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THE CUTTING EDGE: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Q & A : Getting a Handle on Microsoft’s Windows 95

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even for those who normally pay no attention to the computer industry, it has been hard to miss the hoopla surrounding Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 95. The software program, scheduled to go on sale Thursday, promises to make personal computers much easier to use--and Microsoft has left no promotional stone unturned in its effort to make it the new standard in personal computing. But despite its many strengths, Windows 95 is less than a revolution in computing, and it won’t be for everyone. In an effort to help you sort through the hype, we’ve answered some of the simplest but most important questions about Windows 95.

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Q: What is Windows 95?

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A: It’s a piece of software, known as an operating system, that controls the basic functions of a personal computer. Currently, most PCs--with the exception of those from Apple Computer--use a combination of Microsoft’s MS-DOS and Windows 3.1 as an operating system, and Windows 95 will supplant both.

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Q: How much will it cost?

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A: The list price for Windows 95 is $109 for PC owners with an old version of Windows and $209 for those upgrading from DOS. However, retailers will offer discounts, and there will be other incentives to get PC owners to move to Windows 95. For example, John Roach, the chairman of Tandy Corp., which operates 6,600 Radio Shack, Computer City and Incredible Universe retail outlets, says his stores will price the product at $89.95 for Windows users and $189.95 for those with DOS. All buyers will also receive Tandy’s “value-added bonus,” a booklet with coupons for Windows 95 software and accessories worth up to $1,000.

Shop around, because computer dealers will be competing hard for your business. They know that if you buy Windows 95, it’s very likely you’ll be buying a lot more computer gear.

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Q: What kind of hardware do I need to run Windows 95?

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A: This is where the real costs start to come in. Analysts estimate that 60% of the PCs in existence do not have enough microprocessor speed, memory and disk storage to run Windows 95. That means many people will have to buy more memory or even a new computer if they want Windows 95.

Most experts say a good Windows 95 PC should have an Intel Pentium processor, preferably running at 75 megahertz, with 16 megabytes of RAM memory and a 750-megabyte or more hard-disk drive. Also, you’ll want a high-speed modem--14.4 or 28.8 baud--to access on-line services such as Microsoft Network, which is included in Windows 95. For multimedia software, including games, encyclopedias and children’s programs, you’ll need a CD-ROM drive.

Purchased new, a machine with all these features would start at about $2,000.

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Q: Can I buy Windows 95 now?

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A: The software will be on retailers’ shelves the day of the launch, Thursday, with many big stores opening midnight Wednesday as a promotional gimmick. There should be plenty of copies, retailers say.

Buying a new PC with Windows 95 already installed will be tougher. “There will be a limited amount of hardware out there with the package already loaded,” says Roach. However, those who buy a new PC from his stores will receive a voucher entitling them to receive a copy of Windows 95 at no charge. Within a few weeks, it will probably be difficult to buy a machine without Windows 95.

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Q: How hard is it to install Windows 95?

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A: It’s easy. Windows 95 comes encoded on 13 3/5-inch floppy disks, or a single CD-ROM. The floppy disks only require that you load them in sequence--they are clearly marked--and the software tells you when to pop them into the drive. It takes less than an hour.

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Q: Will my current software run on it?

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A: Most likely. Of the 2,600 PC software programs Microsoft tested on Windows 95, only 100 failed to run. None of them could be classified as bestsellers. Although your word processor, spreadsheet and CD-ROMs should work just fine with Windows 95, they will not be able to take advantage of some of its more advanced features such as multi-tasking or the ability to use long file names.

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Q: What do I need to do to get maximum performance from Windows 95?

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A: You’ll have to buy new software applications programs that are written specifically for the operating system. Not many such programs will be available right away, and most of those that are available are Microsoft programs. The most important of them is Microsoft Office, the software “suite” that combines a word processor, spreadsheet and database and is the leader in that category. By the holidays, there should be several hundred programs optimized for Windows 95.

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Q: How does Windows 95 compare to the Apple Macintosh?

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A: Even Microsoft will concede that the Macintosh has set the standard for computer usability. Windows is based on the Macintosh: The two spent seven years in court fighting over Microsoft’s rights to use Apple’s software code, a battle Microsoft eventually won.

With Windows 95, PCs with Intel chips and Microsoft software will become much easier to use, although the Macintosh still has a slight edge.

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Q: Is Windows 95 really that much easier to use than Windows 3.1?

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A: Novices will probably find it much easier to use. But those accustomed to the earlier Windows will have a lot of learning to do, and Mac veterans won’t be impressed.

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Q: Who should buy Windows 95 and who should not?

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A: It’s most appropriate for those who are buying a PC for the first time, for those with relatively new machines who have not yet bought much software and for those who plan to use it frequently to play games and CD-ROMs.

Anyone who doesn’t want to spend at least a few hundred dollars on hardware upgrades and software, anyone who uses customized software and anyone who has a reasonably good Macintosh will probably find little reason to switch. Most big companies are expected to switch over to the new software, but they will make the transition slowly.

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Q: Will Windows 95 have bugs?

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A: Any new piece of software has bugs, but Windows 95 is likely to be less buggy than most. Microsoft sent a “beta” version to 400,000 testers who gave it a hard workout. So far, they haven’t found anything close to deadly.

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Q: Why all the hype?

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A: There are a number of interconnected forces at work. The personal computer has only recently become a mass-market consumer phenomenon, with more and more people interested in climbing aboard the information superhighway, and Windows 95 should make it easier for many people to get involved. In addition, Microsoft has built up a phenomenal marketing apparatus to push the product, and strong sales of the software will help hardware manufacturers and others as well.

Microsoft, other hardware and software vendors and retailers together are spending an estimated $1 billion to promote the product.

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How Windows 95 Differs from Windows 3.1

* To run well, Windows 95 requires a PC with at least a 486 microprocessor, 16 megabytes ofRAM and a 500 megabyte hard-disk drive. Windows 3.1 works well with a 386 microprocessor, 8 megabytes of RAM, and a 200 to 300-megabyte hard-disk drive.

* Windows 95 allows file names as long as 255 characters, in contrast to only eight characters plus a three-character extension for Windows 3.1.

* Windows 95 runs multiple programs more reliably than Windows 3.1, particularly if the programs are written for Windows 95.

* Windows 95’s “plug-and-play” capability assures automatic recognition of new hardware devices like PCM-CIA cards or network cards. (They must, however be plug-and-play compatible, as does your computer’s main circuit board.)

* With Windows 95, start button launches CD-ROMs and other programs with the click of the mouse. Visual icons and task bars make it easier to operate.

* Windows 95 has software for the Microsoft Network built in--with Internet access. (But it has no advantage over existing Windows software from Compuserve, Prodigy and America Online.)

* DOS games that could not be launched from Windows 3.1 run directly from the Windows 95 desktop.


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