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August 23, 1995

Windows 95: Installing the
software a painful task

By Timothy C. Barmann

Bob Garsson was in upgrade hell.

I saw his distressing message while scanning an on-line discussion group in search of last-minute tips before I embarked on my own Windows 95 upgrade adventure.

"I've just had a horrible night," wrote the North Carolina man after his computer froze as he tried to upgrade to Microsoft's new operating system. In the end, he said, he had to run the uninstall program to get rid of Windows 95.

Garsson learned the hard way that upgrading a computer's operating system - the underlying software that controls its most basic functions - is a big deal. If something goes wrong, it can turn your machine into an expensive paperweight.

Microsoft has promised that its new version of Windows, to be released tomorrow, will make computers easier than ever to use. But installing the new software is not without pain, as I too learned firsthand.

I decided to try Windows 95 on my IBM compatible even though I was basically happy with Windows 3.1, its three-year-old predecessor. I use my computer mainly to write, keep track of personal finances and connect to the Internet and on-line services.

It is a 486-class machine (which is the minimum most recommend to run Windows 95) with 16 megabytes of memory (twice the minimum recommended), so I knew, at least in theory, that it would work.

My review copy, which is identical to the version that will go on sale tomorrow for about $89, arrived last week on one CD-ROM disk. (Unlucky upgraders who don't have a CD-ROM drive will have to fumble with 13 floppy disks.)

The first surprise was the meager, 95-page manual that's supposed to guide Windows users, new and old, through the complex operating system Microsoft spent the last three years developing. (The user's guide for Windows 3.1 is 650 pages.) I rarely read manuals anyway, not because I'm a wirehead but because I'm usually too impatient to decipher them. But this one seemed simple enough, so I read the section on how to prepare for the upgrade process.

It was odd to see Microsoft's gentle warnings about saving your old files before starting the upgrade program. The manual says "you might want to" back up some system files before beginning. Are you kidding? I did a full backup of my entire system, especially after reading about the North Carolina man's difficulties.

So with my backup tapes complete and the Windows 95 CD in the drive, I was on my way to upgrade heaven. But wait: a stumbling block.

The setup program said I didn't have enough space on my hard disk. But I just bought an extra one with more than a gigabyte (about one billion bytes) of space on it.

I spent an hour transferring about 50 megabytes worth of files to the new hard disk so Windows 95 could install itself where it wanted to - on my "C" drive.

Okay, I was ready.

I ran the setup program and everything seemed to go smoothly. I chose all the recommended settings when queried by the program. And for good luck, I even hummed a few bars of the new Windows 95 theme song, the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up."

After about an hour of my hard disk clicking away and the software restarting the computer several times, I first noticed the problem.

Some of the characters on the screen looked as though they were dripping, and I couldn't read some of them. In fact, whole sections of the on-screen installation instructions were missing, replaced by a colored block.

But the installation was nearly complete and I was able to click on the button to boot up with Windows 95 anyway.

Once the program started, the problem persisted. When I dragged a window on the screen, it left a trail of dozens of horizontal lines. The text in the window itself was now nearly unreadable.

The troubleshooting section in the manual was no help. But I figured out how to click on the software's "control panel" and fiddled with some of the screen settings. I changed the number of colors on the screen from 256 to 16.

I rebooted the computer and the problem seemed to go away. But I was left with another one: When I tried to view some pictures on the screen, they didn't look right. A face looked tomato-soup red, with no details, almost like an Andy Warhol piece. Neat effect, but what was going on?

Because I work with pictures on a computer as part of my job, I knew that electronic photographs have hundreds and sometimes thousands of colors.

My Windows 95 only seemed to work in the 16-color mode, which just isn't enough to display pictures properly.

I spent an hour on the phone long distance with a Microsoft technician. He guided me through several menus where he told me what settings to tinker with to try to get the "256-color mode" to work.

After I had tried his suggestions and rebooted the computer a dozen times, the technician concluded it must be a "hardware or compatibility" problem with my video card, the device that connects the computer to the monitor.

When I reminded him that it had worked fine under Windows 3.1, he still insisted that Windows 95 wasn't the source of the malfunction.

So I called the maker of my video card to see if they could help. I spent another hour on the phone with a tech support person. Again, he walked me through several setting changes and even had me flip tiny switches on the back of the video card. Nothing seemed to work. His diagnosis: It must be Windows 95.

Well, other than my Andy Warhol problem, Windows 95 appeared to be working fine. All of the programs I use most often seemed to work. Its new Macintosh-like feel will take some getting used to, but I like it so far.

I'm going to keep the operating system on my machine and hope that a new "driver" for my video card, due out sometime this fall or winter, will solve my problem.

Meanwhile, I wondered what happened to that North Carolina man. He told me the rest of his story in an e-mail message. After five days of installing and uninstalling Windows 95, a "guru at a local computer shop" found the problem. Some "32-bit drivers" hadn't been installed on his computer.

But after that problem was solved, another one crept up two days later, forcing him to have to reinstall the software all over again.

If our experiences are any indication, it's a good thing Microsoft has bolstered its technical support staff for the big launch tomorrow - they're going to need it.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff photographer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.