played was Tetris, you're in for a surprise. The latest games use live actors, film footage, and incredibly complex plots. The most ambitious works boast multimillion-dollar budgets and have so many twists and turns that they can take up to 30 hours to conclude. Phantasmagoria is a haunted house thriller with enticing graphics and filmed actors. The plot revolves around a couple who move into a Gothic-style mansion where horror lurks in every eerie room. Warning: This is not for the squeamish or the prudish. The $70 game, made by Sierra On-Line, has raised alarms because of its violent content.
Activision Inc., the maker of the popular MechWarrior, also has some promising new titles. Elk Moon Murder ($29.95), a mystery set in Santa Fe, N.M., will be out in November. Activision's SpyCraft, a thriller developed with the help of former Central Intelligence Agency Director William E. Colby and his KGB counterpart, Oleg D. Kalugin, is due in February. As CIA operative Jack Ryan, you must protect the President from the Russian mafia. Along the way, you will pick up clues, maps, and other data at the actual Internet sites of the CIA and National Security Agency. You can even E-mail real-life former CIA and KGB spooks for advice. The title has taken $3 million and two years to develop.
Another game to look out for: Quake from id Software, the makers of Doom. id promises Quake will have truly amazing 3-D graphics, allowing players to look under objects and move around in ways they can't in today's games. There are also new versions of such standbys as Maxis' Sim City series and Microsoft's Flight Simulator.
JUST BROWSING. Of course, these days you're not hip unless you are surfing the Net. For newbies, the easiest way to get there is through an online service provider, such as America Online Inc., Prodigy Services, or CompuServe Inc. If you buy a PC this fall, there will be sign-up software for two or three online services, including the new Microsoft Network, which comes with Win95. Once you select a service, expect to pay about $10 a month for a specified number of hours, usually 5, and $3 per hour after that.
All the commercial online services provide gateways to the Internet, including browser programs that you can download and use to explore the World Wide Web. If you're ready for something more advanced, try Netscape Communications Corp.'s Navigator browser. The latest version, now in prerelease testing, is available on Netscape's Web site for free (www.netscape.com). Navigator 2.0 has the latest in cyber-software, including Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java programming language that lets you make and use "active" Web pages--with animation programs, for example. If you don't want to download Navigator, you can buy it in a computer store. The $39.99 price includes online help and 90 days of technical support.
MONEY MATTERS. Ready to create your own Web page? There's a growing number of programs to help you. The Web is based on a format called HTML, so any information you want to put on the Web must conform to the HTML conventions. Many word-processing programs, including Microsoft Word 6.0 and Novell Inc.'s WordPerfect 6.1, come with programs that let you convert documents to HTML. Quarterdeck's $150 Web Author lets you easily create Web documents, complete with links to other pages, using Microsoft Word.
To keep track of the money you're spending on all these goodies, you might want to try one of the personal-finance programs. Intuit's Quicken remains the top dog in this category. But Microsoft, having given up on buying Intuit Inc., has finished a massive rewrite of its Money program, due in stores on Nov. 1. Both Quicken and Money contain online links that let you call up account information from selected banks. And both companies are developing online areas to supply financial advice. Microsoft's is on the Microsoft Network. Intuit's forum is on the Internet.
With all the new titles, you will have no trouble finding software to run on your PC. But a bigger problem may be finding the time--and disk space--to use it all.Amy Cortese with Edward C. Baig