It's called "plug and play." And in the best of all possible worlds, it works like this: You plug a new piece of hardware into your computer, the machine recognizes it, and you're ready to play with it. Easy, huh?
Macintosh users have benefited from this technology for years. So, when Microsoft released the rival Windows 95 operating system with plug-and-play capabilities last year, users breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, they could install hardware without worrying about pesky software details.
In previous versions of Windows, the details could get pretty pesky. After installing the hardware, users had to insert an installation disk and run a program. If it all worked right, the software ended up in the right place and the hardware didn't conflict with something else.
If something went awry (and it often did), the user had to figure out the intricacies of physical addresses and interrupts as well as edit start-up files with friendly names like "system.ini" and "autoexec.bat." Complications in this process could send even advanced users screaming from the room.
Windows 95 had to be better than that. To find out how much better, I tested Windows 95 on three PC cards with mixed results.
PC cards are credit-card-sized devices that slide into special slots of a computer, usually a portable laptop. PC cards are versatile. They can be built to function as an extra hard drive or a connection to a CD-ROM player. The three cards I used were all high-speed modems, which allow computers to communicate over telephone lines.
Making the test more demanding, two of the cards included a second function. They served as network connectors, allowing my notebook computer to hook into the small network that I run in the office.
Installation was a snap with all three cards. Windows 95 immediately recognized I was installing new hardware.
In the case of the combination cards from Xircom and Megahertz, the system prompted me for the installation disk and, once inserted, took care of every other step. The Hayes modem card didn't even need a disk.
The installation worked just as well on my old AT&T Globalyst notebook as a on new Dell model.
Having plugged, I was ready to play. The modems connected easily with the Monitor's computers in Boston. The Hayes modem also made a more difficult connection to my Internet service. I was in business. Or so it seemed.
The problems started when the Megahertz modem connected me only intermittently to the Internet. The Xircom model wouldn't connect at all. When I hooked up the networking software, the Xircom and Megahertz cards connected to the network flawlessly. But neither they nor the Hayes modem would hook up to the Internet.
Calls to technical support didn't help. One specialist had me edit the system.ini file - a nuisance. Fortunately, the remedy turned out to be an obscure piece of Windows 95 software, called a dial-up adapter, that I hadn't installed. The Xircom card required an additional upgrade of its embedded software.
So, the PC cards are up and running. Of the three, I was most impressed by the performance of the Hayes modem and the design of the Megahertz combination card. The verdict on Windows 95 is mixed.
Installing hardware on a computer is much easier than it was before Windows 95. But the experience doesn't come close to matching the consistency of the rival Macintosh. Sometimes you plug and play with Windows 95. Sometimes, you plug and plug away and hope it works some other day.
Users have a right to expect significant improvements in future versions of Windows.
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