Microsoft Works (3.0 for DOS)

by Alan Zisman (c) 1994. First published in Our Computer Player, January 14, 1994

Once upon a time, for many people, a personal computer meant an Apple II. And software probably meant AppleWorks. This package defined the category 'integrated software' and with its basic but affordable word processor, spreadsheet, and database, might be all anybody needed.

Even as personal computers grew more sophisticated, the idea of the SomethingWorks stuck around. Microsoft did its best to copy AppleWorks for the budding PC market with Microsoft Works, even bringing it out in a version for Apple's own MacIntosh.

While Lotus with its Symphony and Ashton-Tate with Framework might claim more power for an integrated PC package, Microsoft Works stayed the sales leader by keeping to the idea of a single, low-cost, and easy to use product that would provide enough power for home and student use, as well as for many small businesses.

While popular in these markets, as well as in the growing portable computing market, MS-Works had its detractors. Recently, PC Magazine's would-be computer-guru, John Dvorak, decried its presence on many laptops,  calling it "downright embarrassing and awkward". Last updated in 1988 on the Mac and a year later on the PC, it was looking dated. The MacIntosh version was also facing a number of newer, more powerful competitors.

After releasing a Windows version last year, Microsoft finally got around to updating the MacIntosh and DOS versions. I'll look at the PC version, to see if it still has what it takes. Is there a role for this product in this era of graphical computing and high powered machines?

Since version 2.0, PC-Works has sported a nice interface, for a character-based, DOS product (oops, Alan, your Windows bias is showing!). It featured mouse support, drop-down menus, dialogue boxes, and multiple, re-sizable windows (that's small 'w' windows). You could have a word processor document and a spreadsheet file open and on screen at the same time, and cut and paste freely between them. Like Microsoft's other DOS program, MS-Word, you could run in character mode, or graphics mode. Graphics mode, while slower, gave you an arrow cursor, and let you see your text formatting on-screen. Boldface looked bold, italics looked tilted, and underlining was... well, you guessed, it. You still didn't get true font support, and had to switch to a print preview mode to see how your page would actually print out.

All that remains true about the new version. In fact, for a DOS program, it looks more like its Windows (that's capital 'w') cousins than ever. Version 3 sports 3-d shadows and sculpted effects galore. This trendy, 90's look doesn't add much to its usability, but the also trendy toolbar found in all modules, does. Now, instead of having to learn to look in the Format menu to make text bold, or to change font and size, it's right on top just a single mouse click away. The toolbar isn't as pretty as in most Windows programs, or in the recently enhanced DOS dtp program, Publish It, but it's there, and it works simply and easily. (Keyboard users still are limited to using the menus, however).

The other trendy enhancement brought over from Microsoft's Windows line is Wizards. These are a set of glorified macros, to walk the user through a number of common tasks. The Works Wizards include an Address Book, Form Letters, and Mailing Labels, as well as a data finder and a file finder. They're a quick and easy way for users to accomplish these tasks, and the output can be easily customized later.

As well, Works installs with a set of templates... preformated documents for each module. The word processor templates includes resumes, a fax cover sheet, a collection letter, and more. The spreadsheet ships with a loan amortization sheet, a teacher's gradebook, a personal budget and others, while the database includes accounts receivable and payable, a home inventory, and a checkbook. While these won't make the creators of Quicken, the popular personal finance program lose too much business, they again will let users get down to work quickly.

The new program imports more file formats and more printers. In the past, users with WordPerfect documents or Postscript printers had to send away for supplementary disks. This time, these, and more, are built in.

You even get a new mini-module. While the older version included a calculator and alarm clock, version 3 adds an appointment calendar.

All the core modules have been enhanced. The word processor still doesn't include a drawing feature like the versions for the Mac or Windows, but it does let you import pictures in PCX, TIF, or EPS formats. To view these pictures, you must use the page preview feature, and you can't wrap text beside your pictures... only above or below.

As well, there is new footnote support. Works lets you choose to place footnotes either at the end of your document, or at the bottom of each page. You can insert spreadsheet data as a chart or as a table. Now, the data is hot-linked-- if you update your spreadsheet, the word processor document is updated as well.

You also get an overtype option, as well as word and line count. The word processor continues to have a spell check and a thesaurus.

The spreadsheet and database both support larger files; you can now have over 16,000 spreadsheet rows, and 32,000 database records. The spreadsheet can automatically adjust column width to fit your data, and like the big guy, Excel, there's an AutoSum tool, to automatically total a row or column. Both modules let you use fractions as well as decimals, and can format numbers to include leading zeros (important for inventory codes, for example).

The database module has a vastly improved report generator. In the past, creating a report was pretty painful-- now it's almost a pleasure to use.

Finally, the communications module becomes almost respectable. I knew a number of people who used the old one to connect up with BBS's because it was there, and they didn't want to have to buy and learn how to use a dedicated communications package. But they were severely limited by its lack of ANSI support, and by being stuck with X-modem for file transfers. Both of these limitations are gone. Works now supports ANSI screen emulations (monochrome only, however,), as well as Y and Z-modem. It also supports modems on COM3 and 4. Now if they'd add a dialing directory...

Help, by the way, is just a key away, and is context-sensitive. Open a menu, select an item, and press F1 to get an explanation of that menu item. Like version 2, there's also an on-disk tutorial. Unlike that version, the User's Guide IS usable, and not an alphabetized reference manual.

All this takes almost 5 megs of hard drive space, up from about 3 for the previous version. It will run on pretty much any PC with 640k memory. You don't even need a hard drive... you can install a runnable version of this on a single 720k disk for that old laptop.

Should you get Works? While all the modules have been upgraded, you'll still get more power and more features in almost any dedicated word processor, spreadsheet, database, and communications program. On the other hand, many (most?) users don't use anywhere near all the features of these programs.

Works remains easy to learn and to use. The consistent interface means that it is far easier for Works word processor users to learn to use a spreadsheet or database than for Word Perfect users to pick up 1-2-3 or D-Base. As well, Works users are guaranteed real, though limited compatibility between modules that would be difficult, or impossible to attain using separate DOS programs.

If you're a new computer user, especially if you don't have a computer that will run Windows, take a look at this one. It's as easy a way to get productive on your new computer as it comes. If you've got a laptop with limited or no hard drive space, it sure beats loading three or four separate programs. (And if you're on a tight budget, it sure beats buying three or four separate programs!)

While less DOS-based software is being sold than Windows software, it's good to see that Windows giant Microsoft has not left DOS users out in the cold. This enhanced version of Works has plenty of life left in it, and shows that you can still get a lot done, at an affordable price, without switching over to Windows.

Hot Tip

If you're using Works, either the old version 2.0 or the new upgrade, or if you like Word Perfect or MS Word, but miss access to the wide range of fonts that Windows 3.1 users get, take a look for TrueType for DOS. This $80 (approx.) add-in for these three DOS programs lets you (as the name suggests) add support for TrueType fonts with a wide range of popular printers (no Postscript support, however). It includes fonts from 19 TrueType families, including both body text, head line, symbols and dingbat fonts, and lets the user add other fonts in the increasingly popluar TrueType format. Runs in 640k, in about 3 meg of hard disk space. From MicroLogic Software, 1351 Ocean Avenue, Emeryville, CA. 94608 USA. 510-652-5464, fax 510-652-7079.

(Note from the year 2003): The above article was originally published in 1994, as a review. A decade or so later, I've gotten a series of emails from  fans hoping that I could sell them a copy of this software or direct them to a place where it is still available. While I have reviewed software since 1991, I am not a vendor of r any products. I suggest to everyone looking for copies of older software to check at eBay or at you check on my Files webpages, you'll find links to a number of (mostly freeware) downloadable software, some of which may be good replacements for older programs.
-- AZ (September 15, 2003)

Search WWW Search

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