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Book Reviews

Teach Yourself Windows 95 in 24 hours

by Greg Perry

Windows 95 for Dummies

by Andy Rathbone

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Windows 95

by Paul McFedries

Real Life Windows 95

by Dan Gookin

Teach Yourself… Windows 95

by Al Stevens

Windows 95 Simplified

by maranGraphics’ Development Group

How to Use Windows 95

by Douglas Hergert

The Way Microsoft Windows 95 Works: The Ultimate How-To Guide for Beginners

by Simon Collin

Microsoft Windows 95 Resource Kit


Windows 95 Secrets

by Brian Livingston and Davis Straub

Using Windows 95: Special Edition

by Ron Person

Our society has always been good at hyperbole; look at the whole Elvis phenomenon. Overweight, drug-addicted rock star goes from has-been to messiah-in-waiting just by dying relatively young in a particularly messy way. Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and John Lennon went through similar, if somewhat less mythopoeic, transmogrifications.

Yet all four of them could have landed in a flying saucer on Parliament Hill on August 24, 1995 and we’d never have known about it. The media was too busy, you see. It was Windows 95 Day.

The hypestorm before, on, and since that day has been unrelenting, usually bordering on the absurd and the vulgar. Andy Warhol would have been pleased with Jonathan Prentice, a personable young fellow from Auckland, New Zealand, who was the “first” person in the world to buy Windows 95. He burned through his allotted 15 minutes like a shooting star; his picture was in newspapers across the planet and he was interviewed by every television network that could throw three letters together into an acronym.

When you consider that the shrink-wrapped software industry was virtually non-existent 12 years ago, this phenomenon marks an incredible societal transformation. On the other hand, Windows 95 itself is only (sharp intake of breath) a personal computer operating system. Just like the MS-DOS/Windows 3.1 combination it replaces. Just like IBM’s OS/2 and the Apple Macintosh OS (very much like OS/2 and the Mac OS, in fact). Just like a bunch of other, less well-known systems like Atari TOS, AmigaDOS, and venerable, eternal Unix.

The hype has obscured this fact and has divided the world into fanatical Win95 advocates and detractors. The raging religious armies of the Reformation and the counter-Reformation would understand the passions dividing the Win95, Macintosh, and OS/2 camps. Medieval monks whose entire existence was circumscribed by endless arguments about the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin would have loved the heated, often angry, discussions about whether or not Win95 is a “true” 32-bit operating system.

In reality, most computer users wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a 32-bit operating system and 32 screwdriver bits. And that’s where this first batch of books comes in.

Windows 95 for Dummies by Andy Rathbone is the latest entry in the wildly successful Dummies line of computer books from IDG Books. These books, particularly the ones written by Rathbone and by series originator Dan Gookin, have earned their reputation the hard way, and they work for a number of very simple reasons.

Like its predecessors, Windows 95 for Dummies is, first and foremost, a book. It’s not a manual, it’s not a sloppily produced adjunct to a bunch of digital bits on a plastic disc. Rathbone is actually a very funny writer, and you often catch yourself laughing out loud while reading.

Information is organized in a very straightforward way, going from the least to the most complex in a linear fashion. Or as linear as one can get when discussing a non-linear operating system. Techie stuff is included for those who are interested, but it’s offset from the main text, segregated away so you don’t have to read it if you don’t have the time or the inclination.

What’s interesting about this book is that it is clearly an update of the existing Windows 3.1 for Dummies. It discusses Windows 95 in relation to what it truly is, an upgrade of an existing piece of software already in use by millions of people, as opposed to some mythical, magical force which has dropped from the sky. (One has to wonder what the hype-factor would have been if they had just called it Windows 4.0.)

If you’re new to Windows, or to personal computers in general, I heartily recommend this book.

Likewise for The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Windows 95 by Canadian author Paul McFedries, published by Que Books.

Actually, “likewise” pretty much sums it up. McFedries is a more than competent author, and this book basically shares most of the strengths of Windows 95 for Dummies, although you really get the sense that McFedries is a little uncomfortable writing in the pseudo-Gookin/Rathbone style imposed on him by the format. Rich Tennant’s 5th Wave cartoons in the Dummies book are also much funnier than the dull-as-dishwater scribbles in its Complete Idiot’s counterpart.

I must admit that the Complete Idiot’s books bug me. There is, for instance, a clear semantic difference between a “Dummy” and a “Complete Idiot” which someone should explain to the nice people at Que. Either offering will, however, serve the purpose equally well, although I think Rathbone has a slight edge as a writer.

For those who fall into the category of the not-quite-complete-idiot, I recommend Dan Gookin’s Real Life Windows 95, also from IDG. Gookin, who originated the Dummies series back in 1990, has lost none of his edge (he insists on calling the famous Win95 Start button the “Start Thing”). But he does bring a more complete, somewhat more advanced approach to this book. If you’ve been finding the Dummies books and their clones a little too simplistic of late, this is the book to graduate to.

I was also impressed by Greg Perry’s Teach Yourself Windows 95 in 24 Hours from Sams Publishing. This is a well-written, well-researched, well-divided book which also features one of the best one-on-one comparisons between Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 that I’ve seen. Too many of these books assume that you’re coming onto Win95 cold, or they dismiss the differences between the systems in a couple of paragraphs. However, Win3.1 users are probably the largest class of new Win95 users, and there are some significant variances between the versions that merit discussion. Perry rises to the challenge by understanding that people already have established skills which need to be redirected, not ignored.

Just for confusion’s sake, there’s also Teach Yourself … Windows 95 by Al Stevens. A perfectly decent, acceptable, plain vanilla introduction to the program. No bells and whistles, but no real complaints, either.

If you prefer a less text-intensive introduction to Windows 95, you might want to check out Windows 95 Simplified from the maranGraphics Visual 3D Series. An excellent Canadian-produced book with stunning full-colour production values, Windows 95 Simplified is an excellent resource if you’re one of those people who learns better visually than textually.

The full-colour illustrations in this book are just beautiful, and maranGraphics is clearly re-creating and not simply capturing Windows 95 screens. This book easily has the clearest and most readable window images of any of the books reviewed here.

Though somewhat more complex than the maranGraphics book, Douglas Hergert’s How To Use Windows 95 from Ziff-Davis Press is also a fine graphic guide through the mysteries of Windows 95. Numbered, step-by-step instructions and clear, colourful graphics are more than helpful in familiarizing the reader with the basics of Windows 95. Either book will serve the purpose admirably, although I think the maranGraphics book is probably superior for younger readers.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for The Way Microsoft Windows 95 Works by Simon Collin, published by Microsoft Press and produced in England by Dorling Kindersley. Though well-produced in some respects, the book is marred by incomprehensible graphic layouts and an infantile tone (“…My name’s the WYSIWYG Wizard, and you’ll find me popping up quite often in the pages that follow…”).

Where Windows 95 Simplified and How To Use Windows 95 use their graphics to clarify and explain the arcane world of graphical operating systems, the graphics in The Way Microsoft Windows 95 Works often seem to exist for their own sake only, scattered randomly across the page in pretty but meaningless patterns. They are also ludicrously inconsistent. Beautiful computer illustrations are paired page after page with frankly amateurish cartoons of the WYSIWYG Wizard, an irritating and charmless character who just gets in the way of the learning process.

At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum is the Microsoft Windows 95 Resource Kit, also published by Microsoft Press. This massive 1,300-page-plus tome is aimed only at computer professionals or professional masochists. If you’re a system administrator, a programmer, or any other high-end user who needs to be able to tweak every minor Windows 95 default setting, then this exhaustive professional companion is required reading. Ordinary mortals who only use basic applications like word processing, spreadsheets, and games would find it useful solely as part of a weight-lifting regimen. This book features three Resource Kit software disks bound into the back cover.

Almost as weighty, at 942 pages, but taking a much more adversarial tone, is IDG’s Windows 95 Secrets by Brian Livingstone and Davis Straub. Like the Resource Kit, this is a book aimed at seasoned users – the kind of people who divide their hard disk into boot sectors and things like that – but it’s chock full of insights and secret tricks that Microsoft chooses to ignore or would prefer you not know about. Livingstone and Straub are software beta testers who have been living with different versions of Windows 95 since 1993. They probably know more about it than many of the people programming it, and they aren’t shy about saying so. They aren’t shy about spilling the beans, either. A CD-ROM with several shareware and freeware applications for Win95 is bound into the back of Windows 95 Secrets.

Our last enormous tome from Que, weighing in at about four pounds and an astounding 1,287 pages, is Using Windows 95: Special Edition by Ron Person. A truly exhaustive, university-level textbook, it’s quite well-designed, the only book with colour-coded page-tabs to help find what you’re looking for. The tone’s a little dry, but it’s extremely detailed, and is aimed at users who aren’t quite sophisticated enough for the Resource Kit or Windows 95 Secrets. It also comes with a bound-in CD-ROM just loaded with almost 50 Win95 software utilities.

There you have it. Eleven breathless books about a software upgrade. Eleven books with bound-in CD-ROMs, holographic covers, and page counts higher than the average phone book. And there are more. Scores more. Microsoft Press alone has about 80 titles. I could fill this entire issue with Windows 95 book reviews.

But the subversive question must be asked: Does the world really need dozens of nearly identical books about the same piece of software?