Microsoft Word has had an interesting history. Its early releases revealed a program that was magnificent in conception, but a little clunky in execution. Microsoft steadily improved Word, adding new features and tuning up existing ones, until finally, about a year and a half ago, Word 4.0's reality and its original conception merged to form an undeniably world-class word processor.
Now, Microsoft has delivered Word 5.0 (Microsoft, 16011 NE 36th Way, Box 97017, Redmond, Washington 98073-9717; 206-882-8080; $450), an upgrade with some heavy-duty new features and an array of small, but welcome, enhancements.
The biggest news with version 5.0 is its integration of text and graphics. When coupled with the program's onboard page preview, Word is a solid engine for basic desktop publishing.
Word can incorporate graphics in a wide range of formats, including PCX, PCC, TIFF, HPGL, PostScript, encapsulated PostScript, and Lotus PIC files. And the package includes Capture, a graphics screen-grabbing program.
Incorporating a graphic in a document is easy, even if you're a beginner. First, you place your cursor in the text where you want the graphic to be, and you tell Word the name of the graphics file and the size you want to make it. That's all you have to do.
The program puts a line of text in your file that contains the graphic's filename and size, and then precedes this with a hidden code (you can see the hidden code by turning on Show Hidden Text). If you want, you can use Page Preview to see how your graphic looks on the page, or use Show Layout for a less-precise, but fully editable, version of your layout.
Adjusting a graphic's position is easy, too. You can move the graphic just as easily as you'd move a paragraph of text. And flowing text around a graphic is automatic. Just center the graphic on a page and make its frame—the space around the graphic—the same size as the graphic; Word automatically flows text around it.
Word has always been primarily a graphics-mode word processor. Each version has offered a text-mode option, but it has been something of a poor relation. The mouse had about half of its power in non-bordered text mode, and formats (italic, bold, underline, and so on) were shown as bold on the screen.
This newest version of Word gives text mode so much power that you may find you actually prefer it to graphics mode. In text mode, you now have a selection of colors for formats, and changing colors is simply a matter of a few key-presses or mouse clicks. You can use the mouse to page, thumb, and open and close windows, just the way you can in graphics mode.
As a high-octane word processor, Word is definitely worth a look. If you have any previous version of the program, you can upgrade for just $75, the deal of the decade.
Context switching on the PC is nothing new. Many programs allow you to keep multiple applications active and move from one to another, but they all have problems. They're often unstable (an occupational hazard for any PC software that attempts multitasking or context switching), and they usually require large amounts of memory (as much as 170K in some cases).
Switch-It from Better Software Technology (55 New York Avenue, Framingham, Massachusetts 01701; 508-879-0744; $79.95) is like a breath of fresh air. The program is solid and requires a mere 24K to run.
When you first install the program, it searches your hard disk for applications with which it's familiar and automatically places these on its menu. You can use these programs or delete them, and you can install your own. Installing a program is as simple as telling Switch-It the program name, where it is, and how much memory you want to allocate for it (smaller memory allocations make for faster switching).
You can install TSRs, and you can use batch files to install an application with TSRs.
You can switch between programs in one of three ways. Press the Alt-Home hot key (this key combination is the default; you can change it if you'd like) to call Switch-It's main menu, use Alt-right arrow and Alt-left arrow to move between programs, or assign specific hot keys to individual programs (Ctrl-Alt-F1 through F12 work well).
If you use a mouse, you'll have to be careful. Moving the mouse while a program is switching can be fatal: There's a good chance you'll crash your system. (Just bumping against the mouse pad can trigger a crash.) The safest thing for you to do is wait until you see your mouse pointer appear before you move the mouse. If you do that, you shouldn't have any problems. Better Software is aware of this problem, and it's working on a solution.
When it comes to swapping your applications out of memory, Switch-It can use a disk, expanded memory, or a ramdisk for its temporary storage. If you switch to disk, the speed of your hard disk determines the program's performance. With a 40-ms access time, it takes about six seconds to switch out one 640K program and switch in another 640K program. This is a worst-case time. If you use programs that use less than 640K or use faster media, you'll have significantly better switch times.
Switch-It also has the ability to cut and paste between applications. You simply press Alt-Delete to cut or Alt-Insert to paste, and then follow directions.
In the short time I've used Switch-It, it has become indispensable. Every time I think of going through the save-exit-run-load cycle for each program I use, I'm glad I have Switch-It.
If you're interested in Xtree's software-amnesty program ("Power Up," October 1989), you can call or write Xtree, 4330 Santa Fe Road, San Luis Obispo, California 93401; (805) 541-0604.
Since the prices of 2400-baud internal modems have dropped below $100, many users aren't buying more-expensive external modems. There's something to be said for external communicators, however.
First, an external modem can be used with any computer. You may think now that you'll never use anything but a PC, but someday you may stray from the fold and buy a Mac or an Amiga. An internal modem won't work with your new machine, but an external one will.
And even if you don't buy another type of computer, your internal modem may not work if you buy a new PC. You can't fit an internal modem in a laptop, for example, and you can't squeeze one into a PS/2 with an MCA bus.
So, there are some merits to an external modem, but which one should you buy? That's a tough question, but one good answer is the Supra Modem 2400 external modem (Supra, 1133 Commercial Way, Albany, Oregon 97321; 800-727-8772; $149.95). It's Hayes-compatible and a reliable performer. My only beef with the Supra is that it doesn't support the Hayes S11 register, the register that controls how fast the modem dials.
That aside, I've used the Supra Modem 2400 nonstop for months, and it has never given anything but excellent performance. You pay a little more for an external modem like the Supra Modem 2400, but it's worth it.
Don't look now, but Microsoft Windows, the DOS-based graphics operating environment, is suddenly flirting with widespread acceptance and "overnight" success—five years after its initial release. The 286 version retails for $99; the 386 version goes for $195. Both are from Microsoft, 16011 NE 36th Way, Redmond, Washington 98073; (206)-882-8080.
Windows is a potentially useful program that, like a pane of glass with a paint stain on it, exhibits just enough minor flaws to interfere with its primary function. As a result, I could never get excited about it. True, it embellishes DOS with colorful display screens and mouse support. But calling Windows a graphics interface is like calling a can of chicken gumbo soup authentic Cajun cookin'.
By itself, Windows presents the same unadorned listing of cryptic filenames generated by the standard DIR command. The onus is still on you to figure out what each filename represents. Is BUD.LET the text of a letter summarizing next year's budget projections or a personal note to an old high-school chum, whose name just happens to be Bud? Ideally, a graphics interface would provide visual clues to help you figure this out. Windows doesn't.
A second advantage of a true graphics interface is that it incorporates a pictorial language that can be universally understood. Thanks to the emergence of the so-called International Symbol Set (ISS), for example, people the world over now recognize a stylized wheelchair as indicating a facility adapted to the special needs of disabled individuals. From this perspective, at least, the ISS is an effective graphics interface. Using Windows requires knowing a specific language (English) well enough to click on the View option if you want to change the order in which filenames are listed by that program's MS-DOS Executive. While this is certainly more convenient than having to remember, and then correctly combine, the DOS SORT pipe with a DIR command, Windows' approach falls short of a true graphics interface.
Despite these shortcomings, however, Windows is beginning to emerge as a logical alternative to Microsoft's "next-generation" operating system, the much-ballyhooed but anemic (in both performance and market acceptance) OS/2. For millions of users who can't justify the additional investment in hardware and software that an upgrade to OS/2 demands (an AT system or better, at least 3.5 megabytes of RAM, and programs specifically designed to access that operating system's advanced features), Windows offers a practical method for bridging the gap between today's PC environment and tomorrow's PC "standard." Adding to Windows' short-term appeal is the recent speculation that IBM may incorporate a facelift based on Windows 3.0 into its next major DOS upgrade. Such a move would only enhance Windows' position in the PC marketplace.
Do these factors make Windows worth looking into? And will that, in turn, force you to accept Windows as is, with all its inherent flaws and weaknesses? Well, yes and no.
Yes, you might want to investigate Windows. A graphics operating environment is almost certainly in the cards for your future, and Windows provides a logical stepping stone to get from here to there. But, no, you need not accept Windows as is. There's a program specifically created to move Windows a little closer to what it was originally meant to be: a true graphics interface.
Windows Express (hDC Computer, 15379 NE 9th Street, Redmond, Washington, 98052; 206-885-5550; $79.95) is a nifty program that superimposes a logical structure over the Windows environment. In the process, it also complements your PC operations with some critical capabilities Microsoft overlooked when it initially designed Windows.
Using Windows Express, you can replace those cryptic DOS filenames with icons (the foundation of a true graphics interface) and/or a meaningful file description. You could, for example, create a menu that displays a representative icon accompanied by the description Introductory letter for the 1990 budget projections, rather than the ambiguous DOS filename BUD.LET. Windows Express also lets you take all the data files relating to a given project—say, your budget projections—and assemble them under a single, unique icon, regardless of where they reside on your hard disk. Furthermore, you can tell Windows Express to link individual files with their corresponding application programs so that clicking on the icon or description associated with a given data file opens the appropriate application program (again, regardless of where it resides on your hard disk) and then automatically loads that data file.
Windows Express makes Windows especially accessible if your PC system lacks a mouse. It allows you to associate single keystroke commands with the individual items that comprise your various project menus. So, rather than having to use the arrow keys to highlight a particular filename, as Windows requires, you can start a program from Windows Express by simply pressing the appropriate letter or number command.
As icing on its electronic cake, Windows Express can assign password protection to individual menu selections. The program's Editor even allows you to create customized dialog boxes and context-sensitive help screens to assist neophyte users in navigating even the most convoluted application's menu structure. If you're thinking about heading down the Windows road, you should consider the Express route. For my money (and not much of it, at that), this is the most useful Windows utility currently on the market.
My CompuServe number was listed incorrectly in my first column. My real number is 73047,1122.