Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 11, NO. 10 / OCTOBER 1985 / PAGE 114

The view from Windows. (Microsoft Windows; IBM images) (evaluation) Will Fastie.

I consider myself lucky to have obtained an early, pre-release copy of Microsoft Windows. Although it has been my normal policy not to review software before it is in final release, I am making an exception for Windows because I so recently covered competing products (IBM's Top View and Digital Research's GEM, in last month's column). I also believe that few significant changes will be made in the basic product before it hits the retail shelves (about the time you read this, according to Microsoft), so I feel confident in telling you about the product. By the way, I asked Microsoft if they had any objections to this early article and they said no, indicating their confidence as well. Microsoft did ask that I keep in mind that there might be changes in the final product; you'll have to bear that in mind, too.

Last month I defined environment as the way in which the operating system presents itself and its functions to the user. I pointed out that topView and GEM are nothing more than DOS programs, but that they so alter the way the user interacts with the system that they are environments unto themselves. This definition is apt for Microsoft Windows (hereinafter simply Windows); however, this program integrates with DOS much more effectively and much more successfully than either TopView or GEM. At the same time, it is a significant functional extension of DOS and a concurrent environment.

Windows requires an IBM PC or compatible, at least 256K of memory, disk drives, and a graphics display. More memory, a hard disk, and a mouse are optional. Windows is at its best, however, with as much memory as you can give it, a hard disk or, at the very least, a large RAM disk, and a mouse. I am unclear about support for the Lotus/Intel memory spec, but because Windows can take advantage of a RAM disk of any kind, an investment in a memory product in the Above Board genre will not be wasted on Windows. I expect that future upgrades to Windows will allow programs to execute from Lotus/Intel extended memory or the protected memory of the 286 processor, such as is found in the AT.

The graphic display is an absolute requirement, and Windows is obsessive about control in this area. I was unable to run any program in Windows that switched to my monochrome display, a fact that caused me to exit Windows when I was doing extensive textual work. Windows even traps the MODE command! Those are objections to the product, but ones that can be overcome if your PC is equipped with the IBM EGA or the Hercules card. Both offer better performance and monochrome display-like resolution for text, so text work on them is satisfactory. IBM's EGA and CGA, and the Hercules card, are the only graphics devices supported; expect more from Microsoft soon.

Windows on the IBM CGA or equivalent is surprisingly good in two dimensions. First, it is very fast. The only performance penalty is text scrolling, which is agonizing when compared to the monochrome display. Scrolling is happening as fast as it can; remember that Windows is doing all the character generation itself on a graphical display that it completely manages. Second, the CGA display is very pretty. Windows can display only black and white, but it does so very well, and the higher 640 x 200 resolution provides the necessary clarity.

I have the EGA with extended memory on my office AT. There, Windows looks absolutely gorgeous and can take full advantage of color. Because EGA text is almost as good as monochrome, I stay within Windows all the time. At home, with a dual monochrome and CGA system, I exit Windows to use the word processor. In my case, the important factor is text, not the quality of the graphics presentation. That leads to the question of how to upgrade an existing PC to take advantage of Windows. I suggest the Hercules card, because it is the least expensive way to get higher resolution: you need purchase only the card, not a new display device. There are other monochrome boards on the market, but Microsoft has not announced support of them; this means that higher resolutions might go unexploited even if Windows could operate in a CGA-compatible mode. Some of these boards are Hercules-compatible and would probably work.

I suspect that Microsoft will offer more options by the time the product arrives in the retail channel. I also expect that the manufacturers of other boards will provide their customers with a Windows device driver; such drivers can be added to the Windows master disk and can then be automatically activated by the Windows installation process.

As for disk storage, floppies do not support Windows very well. A hard disk or larger RAM disk is very important to give Windows the peppy performance that makes using the mouse pointing system effective. On a RAM disk, the Windows program and other commonly used programs should be stored there although it should also be possible to load programs into the Windows environment, remove the floppy from whence they came, and let the system swap programs from memory to RAM disk as required. Programs that are overlaid (i.e., have other files that the program loads or uses as required during the course of execution) must be present on accessible media while executing.

You might be surprised that I mention a mouse as optional. Frankly, Windows is better (most of the time) with a mouse than without. The human interface from the keyboard is excellent, though--far better than that of Top-View. There are, however, times when I resort to the keyboard for some manipulations because they are quicker. Study of a small section of the manual will result in keyboard proficiency, which is worth learning.

The only tedious part of the keyboard interface is making menu selections from the menu bar at the top of the screen. For a bar with three menu selections, there is no problem. But for a Windows program with eight or ten menus, using the TAB key to move to the eighth one becomes time-consuming. So I suggest a mouse anyway. One final point: the use of the mouse or keyboard can be transparent to the executing program. For example, Microsoft supplies a sample program called Reversi (known more popularly as Othello). The game can be played faster with the mouse, but quite well with the keyboard. According to Microsoft, the program is not aware of the physical method of pointing being used.

Microsoft provided me with drivers for their own mice, and for the Mouse Systems PC Mouse.

The Interface

Windows presents itself to the user in much the same way that a Macintosh does. In fact, most of the elements of Mac are in Windows, even when the visual image is not quite the same. There are three components of this interface: the menu bar, the icon area, and the working screen.

The top of the screen has the menu bar from which pull-down menus are obtained and selections made. This is the main way in which things happen: the user points to the function desired and it is performed. The menu is applications sensitive, and saying any more than that the menus pull down requires a specific application context. Some special areas above the menu bar provide shortcuts: you can quickly terminate the program, suspend it, resize the window, or make the active window assume the full screen.

At the bottom of the display is the icon area, which contains the icons for programs that do not have an active window. Such programs may be suspended (that is, not running) or active (the program continues to execute even though something else is going on in the active window). When more than one program runs at the same time, the system is said to be concurrent.

Windows provides concurrency for programs written to be Windows-compliant, but cannot control execution of programs that do not obey the multitasking rules. Windows can also run more than one copy of a program at the same time regardless of compliance with the rules and as long as the program could have done that anyway.

A word of explanation on that is needed. Some programs make temporary "scratch" files. If the program always uses the same name for the scratch files, then two programs running at the same time will collide. Word Perfect, the word processing program I use, has precisely this problem. Many other programs are sure to as well. However, the good news is that a simple program change is all that is required to fix the problem.

Microsoft provides a program called Clock which displays an analog clock on the screen. Concurrency can be quickly demonstrated by starting more than one clock and giving each one a window of the screen. Each clock runs, meaning that Windows is switching control back and forth within the program.

You can point to one of the icons to activate a window in which to view the action of its program. The window is "opened" in the large working area of the screen between the menu bar and the icon area. More than one window may be active at a time, and Microsoft has chosen to "tile" its windows. That means that the windows do not overlap one another, but instead butt against one another. It is my opinion that this is a small point. However, it should be noted that overlapping windows allow you to size each window as appropriate for your applications, while tiling tends to force you to have the primary window sized properly, thus limiting other windows to the remaining space on the screen. Practically speaking, I think users are unlikely to have multiple windows showing as a general rule and are much more likely to switch from application to application on a full-screen basis. Getting an application from its icon to the full screen is quite fast and, therefore, practical.

Windows includes a program called the Control panel which can be used to set various system parameters. One control area is the color selections for the display. You can select a display color (on the CGA, various shades of black and white) for each component of the screen. This works very nicely on the EGA; careful selection of color truly enhances the presentation. One example: I changed the color of text from black to blue, which I find easier to look at on a white background. These kinds of changes can be made at any time, are permanent, and take immediate effect.

Overall Performance

I have mentioned several times that Windows seems to perform very well. The point should be clearly made: overall, Top View or GEM. It is not, however, a better performer than DOS, and that requires a little explanation.

First, programs will not run faster under Windows. They will run at about the same speed as they do without Windows, which is something of an accomplishment. In an environment that supports multi-tasking, some CPU resources must be given up to manage the system. Windows seems to have given up very little, and that is good. It is possible that throughput for a particular program will fall if other programs are running concurrently, but that is to be expected.

Second, Windows gets programs running faster than GEM or Top View--at least by my measurements. But, DOS is faster. There is obviously some overhead within Windows that is not present when a command is typed to DOS. Windows does look for more information than DOS; for example, it hopes to find a program information file (PIF) that describes the operational parameters for the program. In fact, a PIF must be available for programs which expect to run concurrently or which are fully Windows-complaint. If no PIF is found, Windows assumes the worst case: a program that writes directly to the screen and from which Windows cannot be accessed.

Once in the MS-DOS Executive section of Windows, many operations are faster than their DOS counterparts. My favorites are COPY and DELETE, both of which work with multiple files. From the list of files on the screen, a set can be marked and all will be deleted or copied. Attempts to copy a directory work, in that the directory and its contents are copied, a sorely-needed improvement over other systems. The speed improvement here comes from avoidance of typing multiple commands in DOS, not from speedier execution of the code itself.

MS-DOS Executive

A place Windows excels is the MS-DOS Executive. In this window, the system displays icons for each disk drive, the name and volume label of the currently selected disk, the current path, and the names of all files and subdirectories in the current directory. Navigating around the directory structure on a hard disk, by which I mean changing from one to another, is very quick when the mouse is used, and Microsoft has introduced a number of clever shortcuts. For example, clicking on a part of the displayed path (for example, UTIL in

UTIL COMM XTALK) will cause

an immediate change to that directory. Double-clicking on the names of one of the subdirectories, which are always listed first, causes a switch to that directory. Double-clicking on a .BAT,.COM, or .EXE file causes it to execute.

Another clever innovation is that the program can be instructed about filename extensions and told to execute a certain program when a file having such an extension is clicked. I call my working manuscripts .MAN; a click there invokes Word Perfect. Neat, and quite fast. I've told Windows about quite a few programs, and it saves a lot of time. By the way, that feature requires modifications to a text file named WIN.INI, the initialization file for Windows. I mention this because it is not immediately obvious from the documentation. Make edits carefully: this file contains many other initialization parameters, including things set from the control panel.

Overall Impressions

There is far too little space here to give a full review or examination of a product that will surely command much press attention in coming months. I like Windows and want to use it--a statement I could not make about the major competitors even though I have spent much time with each. But how good is Windows as a user interface? That's a hard question to answer.

How about this question: does Will Fastie use Windows? Answer: Yes. But I don't yer start it automatically--I'm still a bit tied to the command line interface. Time will tell.

Products: Microsoft Windows (GUI)