Despite years of hype surrounding ever-simpler-to-use personal computers, many PCs still aren't as easy to master as they ought to be. Novice users too often are lost from the moment they take the machine out of the carton. Even experienced computer hands sometimes find the popular operating system Microsoft Windows a bit capricious and inefficient.
Computer buyers take heart: The PC industry claims to share your pain. A number of manufacturers are creating a more pleasant out-of-box experience by installing friendly front-end software on their newest machines. Such programs promise to help users better organize files, complement Windows, and otherwise figure out how to get up to speed more quickly.
Packard Bell maintains that its graphical front end, called Navigator 2.0, "makes using a computer as easy as channel-surfing with a remote." Indeed, in a test of three programs by BUSINESS WEEK and National Software Testing Laboratories (NSTL), both owned by McGraw-Hill, Navigator emerged as the front end of choice for novices.
AST Research says AST Works software "zaps PC-phobia." And Compaq Computer insists that TabWorks from XSoft, which is included in most of the company's computers, is an "easy-to-use alternative to the Windows Program Manager"--especially for seasoned users, our test found. XSoft, a division of Xerox (800 428-2995), sells TabWorks separately for $49 plus shipping to dissatisfied Windows users who own rival PCs. Of course, those folks might want to wait for the Windows95 program (also known as Chicago) that Microsoft is scheduled to bring out next year. If it lives up to promises, the revamped interface should solve some problems of the old version.
IBM has also been trying to figure out how to make PCs easier to operate. This September, it unveiled a front end on its Aptiva line of PCs that contains, among other things, an index with 200 alphabetically listed common computer tasks, such as Add New Software and Balance Checkbook. By clicking on one of these items, users can get simple instructions on how to handle those functions and automatically start up the appropriate software.
Also in September, Acer introduced Acer Computer Explorer software, which arranges applications into a menu of six categories. In the My Software grouping users can click on buttons that launch preinstalled programs such as Microsoft Works and Davidson's MathBlaster. The My Games section is where you'll find Solitaire and Microsoft Golf. In the Communications option, people can take off into cyberspace via Prodigy, America Online, or NetCruiser from NetCom, a link to the Internet. Once buyers consider technology and price, says Ronald Chwang, president of Acer America, "the interface is an intangible that adds to the experience."
VOCAL ICONS. Anyone trying to evaluate this intangible has a number of things to consider. Are the icons easy to recognize and understand? Do they start common computer tasks that otherwise take multiple steps? Does the front end provide a significant advantage over Windows? (For that matter, if you're already keen on Windows, can you easily bypass the alternative interface?) BUSINESS WEEK and NSTL considered these and other factors while evaluating TabWorks, Navigator, and AST Works.
As the oldest of the programs tested, TabWorks doesn't provide the multimedia splash of Navigator or AST Works. The intuitive TabWorks shell resembles a three-ring notebook and effers advantages over Windows, particularly for users whose screens are cluttered with icons. All the icons in the "book"--representing software programs or documents such as spreadsheet or word-processor files--are listed by section and page in a table of contents. Further, colorful tabs segregate pages into sections that make sense to you (say, games or business reports). By clicking on the tabs, you can instantly move to that part of the book. A minor quibble: As with a loose-leaf binder, the names on the tabs appear sideways.
One of the best TabWorks features is an alphabetical index of all the items in the book, which is handy if you can't remember in which section a program resides. Moreover, you can use a mouse to drag the icons for programs you call on most to a strip on the left edge of the display. A single click on that icon launches the program.
AST Works comes on AST Advantage computers and starts with a glitzy video greeting from an executive who thanks you for buying the computer. A four-minute tutorial provides the basics for learning the interface, and absolute beginners can even take a lesson on how to handle a computer mouse.
The heart of the program is a main menu featuring buttons for different functions that lead to other menus (communications, productivity, financial) when you click on them. But the gray graphics look bland, and you can't easily deduce what will happen if you click on the separate set of icons that appears on the left side of the screen. But AST includes a variety of small software tools that let you produce greeting cards and banners or keep track of your car's maintenance schedule.
An "Ask AST" option is the strongest feature. Neophytes can consult a list of frequently asked questions, such as "How much RAM do I have in my computer?" or "How many serial (COM) and parallel (LPT) ports do I have on my computer?" There's also a glossary that defines some of the jargon. A kilobyte, a user is told, is 1,024 bytes. That wouldn't be instructive for people who don't know what a byte is, but the term is color-coded, so a user can click on it to read a more complete explanation. You can also click on a speak icon to hear a synthesized voice read highlighted text. And some help topics are accompanied by videos.
Visually, Packard Bell's Navigator is the most engaging of all the front ends. When the computer is first turned on, users enter into the three-dimensional hallway of a virtual house, leading to rooms (or areas of the computer) best suited for different family members. The Software section includes Prodigy and programs such as Microsoft Money that have been preloaded on the computer. In the Learning Center, users can find out about upgrading the system. A troubleshooter section, complete with Q&As, videos, animations, and diagrams, helps novices understand printers, monitors, and safety tips without bogging them down in technospeak. The interface in the Workspace area, a replacement for Windows' program and file manager, is easy to use, though cluttered, and could have benefited from an alphabetical index such as the one included in TabWorks.
TREMORS, TOO. Children will probably be most impressed with Navigator. Its Kidspace is an on-screen playroom that appears as either a 3D space station or tree house. As kids enter Kidspace, they can hear the giggles of mischievous children. An animated jack-in-the-box greets them. A variety of programs start by clicking on objects in the room. (Depending on how often the room is cleaned, the objects may be sitting in their places on the bookshelf or lying on the floor.) Kids can store letters, homework, and paintings in a chest of drawers. Random events also occur: Along may come a spider, spaceship, or the shakes of an earthquake.
Parents may get annoyed by the sound of creaking doors, but the good news is they can turn off noises and conjure up passwords to keep kids out of certain areas. The only problem is, if your kids know more about PCs than you do, they may lock you out first.