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Go backArticlesDrawing back the curtain on Windows shows Microsoft has a clear edge

Reprinted from PC Magazine, August 20, 1985, pp. 37-38.

Setup on the EGA controls visual settings for each active area on the screen.
This image can be zoomedSetup on the EGA controls visual settings for each active area on the screen.
Windows is here. It’s almost 4 months behind the original ship late, but it’s here. Microsoft, sensitive to the flak they’ve taken in the trade press, has released Windows with a whisper rather than a shout.

And that’s too bad. Based on our first look, Windows is an impressive product, well worth he fancy rollout it would have received last spring.

Windows is a DOS-enhancing environment. It’s also a word processor, a communications manager, an alarm clock, a calendar, a memory manager, a card filer, a task switcher, and a screen painting program. It’s also $99.

Worth the view

For your hundred bucks you get the Windows display and memory manager, which lets you load more applications than you can actually fit in memory. You also get Microsoft Write, a fairly powerful word processor, written just for Windows; Terminal, a serial communications manager that can dial and log on to the services of your choice through a Hayes-compatible modem; and Notepad, Cardfile, Calendar, Calculator, and Clock, which all do what their names suggest. In addition, you get a game, Reversi (marketed commercially as Othello), for your leisure time and to sharpen your mousing skills.

You also get a screen painting program, Microsoft Paint, comparable to most of the others on the market, except that it always runs in high-resolution black and white. Color is not available.

Like IBM’s TopView, Windows works best with a mouse. Unlike TopView, Windows is tolerable without one. The keyboard substitutions for mouse moves and clicks are well thought out, except for the longstanding Microsoft curse of making you use the tab key when your instincts are telling you to use the cursor keys.

Dynamic developments

Microsoft’s Write works best on fast machines with an Enhanced Graphics Adapter.
This image can be zoomedMicrosoft’s Write works best on fast machines with an Enhanced Graphics Adapter.
The extra 4 months that Windows spent in the development shop shows, especially in the included application programs. Microsoft vice president Steve Ballmer says, “Write has 70 or 75 percent of Word’s function. And while Terminal has nowhere near the programmability of Microsoft Access, it does most everything that people want a communications program to do.”

Windows is TopView compatible. It understands IBM Program Information Files (PIFs), so that any program that is TopView-aware runs without any fuss in Windows. It also follows IBM’s excellent design, allowing you to prespecify the way you want your programs to window.

The biggest difference between TopView and Windows is that TopView is a multitasking executive, which timeslices all applications, while Windows switches tasks only to keep the screen updated. If an application running under Windows is in a CPU-intensive processing loop, Windows will not interrupt it to let other tasks run. The advantage of this approach is that Windows imposes virtually no processing overhead penalty. TopView, conversely, takes roughly 10 percent of your machine’s time just to run itself.

Power has its price. Windows with Write takes up nearly three quarters of a megabyte on your hard disk, but it can replace your word processor, communications program, paint program, and pop-up utility software for most applications. It’s as close as anyone has come to an all-things-to-all-people package.

You’ll want 640K to maximize its utility, and Windows can use even more. It swaps programs out to disk but will use RAMdisk, 80286 extended memory, or Lotus/Intel expanded memory for swapping if it’s available. Task swap time can be cut to less than a second by using memory for swapping, and that’s fast in anybody’s book.

Screening room

Overlapping windows give the program a decidedly Macintosh-like flavor.
This image can be zoomedOverlapping windows give the program a decidedly Macintosh-like flavor.
Windows runs on the Enhanced Graphics Adapter in high-resolution color. It’s a sight to behold. You can vary the color through a rainbow of values, and you can select the color, density, and texture of background, characters, foreground, highlight bars, and more. With power comes responsibility, however, since this capability lets you make screens arbitrarily ugly.

TopView outperforms Windows when it comes to running your old applications in windows smaller than the full screen. While TopView bends over backwards to make sure that the area of the screen you’re most interested in stays on the screen, Windows is more likely to let text disappear behind the edge of a window, but the behavior of both products depends on the application.

Windows also has a clipboard, patterned after the Macintosh’s, that allows data to be moved among applications. Like GEM, Windows permits multiple data types on its clipboard. The clipboard is an ideal way to save a piece of a screen to disk, too.

True to its claim, Windows does not exact any penalty for its presence. Rather, it lurks in the background, waiting to switch tasks or execute utilities. It manages the screen very smoothly, even on slow (4.77 MHz) machines. You do encounter pauses when you switch from one application to another, but they’re shorter than if you got out of one application, back into DOS, and into another application. The performance on a souped-up PC AT or Compaq 286 is whiz-bang. The swaps are nearly instantaneous, and the screen responds to your every command and mouse movement.

Write is right

Write is a small jewel in Windows’s crown. On a standard color monitor it sports a proportional Helvetica typeface and a constant-space Courier. Both can be scaled to 8, 10, and 12 points and rendered in boldface or italic. Slow machines are a little ponderous when you’re typing in italic, but the effect is hardly noticeable on an AT.

The difference on an EGA is breathtaking. The characters are well defined, and several more typefaces are available, including some handsome outline faces. Everything runs faster, too.

The proportional font can get nearly twice as many characters on the screen as the Courier, an advantage if you like to work with lots of text. As with other windowing environments, you can run multiple copies of Write. Nothing stops you from even editing the same file from two different Write sessions. It’s not as fast as TopView’s hot-keying from one session to another, but it’s tolerable.

The documents that Write creates are stored in ASCII but with a header and a footer that describe the type style and other settings.

Printing invokes long delays as things swap in and out to disk, but the wait is worth it if you have a graphics printer. What you get on the printer is a faithful representation of the screen, right down to the proportional characters.

On the negative side, you have to be in love with pulldown menus to enjoy Write. Some of the more frequently used commands, such as bold and italic, are available on function keys, but you basically have to rely on the pull-down menus for everything. It’s a nice-enough editor for occasional use, but I wouldn’t want to use it for my daily work. It’s just too slow. The notepad is handier for quick use and saves its text as pure ASCII.

Feature presentations

Tiled windows divide the display evenly among the applications running.
This image can be zoomedTiled windows divide the display evenly among the applications running.
Terminal is a minimal modem manager. It lacks many of the functions that you’ve come to expect in a communications program. It, too, is overly reliant on pull-down menus. Turning the capture buffer on and off, for example, should be toggled by a function key or a single Alt-key. It should also display an icon to indicate when capture is on. The terminal emulator is nice, since you get both VT-52 and ANSI, but I’d trade them for a little more ease of use. But then, Terminal comes free with Windows. You can’t expect everything for nothing.

Paint is a very capable program, with a fundamental smoothness of operation, many options, clear icons, and no color. Considering how everything else in Windows can run in color, it’s safe to speculate that a color version of Paint will come later as an extra-cost option.

Cardfile is an interesting application. It allows you to title “index cards” on the screen, then enter whatever information you want on the cards themselves, unmindful of fields and data types. It will search the cards for any word or phrase contained on a card, then sort the cards by occurrence. While you can use the clipboard to move data from a card to any other application, it should have been integrated better with them, especially the terminal program. I would have liked to be able to point at a phone number on a card and have it dial the number.

The price/performance point set by Windows is remarkable. It clearly offers the most attractive combination of features and performance of any windowing package we have looked at. Although the applications are immature and could use some streamlining, Windows will become a powerful tool for power users, and it lays a solid groundwork for future generations of PC applications.

by Bill Machrone

Microsoft Corporation
10700 Northrup Way
Bellevue, WA 98009
(206) 828-8080
Requires: 256K, two disk drives

Page added on 20th December 2004.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.