After the fanfare

Mike Treadaway

Mike Treadaway assesses the long-awaited and much-hyped Windows 95.

After months of anticipation and numerous test releases, Microsoft's new operating system for PCs, Windows 95, was finally launched in August. After all the hype, what should potential users in schools and at home do?

A headlong rush to upgrade, regardless of the implications, is best left to hardened enthusiasts. Most PC users should consider: o What's new and do we need it?

o Is performance improved and will our computer(s) need to be upgraded?

o Are there particular issues for networks?

o Will software need upgrading?

o What training will users need?

Although Windows 95 will run existing programs, the whole "look and feel" is different. A simple tutorial program introduces the basic elements and it doesn't take long to get used to the new way of doing things. Trying to make common tasks easier and more automatic has been a major design aim installing a new printer, for example, is far more straightforward.

Almost everything can be "tailored" for different users, which is wonderful in the right hands but something many school IT co-ordinators will want to disable. Multimedia facilities now seem integral rather than bolted on, so if you insert a CD, for example, then the computer detects what type (CD-Rom or audio) and responds accordingly. The old limit of eight characters in a filename has gone but only if you use new programs.

As far as performance is concerned, new software usually needs more powerful computers. Windows 95 is no exception. Microsoft says Windows 95 will run on a PC 386DX with 4 megabytes of memory (Ram), but a 486 processor and 8 megabytes of memory is more realistic, and is what most PC schools would, in any case, have bought in recent years. The amount of memory and the speed and capacity of the hard disc are probably more important than processor speed - older computers may need all three upgraded. An extra 4 megabytes of Ram and a 500-megabyte hard disc could cost Pounds 120 each, plus labour. If you are buying a new machine, consider a Pentium.

Existing programs will generally run at about the same speed as before. With anything as complex as an operating system, however, some programs are bound to be incompatible (check with your IT co-ordinator). Significant gains in performance will be made when more Ram is added and with the new generation of Windows 95 programs. New versions of popular Windows packages will be released quickly, but at some cost. The plus side is that the older Windows 3.1 and its programs will probably fall in price.

Networking facilities, whether between computers on one site or via remote connection, are built into Windows 95 (part of the installation process offers the option of registering your software on-line via a modem and telephone connection). But upgrading the operating system of any network is a complex process and should not be undertaken lightly by existing network users.

With "simple" networks, such as those using Windows for Workgroups, Windows 95 is a significant advance and upgrading should be a priority. Some upgrade costs can be reduced by having a fast computer with a large hard disc (500 megabytes or bigger), so that a "minimum install" can be used on other computers, cutting the need for hard-disc space. I wouldn't, though, recommend less than 8 megabytes of memory in any network station.

Many secondary schools use complex networks, with a large central server, such as Research Machines' NetLM. To keep costs down and to improve security, schools often use "discless" stations. These networks won't be able to use Windows 95 until "discless booting" is available (network suppliers should be able to help).

Where network stations have their own hard discs, upgrading to Windows 95 is possible, but contact your supplier first. If you don't need to use Windows 95's new features and are happy with your current software, then it's probably best to play a waiting game.

For some, however, the reasons to upgrade will be compelling, such as easier networking and Internet connection, and better performance on high-specification computers running powerful applications. In these cases, schools should plan the upgrade carefully, back up systems first and plan for the needs of users who even with a much-improved operating system will need training and support to manage the change effectively.

Overall, most of the benefits of Windows 95 will be available to those buying new computers or able to upgrade their existing systems. If you can do this, it's certainly worth changing but plan your strategy first. Remember the adage "If it ain't broke don't fix it".

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