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A real fix for the problems of Windows 3.1
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

A real fix for the problems of Windows 3.1
 

Technofile for Jan. 19, 1997
This is an expanded version of the column that appears in print.

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

If your computer uses the old version of Windows, I've got good news.

It's fixable.

You can buy a $50 software program that turns Windows 3.1 into a strong competitor for Windows 95. You won't have all the features of the new version of Windows, but you'll have a computer that will be able to perform many more tasks simultaneously. And you'll find that it will be more stable, and will handle huge, memory-hog programs such as Microsoft Office, without any sign of protest.

It will do this even without adding extra memory.

Best of all, it will even run faster.

Sound impossible? I would have thought so, too, if I had not paid the asking price for Hurricane, an amazing Windows fixit from Helix Software of New York City. In weeks of testing on a four-year-old PC running Windows 3.1, Hurricane did exactly what Helix claims—it freed up regular memory and made my 8-megabyte PC run like a 16-megabyte model, it kept the critical Windows "resource" area of memory under control and never let Windows crash, it made disk operations faster and it provided a snappy feel to every operation.

Subjectively, the PC seemed faster when Hurricane was running, but the proof came when I disabled Hurricane after using it for two weeks' straight. The PC suddenly felt lethargic, and, when I tried doing the same things I had been trying out under Hurricane, the PC ran out of resource memory and locked up.

(Resource memory is my own loose term. I'll try to explain it in a non-technical way. Windows 3.x keeps references to objects such as icons and windows and to other crucial operating-system data in three small areas of memory within the 640-kilobyte DOS region. When these areas of memory fill up—in fact, when they get close to filling up—Windows 3.x will either show a dire warning message or will lock up. Closing down unnecessary programs— especially if they are large ones—will help keep Windows 3.x from running out of resource memory, but there is no way to get this area of RAM to behave reliably over a running period of many days. That's because many Windows programs do not give back all of their resource memory when they exit. The result: Lockups or other signs of misbehavior in Windows 3.x, no matter what.)

Hurricane is an unusual product. It keeps Windows 3.1 (and its software cousin, Windows 3.11) intact, patching up the main problems with the two older versions of Windows and adding new speed and stability. This is something Microsoft was not able to do.

But that's the problem. Microsoft reworked its operating system when it created Windows 95 so that it would be able to handle an entirely different kind of software—programs that behave better themselves, controlled by an operating system that isolates one program from another. These programs are common now—Office 95, Word 7, Microsoft Money, Netscape Navigator for Windows 95 and Publisher 95 are just a few examples— and cannot run under the older versions of Windows even with Hurricane's help.

(These newer programs are 32-bit Windows applications, but they are not merely 32-bit programs. For some time, adventurous users—and users who installed really piggy software such as Claris Works for Windows—have added Microsoft's Win32s software extensions to Windows 3.x, so that the old Windows could run 32-bit programs. But these Win32s programs do not have the features of Windows 95 software I am referring to above. In particular, Win32s programs cannot do more than one thing at a time because they lack any way to handle threads of execution, and they do not run in protected memory space the way Windows 95 programs do. [Please don't send nasty notes about the fact that Windows 95 is hobbled by shared memory space even when it is running Windows 95 32-bit software; I know about that already, and in some ways I'm annoyed, too. But the proof is in the pudding, and Win 95 does very well when running such programs.] So the fact that Hurricane helps Windows 3.x run older Windows programs is a wonderful thing, but it's clearly not helpful to anyone interested in the latest generation of software.)

So Hurricane could be viewed as a solution to a problem that no longer exists. But industry figures show that as many as 50 million PCs worldwide are still using Windows 3.1 and 3.11, and these computers could use the benefits of Hurricane right now.

Even Windows 95 PCs get a boost from Hurricane. (The same program is used for both operating systems. If Hurricane detects Windows 95, it installs different modules.) Under Windows 95, Hurricane is able to keep the PC's main memory use at a minimum by locating memory that is otherwise inaccessible to programs.

One source of extra RAM (random-access memory) on many PCs is the monitor's display memory, which often has a megabyte or more of memory free. Hurricane automatically switches that memory into a pool of RAM used for quick storage of inactive programs. This so-called video memory is nearly always faster in operation than standard RAM, too.

Hurricane is an extremely complex program that can be controlled to a fine degree. You can, among other things, turn on a printer speedup and select various ways of protecting parts of memory to keep errant programs from affecting anything else. Hurricane also has an optional set if gauges that can be displayed in miniature or in a large window to show you more than you probably need to know about what Windows is doing. The coolest part of the display is a dial that shows how hard the computer is working at any time, but the most useful may be an extra window that shows a graph of performance and memory use over a long period.

In weeks of testing Hurricane on a computer running Windows 3.1, I was able to run dozens of programs at the same time without a hint of the memory resource problems that had kept the same PC from handling more than about six programs simultaneously before.

The 8-megabyte PC I used for testing behaved about the same as a 16-megabyte PC without Hurricane, except in one way: The 8-megabyte Hurricane-equipped PC never taxed the resource storage, while the 16-megabyte PC without Hurricane eventually locked up when I tried running more than two memory hogs at the same time.

At all times, the test PC ran faster with Hurricane installed than it did without it. In some operations, the 8-megabyte Hurricane PC was even faster than the 16-megabyte standard Windows 3.1 PC.

Testing under Windows 95 was less dramatic. I liked one feature in particular—the ability to squeeze a program down to the smallest possible size while it is still running—and the gauges were helpful in many ways. But my Windows 95 PC has 96 megabytes of memory and my wife's has 48, so we were not able to see if Hurricane could help an 8-megabyte PC handle the demands of Windows 95.

(I know, I know; I could have taken out most of that memory and tested it that way, or I could have used one of the hacker specials and kept Windows from recognizing 88 megabytes of my 96 megs of RAM—if, in fact, Hurricane would have been fooled by that, which I think it would not have. But anyone running Windows 95 on a PC with less than about 24 to 32 megs of memory is basking in a false glow, considering the lazy system cache in Windows 95 and the lost cost of memory chips. More on that lazy cache in another article….)

If you buy a copy of Hurricane, make sure you get three updates to the software from Helix. If you have access to the Internet, you can get them from the company's World Wide Web site, http://www.helixsoftware.com. You may also be able to get the updates on a disk from Helix. Each update must be applied sequentially (changing the program from one version to the next) in order to work.

You can reach Helix by phone at (800) 451-0551.


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