New WinNT a bit quirky and demanding

by Alan Zisman (c) 1996. First published in Computer Player, Dec 6, 1996

Despite alternatives ranging from the Apple Macintosh to IBM?s OS/2 to various shades of Unix, the battle for the millions of computers on business desktops is pretty much between three shades of Microsoft Windows: last year?s Windows 95, this year?s Windows NT 4.0, and old classic Windows 3.1.

Estimates from xxxx predict sales of 48 million copies of Windows 95, 23 million copies of classic Windows, and only 4 million copies of NT. Nevertheless, the self-proclaimed experts all expect NT to be the eventual winner, with businesses who have up until now passed up on Win95 choosing NT?s robust stability, 32-bit power, and US government-certified security? especially now that it sports a new, Win95-style interface.

I?ve been living with the new NT Workstation for the past couple of months?long enough to find lots to like, and some things to dislike about it. I installed it alongside my main operating system, Windows 95, on a Pentium notebook, with 16 megs of ram, and a 1 gig hard drive. Some observations:

? For those who, like me, are unwilling to risk all on an untried operating system, NT can be installed quite happily alongside DOS, Windows 3.1, or Windows 95. Just choose to install it into a different directory than your current Windows version. If you want to take advantage of NT?s advanced file system, NTFS, you?ll need to install it into a partition of its own?NT will format it as an NTFS partition (which will, however, destroy any programs or data currently residing on that partition). PowerQuest?s Partition Magic utility does a nice job creating a new partition out of empty space on your drive, without destroying your current programs. After installation, you get a boot menu allowing you to choose between booting to NT or your previous DOS or Win95 (NT calls Win95 DOS? hmmm?)

 Lacking plug and play, the installation?s hardware detection is more primitive than Win95?s?it tries out a series of drivers, and makes note of the ones that work. Fewer hardware variations are supported than with W95?my notebook?s sound card, for example, lacks NT drivers. Make sure all your hardware is on the officially supported list?you can?t use DOS, Windows 3.1, or even Win95 or older NT drivers in a pinch.

If you choose, as I did, to install NT into a different directory from your current Windows, your current applications aren?t automatically supported. If you install over your current Windows 3.1, NT will successfully migrate the settings for your applications (but you lose the ability to use the NTFS file system). NT can?t make use of Win95?s Registry, however?even if you install over your current Win95 directory, you?ll lose all those settings.

? NT is bigger and slower to boot than Win95. It requires a password at boot?there?s no getting around it by pressing Escape, as you can when faced with a Win95 login request. On my machine, however, I get an error message each time the machine boots?I suspect that because on my notebook, the floppy and CD-ROM share a single slot, NT notices the missing part, and complains, regardless of which piece of hardware is installed. That?s just a guess, however, because viewing the Event Log, as recommended by the error message, doesn?t really provide much help. Still, despite the error message, everything seems to work okay.

? Everything except my modem, that is. Much to my surprise, NT claimed to recognize my PC Card slot, and to recognize the card in it correctly as a Megahertz 28.8 modem. It let me set it to all the same values that work under Win95? but it doesn?t work. So no e-mail, no Internet. That limits my work greatly, forcing me to continue to work under Win95 much of  the time.

? After reinstalling my applications, most worked successfully under NT. My modem program was the only one to fail?I suspect that NT was not allowing this 16-bit Windows program from directly accessing the hardware. You can?t use disk utilities designed for DOS, Windows, or Win95 on an NT NTFS partition?you?ll need native NT utilities. There?s an NT version of Norton AntiVirus for NT, for example. Unlike DOS or Win95, Microsoft doesn?t include a disk defragmentation utility with NT? in theory NTFS partitions are less prone to fragmentation. You can get a free defrag program from http://www.execsoft/dklite?but to make it work, I first had to install NT?s Service Pack 1. Yes?even though NT 4.0 was only weeks old at the time, there?s already a Service Pack 1. (Free on the Internet, at While you?re visiting Microsoft?s Web site, get the latest version of PowerToys ( Win95 version of this handy freebie works for NT 4.0 as well.

There are fewer places to get help for NT? the bookstores I checked only had a couple of books about NT 4.0 Workstation, compared to a dozen or more when Win95 was first released. I bought a $70 1,000 page tome, complete with CD disk. The boot seemed moderately useful, but the CD included a poor assortment of shareware?only 160 megs on a disk that could have held 650 megs, and nothing that I found worth keeping.

How?s the performance? With a mere 16 megs (!), it?s slower than Win95. I?m planning to upgrade to 32 megs?then we?ll see if it seems faster. The multitasking is more stable than Win95?s, and the few applications designed to make use of multi-threading show off the potential?there was a nice demonstration when installing it on a different machine over an existing NT 3.51 installation?I was able to format floppies at the same time that the setup program was copying files from the CD onto the hard drive. Very slick, very stable, a real time-saver. But few applications that I?ve seen have been written to make much use of these capabilities.

NT 4.0 may turn out to be an outstanding performer on business desktops?at least on new machines with fast processors, big hard drives, lots of ram, and only NT-standard hardware. It?s certainly reputed to be a well-behaved network citizen (something I haven?t had any opportunity to test). On most existing machines, and certainly on most portable machines, Win95 or even staying with Windows 3.1 may prove a better bet.

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