Windows tips: When the modern version of Windows came out, myths grew up around the operating system. Here's the real story of the way Windows works, warts and all.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

Folk tales and myths about Windows 95

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt

    Ever since the release of Windows 95, I've heard and read thousands of complaints about Microsoft's PC operating system. Many of them are justified. Many more are not. Oddly, the loudest complaints may be the ones that are based in ignorance or in myth. This article attempts to correct those common misimpressions about Windows 95.

   What people think vs. the facts:

   Microsoft got rid of File Manager and Program Manager in Windows 95.

   Wrong. Both File Manager and Program Manager remain in Windows 95. (To see for yourself, type WINFILE or PROGMAN in the Run window and press Enter.) Most Windows 95 users should have little interest in Program Manager, which was inadequate even in Windows 3.x, but File Manager remains a powerful way to view files and folders in Windows 95. It is also the best tool among all the graphical methods built into Windows 95 for deleting files and folders -- as long as you understand that deletions made through File Manager do not operate through the Recycle Bin. (In other words, if you delete something in File Manager, the item is not put into the Recycle Bin, and you cannot undelete the file easily or reliably.) File Manager has a much bigger liability. Files and folders that are moved or copied in File Manager lose their long filenames. (Please reread that last sentence; it can save you a lot of grief.) Files and folders that do not have long filenames can be moved or copied safely, of course, and files and folders that do have long filenames can be moved or copied, too -- but the destination files and folders will have short filenames.

   When you install Windows 95 on a computer running Windows 3.1 or 3.11, you lose all your settings.

   Wrong. Windows 95 picks up all your settings, including the Program Groups in the old Program Manager. It picks up the other settings, too -- the ones that control how your sound card works, how your CD-ROM drive operates, and so on. The method that Windows 95 uses to do this is so thorough, in fact, that it may do too much; it may pick up settings from old 16-bit drivers and programs that interfere with the way they could operate in a 32-bit environment. A simple cure for this aggressiveness is sometimes absurdly easy: Rename autoexec.bat to autoexec.off and config.sys to config.off and reboot. Windows 95 will try to find 32-bit drivers for the hardware it finds when it comes back up.

   You have to buy new software when you install Windows 95 over an old version of Windows. The old software won't work.

   Wrong. Windows 95 was designed to be compatible with Windows 3.1 and 3.11. The design decisions made by Microsoft may have tilted the performance of Windows 95 too far in that direction, in fact. (Older Windows software is treated by Windows 95 much the same as Windows 3.x treated that software, meaning that a misbehaving Windows 3.x program can cause most of the same problems under Windows 95 as it did under Windows 3.x.) In one area, however, Microsoft vastly improved the way older, 16-bit programs are handled: Resources -- areas in memory where vital information is stored -- are dealt with in a much better way under Windows 95. Even if you upgraded to Windows 95 just to have a more modern way of running your old software, you'd come out far ahead.
   That does not mean, of course, that older software gains any of the features of newer, 32-bit software under Windows 95. All Windows 3.x programs still run the same way -- using cooperative multitasking rather than preemptive multitasking, for example, and using single execution threads rather than multiple threads, to name another benefit of properly written 32-bit programs. Another benefit of 32-bit software than cannot be achieved by 16-bit software even under Windows 95 is the way 32-bit programs deal with memory. (The technical issues here will be left out, to spare you a long explanation, but they are vital to the workings of Windows 95.)

   Windows 95 doesn't come with a calendar, for Pete's sake. How cheap can Microsoft be?

   Wrong. Double-click on the time in the Tray Notification area of the Taskbar (the far-right area that looks like it is chiseled into the bar) and take a look at what pops open. It's a calendar. You can view any month in any year from 1980 to 2099. Choose the Time Zone tab at the top of the window and you'll see a world map with your current time zone highlighted. Click the scroll-down menu for a list of other time zones, which will be displayed in their own highlighted section of the globe if you choose any of them. Be sure to close the window with the Cancel button if you've changed the calendar or time-zone settings -- unless, of course, you really want to alter the time, date or zone.

   Windows 95 actually runs on top of DOS. Microsoft was lying when it said Windows 95 got rid of DOS entirely.

   Windows 95 doesn't need DOS at all. You boot up right into Windows, and you only use DOS to run old DOS programs.

   Both are wrong. Microsoft isn't guilty of lying; it's guilty of overhyping Windows 95 in the year before the new operating system was released. Windows doesn't run on top of DOS; it runs with the help of some old (and fully debugged) code that is essentially DOS code. Given the tradeoffs involved -- developing a reasonably stable system that could handle 16-bit Windows programs, 32-bit Windows programs and DOS programs without taking up huge amounts of memory -- Microsoft probably did the right thing by continuing to use much of the same code it employed in Windows for Workgroups (Windows 3.11). Windows 95 cannot run without that code (the so-called DOS services), and, in fact, cannot even boot up without that code. This does mean that much of the underlying code in Windows 95 is 16-bit code, and this is why Windows 95 is properly termed a 16/32-bit system and not a true 32-bit operating system.
   Could Microsoft have changed most of that 16-bit code to 32-bit code? Of course. But for what purpose? Much of that code is unavoidably 16-bit in instruction length, so making each instruction 32 bits long would add 16 zero bits to one end of each piece of code. This would waste memory (and possibly even slow down some operations) without gaining anything useful. (DOS services do not need to use instructions more than 16 bits long, in other words.)
   So Windows 95 needs DOS in the sense that it needs the DOS services. It doesn't need DOS itself, if you think of DOS as the command prompt.

   The Windows 95 backup program is terrible. You can only back up to floppies -- and who'd want to do that? -- or to a few brands of tape drives. What a dumb move!

   Wrong. The dumb move was surely made by all the users who failed to click on a target path for their backups in Windows 95. The Windows 95 backup applet is simple, but it is fully capable of backing up one hard drive to another one. Just choose a folder on another drive as the target path. (The backup applet included in Windows 97 supports many more tape drives, too.)

   Windows 95 got its name from the number of windows you end up with when you try to do something on the desktop. Each time you click on a folder, you get a new window. Why didn't Microsoft do something about this absurdity?

   Microsoft did do something about this Mac-like behavior of Windows 95 -- the company gave every user the option of getting rid of it. It's very easy. Choose the View menu from any desktop Explorer window, the choose Options. You'll see right away that you can have Windows 95 open a new window each time you open a folder or open the folder into the same window.
   The default setting, which mimics the ornery way the Macintosh works, is undoubtedly the wrong setting for many users. What's puzzling is that the beta versions of Windows 95 had the default switched -- the single-window setting was the normal one -- until the last beta was released in March of 1995. No one has said why this was changed, but a rumor put the blame on Bill Gates himself. The rumor said his wife complained about having a hard time copying files from one window to another, so Gates ordered the default changed so that a new window automatically opens when the user clicks on a folder.

   Windows 95 doesn't need AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files. You can prove it by booting up without them.

   Partly true, but mostly wrong. Sure, you can boot up without those two startup files -- the central startup configuration files for DOS computers for a decade and a half -- but you'd be crazy to infer that Windows 95 doesn't need them in a few important ways. The PATH statement in AUTOEXEC.BAT is the only place you can specify a non-standard path, for example, and the EMM386.EXE line in CONFIG.SYS is the only place you can tell Windows 95 how to handle certain locations in memory. There are many other vital aspects of the way Windows 95 runs that are controlled through statements in these two files.
   How, then, does Windows 95 boot up successfully without them? By cheating. Microsoft built default code into Windows 95 that automatically inserts typical statements that would appear in AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files into the bootup sequence. The PATH statement, for example, is listed internally as C:\WINDOWS; C:\WINDOWS\COMMAND. If you want a different path, you need to list it yourself in AUTOEXEC.BAT.

   The stupid bar at the bottom of the screen gets in the way. Microsoft stuck it in the wrong place. It's a shame you can't move it or make it go away.

   The shame is on users who don't venture off the left mouse button and onto the right one. Click the right button on the Taskbar, choose Properties, then decide how you want the Taskbar set up. Notice that you can hide the Taskbar so that it will stay almost out of sight (visible only as a thin edge at the bottom of the screen) until your mouse pointer gets close to that thin top edge. Then the Taskbar will pop up. You can move the Taskbar to either side or to the top by clicking on part of it, holding your mouse button down, and dragging the bar.

   Windows uses up all my PC's memory! On my Windows 3.1 PC, I always had a few megabytes of real RAM left free unless I was really tooling along. But under Windows 95, I have only a few hundred kilobytes free even when I boot up!

   Windows 95 allocates all unused memory to its Vcache, the file-and-disk cache that first appeared in Windows 3.11. Under Windows 95, there is no such thing as unused memory; all memory is put to use. So there is no "free" memory except a small reserve.