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Reprinted from PC Magazine, September 26, 1995, pp. 75-76.

Photograph by Thom O’Connor
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Okay, the wait’s over and Windows 95 is finally here. You’ve got it installed and found that it’s everything Microsoft promised. Right? Well, not exactly. Windows 95 does deliver on the basic promises: It’s a 32-bit, protected, multitasking operating system with a better user interface than Windows 3.1.

The operating system’s features, however, have changed a bit as Windows 95 has evolved from its “Chicago” days. Microsoft has removed some features, added new features, or placed them in the Microsoft Plus! add-on kit.

Let’s look at some of the places where Microsoft Windows 95 may be a little different from what you might have expected.

Much ado about DOS

The best place to start is with the most basic features of the operating system. Many people were surprised to find out how much DOS there still is in Windows 95. You go through a DOS mode on booting, you can boot in DOS without Windows, and the operating system supports many DOS interrupts, structures, and device drivers. Microsoft says that the DOS support is for compatibility.

So what’s the fuss about Windows 95 having DOS compatibility, and the fact that it still runs “real-mode” device drivers and programs that could take up its resources or even crash the whole system? Why do statements that provide descriptions of Windows 95’s DOS compatibility, such as those in Andrew Schulman’s book Unauthorized Windows 95 (Read Only, April 11, 1995), attract so much attention?

The answer is really very simple. Microsoft employees were not very clear when they started talking about “Chicago” a couple of years ago. They made statements such as “Chicago is a 32-bit operating system that does not require or use a separate version of MS-DOS” and “Chicago is built from the ground up to be a 32-bit preemptive multitasking operating system. Therefore, the system is not bound by the constraints of MS-DOS.” All of these things are true in broad outlines, but there is a bit of exaggeration. There are some parts of Windows 95 that use existing 16-bit code, and the OS does have some DOS constraints.

Changing Exchange

Among the essential features of Windows 95, the one that changed the most was Exchange. Originally called Info Center, Exchange was designed from the start to be a universal in-box for multiple mail servers. As shipped, Exchange will let you send and receive mail for Microsoft Mail, CompuServe Mail (through a driver that comes on the Windows 95 CD or can be downloaded), and mail from the Microsoft Network (MSN). But several features have been stripped down, including sorting and grouping by services, and advanced features such as shared folders. This, of course, leaves more room for third-party vendors – and Microsoft itself – to sell more advanced mail clients.

A lot of communications functions were added since Microsoft first began discussing the operating system, the most obvious one being the Microsoft Network, which attracted so much controversy over being bundled with the OS in the first place.

Several minor accessories have also changed. WinPad, a basic personal information manager, appeared in early test versions of Chicago but disappeared a while back. Schedule+, the group scheduling package that’s included with Windows for Workgroups, is not going to be included with Windows 95. Schedule+ will now be a part of Microsoft Office.

Unlike the last few revisions of MS-DOS, Windows 95 doesn’t come with a built-in antivirus utility, and older antivirus programs will probably not work. Several other utilities, such as Backup, do come with the base operating system, but you may need to install them from the Add/Remove New Programs icon in the control panel. At the last minute, Paint was revised so it could read .PCX files, but it still can’t save them.

Plus! adds a lot

Some of these features have ended up in Microsoft Plus! for Windows 95, a $49.95 add-on package designed for those users with faster systems (486 processors or better). These include an enhanced version of the DriveSpace compression utility. The one included with the base operating system supports only drives compressed to allow up to 512MB, while DriveSpace 3 offers much better compression and works on compressed drives up to 2GB in size. Microsoft Plus! also comes with a Compression Agent that provides even better compression on rarely used individual files.

As for Internet functions, the basic operating system comes with simple TCP/IP protocol support. Microsoft Plus! now has many of the Internet tools, including basic dial-up features through MSN or another provider, the Internet mail connection for Exchange, and FTP and Gopher capability, as well as the Internet Explorer, Microsoft’s own browser.

Other features in Microsoft Plus! include a dial-up server (so you can dial into your computer, as you can with Windows NT) and a System Agent that lets you run system maintenance tasks while your machine is idle, such as scanning the disk for errors, defragmenting, or backing up on a particular schedule.

Because Plus! was designed for 486 and faster computers, it includes some strictly visual things that make the system look better. In addition, it includes a number of new “themes” – combinations of color schemes, sounds, wallpaper, and animated icons. Try the theme “Inside your Computer”; it’s a lot of fun.

Plus! will be of interest to most Windows 95 buyers. The features it offers could have been part of Windows 95. It’s too bad they aren’t.

Tune-up needed

A few other things that are part of Windows 95 could be improved. Plug and Play still isn’t a complete reality. To begin with, all the older systems and plug-in boards aren’t plug-and-play, and while Microsoft is including drivers for most of them, it can only cover small part of the market. Secondly, while most new machines support Plug and Play, it’s still not commonplace in plug-in boards. And finally, even with a Plug and Play machine and a set of Plug and Play cards, you may still have some problems. That’s to be expected. The great strength – and the greal weakness – of the PC market is the diversity of products out there.

Similarly, of course, there are a number of little things that could be improved; that’s to be expected with any program. The “tune up kit” promised for this fall will undoubtedly fix some problems, and leave others for the future.

The bottom line is that Windows 95 may not be everything we could have wanted, but it’s still a big step forward, and we’re glad to have it finally here.

Michael J. Miller

Page added on 12th December 2004.

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