What Works With Windows 95?

`Some assembly required." Those words, long the bane of parents during the holidays, will be appearing on a lot of the boxes of computer equipment and software that will be opened this season.

Windows 95, which comes loaded on nearly all new Intel-based computers, is supposed to make Windows installations as easy as setting up a Macintosh. Unfortunately, while Microsoft Corp. and the computer makers have done their jobs, the developers of everything from sound cards to entertainment software have been slow in getting with the program. As a result, consumers who aren't extra-careful in their hardware and software choices will face a lot of unnecessary headaches.

PLUG-AND-PLAY. This was brought home to me as I worked with a Compaq Computer Corp. Presario 9564, a 133-megahertz Pentium machine loaded with multimedia features and fully up to the Win95 specs for plug-and-play, which assures that properly designed add-ons are easy to set up. The machine was lots of fun until I tried to connect it to our office network. I put one network interface card in, and it not only didn't work but also killed the sound system. A second card let me have the network or sound but not both. Finally, I popped in a plug-and-play network card and, after a few minutes of setup, I was in business.

The same thing could have happened with any add-on hardware not designed for plug-and-play. I experienced a similar problem installing a sound card and CD-ROM drive on another computer. But feature-laden machines such as the Presario pose an additional challenge because so many of the "resources" that add-ons need are already in use. Making that first network card work was more than either experienced humans--including Compaq tech support--or Win95's special help file could handle.

Unfortunately, plug-and-play hardware remains scarce, and the feature is generally only found on the newest and most expensive equipment. For example, while you can buy a Creative Labs SoundBlaster Pro sound card for as little as $73, the cheapest plug-and-play version is the $155 SoundBlaster 32 PnP. Still, unless you enjoy the high-tech equivalent of skinned knuckles, the extra money is well-spent. While a "Designed for Windows 95" logo is your best assurance of compatibility, I've found that components claiming plug-and-play compatibility generally do fine.

LOGO CHECK. The software situation is murkier. Most products I've seen lately claim that it is "Windows 95 compatible" or "Windows 95 ready." This is meaningless, since nearly any program that ran with Windows 3.1 or DOS will run with Win95. But older programs won't let you take advantage of Win95's advanced features, such as long file names or CD-ROMs that start up when popped in a drive. In addition, true Windows 95 programs are generally a good deal less crash-prone than the older versions.

My advice? Look for the boxes carrying Microsoft's "Designed for Windows 95" logo. Although home users don't need all the features required for the logo, the words "designed for" are the only way to identify a true Win95 product. And that's worth looking for. Because true Win95 software won't run on the still dominant Windows 3.1, many developers are including versions for both varieties of Windows (and sometimes a Mac version, too) on a single CD-ROM. Windows 3.1 users should check out any software with the Win 95 logo to make sure it will run on their systems.

By next fall, plug-and-play hardware and real Win95 software should become pervasive, as old programs are rewritten and old hardware inventories are used up. If you can't find compatible products now--wait. You'll be glad you did.

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