Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 140 / MAY 1992 / PAGE 6

Windows 3.1. (includes related articles) (Cover Story) (Evaluation)
by Clifton Karnes

Windows 3.1 is here, and it's hot. It's fast, crashes less often, has a topnotch File Manager, runs DOS programs better than 3.0, comes with its own font technology (TrueType), makes compound documents possible with OLE, and much, much more. In short, it addresses almost every criticism of 3.0 and goes far beyond with new and exciting innovations. Here's a whirlwind tour.

Fast, Faster, Fastest

First off, don't be misled by the 3.1 version number. This release was originally conceived as a minor upgrade to 3.0, but in the past year, it's grown into what should really be called Windows 4.0.

The changes begin with Setup. It's enhanced and has a special Express option that's faster and well worth using. If 3.1's Setup detects another version of Windows installed on your system, it will update it, leaving your groups and configuration as they are.

After you've got Windows up and running, the first thing you'll notice is that it's faster--a lot faster. There are several reasons for 3.1's dramatic speed increase. First, the code has obviously been fine-tuned for speed optimization. More visible, though, are new video drivers--especially a Super VGA driver that's much faster than the third-party 16-color drivers I've seen.

And hidden in the entrails of the system is Fast Disk, an improved 32-bit hard disk driver that revs up disks driven by Western Digital and compatible controllers. (To see if Fast Disk is installed on your system, check Control Panel, or look in the [386Enh] section of SYSTEM.INI for the line device=*int13 and device=*wdctrl. These are the Fast Disk drivers.)

Windows 3.1 also comes with enhanced versions of HIMEM.SYS, EMM386.EXE, and SMARTDRV.EXE. (Yes, you read that right. SMARTDrive 4.0 is now an EXE file.) The new SMARTDrive is both faster and smarter and is covered in detail below.

In addition to its increase in speed, 3.1 is much more robust than 3.0. You can all but kiss those UAEs (Unrecoverable Application Errors) goodbye. As an example, Windows used to crash on my system at work at least once or twice a day. Now crashes are extremely rare--especially with DOS programs, which used to be my biggest source of problems with 3.0.

Fancy File Manager

An improved Setup, increase in speed, and more robust design are exciting, but they're not things you can touch and play with. The new File Manager is, and it's 3.1's hottest new application. In fact, the new File Manager alone is worth the upgrade price.

When you first run File Manager, you'll notice its new look. Each drive window sports a directory tree on its left side and a window displaying the files in the selected directory on the right.

You can open and display multiple drive trees and directories, so copying and moving files between disks is very easy. And since this version of File Manager if fully MDI (Multiple Document Interface) compliant, you can minimize drive displays at the bottom of the File Manager window.

Other enhancements let you select any font you wish for File Manager's display, copy and format disks, and connect or disconnect from network drives.

And unlike 3.0's File Manager, this version is fast. The File Manager in 3.0 used to rescan a drive every time you switched. Since this version lets you open a new drive window without closing the current one (by Shift-double-clicking on the drive icon), rescanning isn't necessary. And scanning is faster, too. Even on a network with directories of morethan 1000 files, WinFile 3.1 is pretty snappy.

An especially useful enhancement to File Manager is 3.1's drag-and-drop feature. Here's how it works.

Run Notepad and iconize it on your desktop. Now run File Manager and tile it so the Notepad icon is visible.

Click on a text file in File Manager, drag it to the Notepad icon, and release the mouse button. The file is loaded into Notepad. (And Notepad, by the way, can now read almost any file of 64K or smaller, including binary files!)

Drag and drop works with most Windows accessories, and it will work with any third-party Windows programs that choose to support it.

Better DOS Support

DOS programs get a real boost in the new Windows. Not only do they run faster, but 3.1 now intelligently manages icons for DOS programs. This means that if you specify an icon for a DOS app in Program Manager, that icon (rather than a generic DOS icon) will appear on the desktop when you minimize the program.

There are also lots of supplemental icons to choose from in Program Manager's executable, PROGMAN.EXE, and in a new icon collection, MOREICONS.DLL.

In addition, the background and cursor colors in DOS windows are now better, and you can choose the font you want your DOS box to use.

I've saved the best DOS news for last: Windows 3.1 comes with special mouse drivers that let you use your mouse in a windowed DOS app. Even as I write this, I hear the Hallelujah chorus in the background.

It's true that the mouse response isn't as fast as that of the text-based DOS mouse, but it's a great convenience, and one you probably won't want to live without.

One minor drawback of the DOS-box mouse support is that you now must choose Control Menu, Edit, Mark to select text to copy to the Clipboard instead of just clicking the mouse button to enter select mode the way you could in 3.0.

New Goodies Galore

Before discussing Windows' new font technology, TrueType, and the new apps included with 3.1, I'd like to take a quick look at the ways in which the Windows environment has been improved.

First, resources should no longer be a problem for anyone. The new Windows provides much more memory for resources, and most people will never run low.

There's also a local reboot option, which allows you to reboot a single Windows or DOS applications without rebooting your whole system. To use this feature, you simply hit Ctrl-Alt-Del, and you'll see a screen that offers you the option of pressing Enter to kill the current app, pressing Ctrl-Alt-Del again to reboot your system, or pressing Esc to return to Windows. This one's a lifesaver.

If you're tired of fiddling with the load= and run= lines of your WIN.INI, you'll be glad to learn that there's a new group called Startup. All the apps you place in the group are automatically run when Windows boots. If you want to start up a program minimized, there's a new check box for that option in each program's properties box.

Drag and drop, mentioned above, is a slick timesaver.

Multimedia sound support is now built into Windows, so if you have a Sound Blaster, Ad Lib, or Roland card, you'll be able to take advantage of applications that use sound hardware. And with 3.1, you can map sounds to system events, so you could, for example, have your default been sound like a siren.

Program Manager's Run command now has a browse option, so you can point and click through drives and directories to find the file you want to run.

And there's a much-improved file list dialog that's now part of the Windows API. One of its nicest features is that you select from several file extensions (or supply your own) via a drop-down list box.

And last but not least, there's an attractive new startup screen that displays Windows 3.1's new logo. I've got to admit that one of the first things I did with 3.0 was to use the WIN : command so I could bypass the startup. But with 3.1, the startup's pretty cool, and I actually like to see it.

Just Say Oh-Lay

OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) is a major enhancement to Windows that lets you actually create compound documents by embedding one application inside another. To get an idea of the power of OLE, let's go over the three ways you can transfer data between Windows apps. In the discussion below, the client is the program that receives the data, and the server is the one that provides it.

The first way to transfer information is with the Clipboard. Using the Clipboard, the client gets a copy of the server's data in a form the client can use. There's no link between programs--this is the data-transfer equivalent of a one-right stand.

With DDE (Dynamic Data Exchange), the client gets the data in a form it can use, and it sets up a permanent link with the server, so if the data is changed, the client's information can be updated. With DDE, the client and server are going steady.

OLE is akin to DDE, but it goes a step beyond. With OLE, not only does the client get the data in a form it can use and set up a link with the server, but it gets a copy of the data in the server's native format, too. There's a real commitment here. This is data marriage.

If you're using OLE, you just double-click on the embedded spreadsheet figures in a word processing document, and your spreadsheet loads inside your word processor, so to speak, ready for editing.

Be True to Your Type

In the past two years, TrueType has become the Jackie O. of the computer press. It's an outline font technology, like PostScript, that was developed by Apple, licensed by Microsoft, and incorporated into Windows 3.1.

If you don't already have a collection of fonts, then TrueType is great news for you. With 3.1, you'll get a basic collection of 13 high-quality outline fonts. If you do already have a font manager, such as ATM or Facelift, and an investment in fonts, then you may never use TrueType.

If you've never used a font manager, you may ask, What good is one? Well, as people who've been using ATM or Facelift already know, a font manager gives you true, accurate WYSIWYG screen output, and outline fonts let you print almost any size text from each typeface. Windows 3.1 comes with Times (called Times New Roman) and Helvetica (called Ariel) as well as Courier and Symbol, all in normal, bold, italic, and bold italic styles.

TrueType is installed by default, but if you choose not to use it, you can turn it off (and save some memory). Open Control Panel and double-click on Fonts. Click on the TrueType button and make sure Enable TrueType Fonts is not checked.

SMARTDrive 4.0

It's true that SMARTDrive used to be the brunt of a lot of jokes, the punch line always playing on the fact that it really wasn't smart at all.

The SMARTDrive shipping with 3.1 is a different animal, however.

First, it's now an EXE file, and you load it in your AUTOEXEC.BAT. SMARTDrive will automatically load itself into high memory, unless you tell it not to (pretty smart). And now it caches writes, which gives it a big performance boost. If you're nervous about caching writes, you can turn this feature off or just cache writes on selected drives.

And you can now control SMARTDrive interactively, which means you can turn it on or off and adjust its parameters while it's running.

Most people will simply specify the same two parameters for SMARTDRV.EXE that they did for SMARTDRV.SYS. For example, if the line in your CONFIG.SYS file says DEVICE=SMARTDRV.SYS 1024 512, you translate that line to SMARTDRV.EXE 1024 512 in your AUTOEXEC.BAT. SMARTDrive will automatically configure itself to cache writes for optimum speed.

If you want to find out how SMARTDrive is doing, type SMARTDRV /S at the DOS prompt (in or out of Windows), and you'll get a status screen that tells you the number of cache hits and the number of cache misses. The higher the ratio of hits to misses, the better SMARTDrive is performing.

If you're a Stacker user, it's worth noting that this new version of SMARTDrive is Stacker-aware and works fine with stacked drives.

New Accessories

As if all this weren't enough, Windows 3.1 adds several new utilities and enhances others. Among the most useful new apps is Character Map, which displays a grid of all the characters available for each font in your system.

When you double-click on Character Map (found on the Accessories group), you'll see a character grid with your font names listed alphabetically in a drop-down list box.

Click on any character, and you'll get an enlarged view of it. There are also buttons to copy the selected character to the Clipboard and to append groups of characters. Once in the Clipboard, you can paste the character or characters directly into your document.

There are several enhancements to Control Panel's Desktop utility. First, there's an animated screen blanker that offers full password protection. There are a limited number of animations available, but they're all usable.

In addition, Desktop now sports several new, well-designed wallpaper bitmaps. Be sure to check out Marble and Slash.

Last but not least, there's a new OLE utility that links icons to objects you insert in documents.

That's the quick tour. Here's the bottom line: Get 3.1 as soon as you can. You won't be sorry.