Cd Rom Upgrades: Plug And Pray

The other day, I popped a CD-ROM drive into the Macintosh in my office. The whole operation took about 10 minutes. And best of all, when I turned the power back on, I was ready to go--no configuration programs, no baffling questions about "IRQ numbers" or "I/O base addresses." After a quick test, I popped in one of Sumeria's Ocean Life disks, a CD that had given me problems on Windows PCs, and happily watched fish swim around the Great Barrier Reef.

As hundreds of thousands of computer owners who bought "multimedia upgrade kits" for Christmas have discovered, adding equipment to a Windows PC is almost always far more difficult than for a Mac. The physical installation in a PC isn't terribly difficult if you can handle a screwdriver. It requires plugging in a sound card, which doubles as an interface for the CD-ROM drive, slipping the drive into the computer, and hooking up some cables.

DELAYED CRASH. The configuration programs, on the other hand, are baffling. But unless your setup is complicated by the presence of a network or a scanner (a problem I'll address in a future column), accepting the answers the program suggests for its own incomprehensible questions usually works.

The real trouble often starts once the hardware is connected. Maybe the software crashes halfway through the setup process. Or it installs, but the program crashes later. Or the video clips don't work. Or the colors look weird. Even buying a computer with a CD-ROM drive and sound card installed--and according to Compaq Computer Corp., 75% of the machines sold to the home market are so equipped--will not ensure multimedia success.

What could? Hopes are high that the long-awaited new version of Windows due later this year will at last give the "plug-and-play" capability Mac users have come to love. But a look under the hood of your PC suggests that it will take more than Windows 95 to cure those multimedia blues. The problem usually lies with an obscure bit of software called a "display driver," the code that translates program instructions into the thousands of colored dots, or pixels, that appear on your monitor. Symptoms of a video driver on the fritz can range from colors that don't look right to malfunctioning printers.

Unlike the Macintosh world, where Apple Computer Inc. has defined the standards, Windows is a competitive free-for-all. The only Windows video standard really supported by Microsoft Corp. is a lowest common denominator called VGA, which offers a 640-by-480 pixel display with just 16 colors. Most multimedia programs need at least 256 colors.

DRIVER ED. For higher resolution or more colors, there's an informal standard called "super VGA" that depends on drivers supplied by video-adapter manufacturers. Many video woes can be solved by getting the latest driver from the company that made your video adapter or computer, often not an easy task. It took me two weeks to find, download, and successfully install the update needed to run a preliminary version of Microsoft's Bob (BW--Jan. 30) properly with an STB Systems Inc. Horizon video adapter.

In Windows 95, plug-and-play is supposed to identify your video adapter and automatically install the right driver from an extensive list supplied by Microsoft. That should help a lot. But here's the catch. The improvement will only last if both display-adapter manufacturers and multimedia programs live within the rules of Windows 95 better than they did with the admittedly inadequate existing Windows standards. Otherwise, it won't take long before the current multimedia chaos is recreated with a new operating system--and Macs will look better than ever.