by Alan Zisman (c) 1992. Originally published in INPUT, April 1992

When Windows 3.0 was released in the summer of 1990, Microsoft aimed it at a wide range of personal computers. Windows, we were told, could be run on any IBM-compatible computer with a 286 or later processor, 1 meg of memory, a hard drive, and a graphics monitor. A mouse is optional.

Windows can be loaded onto a machine meeting these requirements. It can even be loaded onto an XT with 640k memory. But saying Windows will "run" on those machines is somewhat of an exaggeration. Walk, maybe. Crawl? Possibly.

And the whole point of Windows is to run Windows applications-- Excel, PageMaker, PerForm Pro, what have you. Many of these applications will not even install on a minimum-requirement Windows computer. If they load, they will run so slowly as to be unusable.

Any graphical environment like Windows will be slower than a text-based environment like DOS... it's always easier to manipulate an 80x25 character screen than a 640x480 pixel graphics screen. So Windows applications won't be as fast as their non-Windows equivalents. So what do you need to really make Windows a usable environment?

Processor-- Windows really can run acceptably on a 10 mhz or faster 286, and even better on a faster, more powerful processor. But regardless of your processor, it will only be usable with enough memory, and an acceptable hard drive and video system. (Note Windows 3.1, due this spring is reported to be significantly faster than version 3.0).
Note that Windows itself, doesn't make any use of a math co-processor.

Memory-- Despite Microsoft's claims, 1 meg of memory is not really usable for a Windows computer. 2 meg is really a bare minimum, with 4 meg a much more acceptable amount. This will let you dedicate 512k-1 meg for a disk cache, and still leave enough memory to run Windows and useful applications.

Hard drive-- Windows 3.0 uses 6 megs, (Windows 3.1 will take more). Most Windows applications seem to require 4-6 megs or more. (A full installation of Word for Windows v.2.0 takes about 15 megs). You could install Windows on that old 20 meg hard drive, but there wouldn't be much room for anything else. As well, Windows writes applications to disk if there isn't enough memory, so you'll need to have free space on your disk. Because of the number of times Windows reads and writes from your disk, disk speed limits Windows' speed. (Having enough memory for a reasonable sized disk cache helps in this regards). The moral-- bigger and faster is better. Don't buy anything smaller than 60 meg or slower than 28 msecs.

Video display-- Windows will run on CGA, but only in black and white, as it needs the best resolution it can get. It will run fine (and quickly) in Hercules monochrome, but will lack the cute 3-D shadows and effects. Consider upgrading to VGA (or super VGA), and consider colour, even for everyday tasks like word processing or spreadsheets (besides, you won't be able to tell the red cards from the black in Solitaire on a monochrome screen). Video card technology is changing rapidly, with big improvements in capability and price coming about in response to the demands that Windows has placed on computer displays.

Warning-- OS2 v.2.0, which is also due for a Spring release, may make even more demands on your hardware. It will definitely require a 386 (SX or better) processor, and is rumoured to require a minimum of 8 megs of memory, and over 12 meg of hard drive space. As computer applications become more sophisticated, more capable hardware will continue to be required.

Summary-- a Windows-capable computer should have at least 2-4 meg memory, a 60 meg fast hard drive, and preferably a VGA colour monitor. Windows performance will be better with more than this minimum. With the price of computer hardware plummeting, it's probably cheaper and easier to purchase a new 386SX or above than to try to upgrade an older computer.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan