Test Drive: Yes, It Looks Like A Winner

David Cole, general manager of Microsoft Corp.'s Personal Systems Div., likes to show his visitors "horror" videos. A woman sits at a computer in Microsoft's usability lab, trying to start Write, a word-processing program in Windows. After nine agonizing minutes, a Microsoft employee finally steps in and tells her how.

Cole's goal for Windows 95 was to come up with an intuitive approach that even a novice could figure out. And his programmers have succeeded. Windows 95 isn't as elegant as Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh OS, and it lacks the crash-proof robustness of IBM's OS/2 and of its own big brother, Windows NT. Many Win95 features are old hat to Mac and OS/2 users.

SINGLE CLICK. Win95 is a quantum leap, however, for people who have struggled through chores such as locating a file or launching a program on Windows 3.1. Win95's "shortcuts," similar to Apple's "aliases," let you drag the icons of frequently used programs directly to the "desktop" screen so they can be launched with a click of the mouse. Win95 also has a button marked "start" in the lower left corner. Click it, and your programs are listed in a series of menus. Click once (a relief for those still trying to master double-clicking) on your choice, and it starts up.

There are tricks from OS/2, such as printing a file by simply dragging it onto a printer icon. Another is using the right mouse button to see a menu of actions relevant to what the cursor is on. And every Windows user will hail the "recycle bin"--the overdue answer to the Mac "trash can" and OS/2's "shredder."

Win95's "plug-and-play" feature could make adding a modem, printer, or network card as easy as it has always been on a Mac. If a device conforms to the standard drawn up by Microsoft, Intel Corp., and others, the system recognizes the device and helps install any support software.

Win95 finally makes multitasking--running more than one program at a time--a reality, not just a theory. To switch among programs, you simply click on one of a string of buttons on the "task bar" at the bottom of the screen. This is possible because Win95 uses memory more efficiently than creaky old MS-DOS.

You'll need plenty of memory, though. For example, one of the biggest potential benefits is Object Linking and Embedding (OLE), which allows you to exchange data among programs--automatically placing a Lotus 1-2-3 chart in a WordPerfect document, for instance. But to take full advantage of OLE, you'll want to go beyond the 4 megabytes minimum of main memory Microsoft suggests--to at least 8 and maybe 16.

POWER PLAY. Which brings us to the cost-benefit analysis. On the plus side, Win95's interface is a clear winner. (One reservation: The Explorer program, which replaces the awful File Manager, is still mysterious.) Another plus: Win95 runs nearly all programs written for MS-DOS and earlier versions of Windows. But the programs won't run better. You'll get a speed boost only with Win95 applications, starting this fall.

How quickly should you jump to Win95? If you buy a PC after August, chances are it will be the only operating system available. I would recommend replacing, rather than upgrading, anything less powerful than a 33-megahertz 486-based PC. To get your high-end 486 ready for Win95, count on spending a few hundred dollars to boost internal memory and maybe $400 for a new gigabyte hard disk. You'll need it for all those zippy programs coming next year.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.