Hard To Break Windows

Microsoft's new NT system will almost never crash, and security is top-notch

I'm peering at a screen that looks just like Windows 95--right down to the My Computer icon and the Recycle Bin. The only hint of something different comes when I click the Start button: The menu announces a Windows NT Workstation instead.

This new Microsoft operating system is worth looking at for a lot of people. Known for now as the Windows NT 4.0 Shell Upgrade Release, it's likely to be a big hit with corporate users--Microsoft's primary target--who have been resisting the move to Windows 95. What's more, this new NT, now in large-scale field testing and scheduled for release before midyear, should also prove attractive to small businesses and even some home users.

LIMITED VIEW. Why go with NT? For one thing, it's almost crashproof. Applications will still hang, but the problem can almost always be fixed by restarting the program without rebooting the computer. Security is also a big attraction. If I want to call into my office machine from home, Win95 requires that I leave it running, and anyone who comes along has full access to the computer. With NT, I simply fire up the remote access service and log out. I can dial in, but the machine is locked to everyone else.

Or consider a small business where Bob keeps the books but Alice occasionally shares his computer. Alice has no reason to look at the accounting information, but Bob must protect the data from accidental or malicious damage. Under Windows 95, there's no safe way to share a computer. Anyone who can get on a Win95 machine can call up any file. With NT, Alice could be given a restricted account that only allows her to see or change the files she needs. It takes a bit of effort to set this up properly, but once done, the security measures meet stringent standards that are required for sensitive government data.

Some home users might find this feature practical, too. For instance, parents can keep their electronic files separate from the kids' in such a way that even a very clever teenage hacker won't be able to defeat.

There are drawbacks, however, to choosing NT, especially for those who use a personal computer at home and small businesses. The biggest one is that a lot of DOS and Windows 3.1 software, particularly games, won't run with NT. Any program other than a game or utility that carries the "Designed for Windows 95" logo should work, however. NT lacks Win95's plug-and-play features and is only compatible with a limited range of sound cards, CD-ROM drives, and other accessories. NT's lack of plug-and-play and its poor handling of PC Card devices makes it far inferior to Win95 on laptops. And using NT effectively means doing a good bit of homework to understand how to use it, even though the newest version is an improvement over its user-hostile predecessor.

MUCHO MEMORY. Then there are cost issues. NT officially requires a 33-megahertz-or-faster 486 processor and 12 megabytes of RAM, but you're not going to be happy with less than a Pentium and 16 megabytes. Any new Win95 machine you're likely to purchase should do fine if it has enough memory, but upgrading some older computers could be a problem. Windows 95 generally comes free on new machines and costs $90 as an upgrade. While no price has yet been set for NT 4.0, it probably will be close to the $300 single-unit retail of the current version, 3.51.

That may sound expensive. And for some people it is. So cost-wise, the wide range of programs and accessories available for Win95, coupled with its ease of use at home and on the road, more than make up for the lack of security and occasional crashes. But for serious business work, the price tag on NT is a bargain.

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