Home Computer: Rollercoaster welcome for new arrival in the family: All the best things come in little packages. Richard North reports on the software which is giving new life to his old Amstrad and reviving his faith in the future of the world

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The Independent Online
BEFORE I forget to tell you the important things about having a new software package in the house, here they are. I have never known one which did not register a high seven on a one-to-10 Richter-cum-gale-cum-nuclear accident scale. Put it another way: somewhere between the arrival of a new puppy and the arrival of a baby, is where I would put the disruption factor. The first week is a rollercoaster as things work and fail to work.

Anyway, clear the decks, take the telephone off the hook, break out another pack of beta-blockers, tell the VAT people the return will be late and the publisher that writing the rest of the book will be really quick now, honest.

And open up that delicious smart pack containing Microsoft Works for Dos, the version that works direct from a PC-basic operating system, without the need for the sophistication of Windows which it would not be be possible to run on my venerable Amstrad 2086 machine.

I looked at the word processing part first, because it is what I spend all day doing. For years, I have been fond of a basic, straightforward program called Intext which is on my portables as well as the desk top and makes all my machines feel as one. So it is a wrench to concede that it is wonderful to have the power of Works to handle files of a length limited, not by the program, but only by the size of the computer. The Amstrad is rather foxed by files of more than 30,000 words. But then so I suspect is the publisher.

I love the way Works lets me hold three or four really big files in the screen area so I can shuffle between them with ease. That system is better than any I have seen or used before.

On the downside, I wish I could highlight several areas of a file and then format them turn them into bold text, justified text or whatever simultaneously, but that seems impossible. I also wish I could set printing formats paper sizes and so on and headers and footers page numbers, running headlines as standard rather than have to do it separately for each file.

On the other hand, I love the way each file keeps a note of its last printer formats so that it will not need touching again the same goes for communications files and is a real boon.

Finding my way around the package took seven or eight calls to the Microsoft help-line: the advisers were unpatronising and got me moving quickly. I suspect I could have worked it out, but I am manual-proof. It is not that I cannot understand them, but that I resist opening them. So I should have been grateful for the clear, clever, on-screen advice from the F1 help button on the keyboard: I am learning to be, rather late.

A nice farmer in the village keeps his golf club records on a Button database and says he has an import option on it: this allows him to get a suitably marked-up word-processor file into the database with ease. When I was pondering how to turn my text address files into a Works database, this is what I thought I needed and did not have. But I may yet be able to achieve the same effect in a slightly roundabout way, by saving the file in basic text format, then reopening it as a Works database file.

I had enormous fun with the communications program, sending files down the telephone line to another machine, though I am still not quite clear that I have fully sorted out how it operates. There is a mystery still surrounding dialling the other modems number. Sometimes Works does it and sometimes it does not. I have not yet tried receiving information.

Neither have I tried the spreadsheet program, which does charts and accounts. This is because the VAT woman came this week and said she had seen several cases in which people had made a big difference to their return by making a small mistake in setting up the formulae that tell the spreadsheet which numbers to add, multiply and so on. I could well imagine that. She seemed not unduly fazed by my presentation of my tax affairs in a series of old press release envelopes and everything looking, well, real. So I shall stay neanderthal on that matter.

A complaint. I have an old daisywheel printer which Philips gave me about 15 years ago. It is so well made it will work forever, probably. Clever clogs Works has several hundred named printers on its options menu, but not this one, nor can I find one that will mimic it.

I am almost pleased, since this means that I shall every now and then revisit Intext, in which I wrote my first eight books. It was an amazing wrench, having to transfer to Works my almost-finished latest book, a modest tome. Anyway, the telephone's back on the hook, the cat is no longer routinely kicked in rage. Works is in the house and seems like a part of the family. I would have to have a fearfully good reason to go back to anything less powerful and sassy. Or to go on to anything even cleverer, come to that.

Richard North's modest tome, The Future of the World, Rediscovering Faith in Progress, is forthcoming from Fourth Estate.

Vital statistics

System: PC-compatible

Requirements:

Hardware: PC with hard disc

Publisher: Microsoft

Availability: High street retailers, dealers, mail order

Price:

List: 58.75 pounds

Window of opportunity for older machines

Matching computer hardward and software is often a case of horses for courses. The latest versions of the leading software will work most effectively with the latest hardware, but often the software will do clever things most home or small business users have little use for, writes Nigel Willmott.

To cut down the need for extra computer resources, you can load only part of large pieces of software like Word for Windows, the leading PC-compatible word processor, or you can use an earlier version. The result is you can get by with a less powerful machine, smaller hard disk, less main memory and, of course, less cost

Take Windows. Microsofts graphical user interface rescued the ageing PC technology, enabling it to use more memory and so increase processing power, and to make it user friendly by providing a mouse-driven point-and-click way of operating the machine.

But Windows 3.1, the latest version, fully loaded needs about 15 megabytes of hard disk and a minimum of 4 megabytes of main memory. With the latest versions of programs like Word for Windows taking a similar amount of disk space, an 80 megabyte disk is the minimum requirement.

Even so, you can use Windows and related programs with less powerful and older machines. Windows 3.1 is a much more sophisticated program than version 3. But Windows 3 still offers all the basic functions and takes up about one-third of the disk space.

I still use at home a 286-based PC-compatible with a 40 megabyte hard disk and 2 megabytes of memory two generations behind the current 486 central processor loaded with Windows 3, Word for Windows 1.1, the spreadsheet program Excel 3 all one version out-of-date and Pagemaker 4, the latest version of the professional-standard desk top publishing program.

If it's not broken, why mend it? It is all set up, the household is used to it and it would probably take the best part of day to load new versions of the programs. And of course updating to a 486 machine and new versions of the software would cost well over 1,000 pounds.

There are some drawbacks. It is undoubtedly slower loading more than a minute to get to the opening Windows screen and there are delays if a program has to call up a section from disk which is not held in main memory. A full spell check in Word needs a little patience. But this not enough to induce me to spend time and money upgrading.

I also have a cheap and basic portable, which only has 640 kilobytes of memory and two standard 720 kilobyte floppy disc drives. Loaded with Windows 2.11, bought for 5 pounds in a sale, that also becomes a Windows-compatible machine on which I can write in Write, the standard Windows word processor.

So do not be over-awed by the marketing hype. There is many an old dog of a computer that can still learn a few tricks.

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