Better, but is it practical?

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
Should schools stay with Windows 3.1 or upgrade to Windows 95? Mike Treadaway explains what points you need to consider.

It's easy to get confused by all of the technicalities, hype, reviews, comments and (sometimes) conflicting advice about Windows 95, but in many respects it is a big step forward for people who use IBM and compatiblecomputers.

A feature such as "plug and play" usually (but not always) makes activities such as connecting a new device - a printer, for example - to the computer a trivial task. Networking computers, accessing the Internet and electronic mail, passing information between different programs and many other activities are now far simpler for most people. It's even possible to imagine the PC making the transition from specialist device to appliance.

Initial publicity, indicating that Windows 95 would run on a 386-based system, now seems true but unrealistic. The minimum sensible specification is a 486 processor with eight megabytes of memory. In addition, if the system is more than a year old, then the chances are that the hard disc might also need an upgrade.

Yes, a 386 with four megabytes of memory will run Windows 95 (slowly). Yes, programs you are using will run (well, almost all will). Yes, Windows 95 is much better than Windows 3.1 and it makes many common tasks easier. But older programs - those that run under Windows 3.1 - are unlikely to run any faster and they may well run more slowly. Long filenames - which are much better than the eight-character limit imposed so far - are wonderful but you can only use them with specially written programs. Some programs may not run at all.

In light of all of this, many local authority support centres have advised schools to take a cautious approach. While some manufacturers have moved quickly over to the new system - some companies have stopped supplying computers with Windows 3.1 installed - others advise a more measured approach. Lynn Moates, at Research Machines, feels that Windows 95 is very much a "good thing" but that it is "more dangerous than Windows 3.1 in its raw state". In other words, the ease with which the system can be customised brings many potential benefits but also raises the possibility of havoc created by inquisitive pupils.

RM's approach in the primary sector has been to recommend staying with Windows 3.1 for curriculum use until Classmate 95 was released. This is a Windows 95 system but, like the successful Window-Box system, is configured to enable easy management by the teacher while preventing unauthorised tweaking, and is good for primary schools (see pages 40-41).

In the secondary sector, where networks are more common, the situation is more complex. For example, RM's network product - RM Connect - supports Windows 95 stations but, as yet, does not support Windows 3.1 - so schools with existing RM networks are advised to stick with their NetLM server for the time being.

Schools who wish to forge ahead with Windows 95 networks are, therefore, tending to set these up as entirely separate networks at present, with stations being Pentium-based and with eight megabytes of memory at least - more commonly 16 megabytes. Even with stand-alone systems, those wishing to run Office 95 - particularly if Access 95 is included - will find that 16 megabytes is again required for realistic performance. This can add significantly to the overall cost. With new versions of the Office products due, the hardware demands for running the latest software may increase further.

In many ways, the situation is a bit like the move from Windows 3.0 to 3.1 - when computers with one or two megabytes were the norm but four megabytes was required for reasonable performance. Then, though, the gains in moving from 3.0 to 3.1 were less than those potentially available in going on to 95.

So, is Windows 95 destined to remain - for a year or two - as a promised land that cannot yet be reached or afforded by many schools? What may drive things forward will be the emergence of "must have" software which only runs under Windows 95. There are some signs of such software appearing, but we are not yet anywhere near the "critical mass" of relevant applications that will force the issue for most users.

Perhaps Internet access will be the driving force - the next version of Windows will probably look and feel like a Web browser - on the assumption that accessing information from local disc, network server or via Internet will be seamless. Schools, therefore, need to consider the following: * Will your current supplier of PCs still be able to offer Windows 3.1 systems for as long as there is a demand?

* If Windows 95 systems only are available, can the supplier provide appropriate management utilities?

* Will staff and pupils cope with having some systems which operate under 3.1 and some which use Windows 95?

* Is technical support available within school or locally for Windows 95?

* Will all of your current software run under Windows 95?

* Is it cost-effective to upgrade existing computers - particularly networks?

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