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MicroGrafx' ABC Graphics Suite

ABC Graphix Suite boxPhoto Finishes, Go with the Flow, or Draw, Pardner!

PC users who think that powerhouse Corel has the graphics suite for Windows 95 market locked up had better think again.

Micrografx' attack on the CorelDRAW! 6.0 package is an admittedly scaled down product, ABC Graphics Suite. Yet while it doesn't give you some of the stuff you get with the Corel package, like a zillion fonts (you "only" get 250), and programs that do 3D animation, presentations, and the like, it offers something Corel doesn't: the suite interfaces directly with Microsoft Office - you can even add buttons for some of its applications right onto your Office toolbars.

To be fair, we shouldn't really call ABC Graphics Suite scaled down, because it's only scaled down if you compare it with the multitude of stuff you get with CorelDRAW! And, really, most people will never use a lot of what you get from Corel. So by offering you a little bit less, Micrografx also lowers the package's price to an estimated $300 US

For that, you can create illustrations, 3D graphics and flowcharts, and do image editing. You also get a book full of some 20,000 clipart images and 7500 photos, though Corel does a better job of presenting its clipart: ABC's "thumbnails" are in black and white and there's no table of contents or index, which makes finding graphics a bit of a chore. You also have to import much of the clipart in bunches, which means you have to delete some of the images you've imported once they're on screen.

But you don't buy a package like this for its clipart - you buy it for what you can do with the software itself, and you can do lots with ABC Graphics.

The Suite comes with Micrografx Designer 6.0 (the "draw" program), ABC FlowCharter 6.0, Picture Publisher 6.0 (the image manipulation program) and ABC Media Manager 6.0. The applications are fast, make full use of OLE functions like drag and drop, and in-place editing. The programs load and operate quickly and the interfaces are functional and easy to figure out, for the most part.

So, for all but the heavy duty power user, ABC Graphics Suite has enough features to let you do most jobs required of such software.

Targeting the Market…

Micrografx says it's aiming the Suite at users of Microsoft Office, which makes sense considering the way the suite configures. But you don't have to own Office to use it; in fact, you may never take advantage of the toolbar buttons it puts into Office.

If you're like the people around here, you like to work on your design in its native application, then move it into its final resting place, which could be generated in Office or any number of other applications.

And getting those creations into the other apps is easy, because ABC is a full 32 bit suite that takes advantage of the Windows 95 operating speed, long filenames, shortcuts, multitasking etc.

We really liked the online help in the graphics suite. When you click on a tool's button, not only do the rest of the toolbar buttons change to reflect the type of work you've chosen to do (drawing, text manipulation, dimensioning, or whatever), but a little box also gives you a quick description of what you're doing. This help is great; you get helpful hints regardless of where the cursor is, and the help is in the context of where your cursor is.

Designer and Picture Publisher allow you to do projects similar to what you can accomplish with CorelDRAW and PhotoPaint (as well as other packages like Illustrator and PhotoShop) so we won't dwell on all those nifty features. Again, ABC Graphics' capabilities aren't as all-encompassing as those other packages, but it's close enough for most purposes or tasks.

We didn't think Picture Publisher did a great job of anti-aliasing bitmaps that you've stretched, but other than that we thought it worked just fine. Likewise, Designer's text layout capabilities fall far short of CorelDRAW's (in that you won't really want to write and lay out a magazine with it), but since the program is designed to work with Microsoft Office (hence Word 7), this point may be moot.

Flowcharter 6.0 lets you design organizational charts and that type of thing. The new version includes a new "data analyzer module" that uses Wizards, and data fields can be loaded into the module automatically. You get 60 shapes to use, and intelligent line routing simplifies the creation process.

ABC Media Manager gives you drag and drop access to the clipart, though we found it wasn't particularly intuitive and we usually ended up importing/exporting straight into or out of Designer or Picture Publisher.

Long and Short…

We found the ABC Graphics Suite to be a reasonably powerful performer that works pretty much as advertised. We liked the way it works hand in hand with Microsoft Office (even though that wasn't our preferred way of using it - we liked it as a standalone) and the fact that it's an affordable alternative to the Corel suite. While it isn't as complete as Corel's product, it's capable of doing most of what you'd want to do with CorelDRAW or PhotoPaint, the heart of the Corel package.

ABC Graphics suite requires a 486 DX or higher IBM compatible PC running Windows 95 (or Windows NT 3.5.1). You also need a minimum of 8 meg of RAM (16 recommended), 30 meg of hard drive space, a CD ROM drive, pointing device, and VGA display.

AT&T's 5552 Cordless Speakerphone

AT&T's 5552 2 line cordless phoneWireless, and possibly peerless

Home office phones, in fact telephones in general, have come a long way. But one thing that's been missing - and that would be a real boon to the home office- is the two line cordless phone.

Some home businesses like to use that second line to separate the business from the home, whether it be for the fax and/or data line, or just to make sure your long distance phone bills are separated properly to make 'em easy to keep track of. But most two line phones still keep you attached to the base unit with that damn wire, which means you can't wander around the house while using the phone. And what's the point of working out of your home if you don't have the freedom to unchain yourself from your desk. Or what happens when you're on the phone but need to find something that may not be exactly within arm's reach? There's been a distinct void in this field.

Until now…

AT&T's model 5552 (approx. $150 US) fits nicely into that niche. It's a fully-featured, cordless, two line speakerphone that performs with the best of the conventional wireless phones (as opposed to the 900 MHz phones, which are better yet) we've used. With a couple of exceptions…

We tested it in a real home office situation, to make it as fair a trial as possible, and were for the most part very impressed. Thanks to AT&T's "Clarity Plus" circuitry, you get a very quiet phone. We sat the base unit within inches of a computer, and it didn't cause any interference in the sound quality at all. We even tried a "torture test" by sticking our heads between the monitor and the tower, each being about four inches from the handset, and there was no appreciable loss of quality. So on that point, the 5552 does an excellent job.

Farther away, however, it didn't seem to perform any better than its competition. That's not really a flaw, though; most cordless phones are pretty good. The 10 channel capability is also pretty standard, as is the little button you can press to switch channels manually. It worked fine, mostly, though we experienced some noise in different areas of the home. Sometimes changing channels would clear it up - sometimes it wouldn't, so we'd score the 5552 as typical in this area.

And as a speakerphone the 5552 is also typical. It works fine, but as with most speakerphones the person at the other end gets the impression you're talking to him from the inside of a toilet tank. Granted, today's speakerphones are a lot better than the ones of a few years ago, but they're still not good enough. Naturally, if you've sat the base unit too close to the computer, it'll pick up the noise from its fan much, much worse than if you were using the handset in the same place.

Fortunately, we weren't particularly concerned with its speakerphone performance. As a rule, we think the speakerphone function should only be used while you're on hold or dealing with voice mail systems; when talking with a human being you give the impression you're not paying attention, or don't care, which we feel is rude.

The conference call is a notable exception to this rule of thumb, of course, and the 5552's two line speakerphone capacity lets up to four people network at a time, one person calling in on each line, one person on the 5552's handset, and one on the speakerphone. This is a nice bit of flexibility.

Another thing we liked was the redundant dial keypad: you can dial from either the handset or the base unit, which is exactly as it should be - but usually isn't. The buttons on the base unit are a bit small, but they're spaced widely enough that it almost makes up for this.

More standard features include a volume control and "directory card" (for keeping track of your stored "speed dial" numbers) on the handset, 2 way page and intercom and a handset locator that helps you track the thing down when you inevitably leave it someplace and forget about it.

A volume control is mounted on the base unit, too.

There's also a lighted dial, but it isn't that lighted. Still, it's better than nothing and more than we expected.

Battery life was fine, though we never ran it down in the first place - we kept it stored on the base unit when not wandering around (that was where we used it most of the time anyway).

The automatic redial works well, and of course you can redial from either line.

You can only store 9 phone numbers into memory, which is a lot fewer than some phones. We didn't have a problem with this, though, especially since we could also dial out on the second line from the numbers stored in the computer's organizer software.

All's not sweetness and light with the model 5552, however. There were a couple of things that annoyed us.

First, when you're using the handset to talk on one line and a call comes in on the other, it rings both in your ear and in the ear of the person with whom you're already conversing. We don't know how this could be gotten around (short of it not ringing for the second call, which kind of defeats the purpose of the second line!), but we still didn't like it.

We also didn't care for the "off" button (on both handset and base) you press to disconnect from the call, for either line. We'd have rather been able to hang up by pressing of the "Line one" or "Line 2" button a second time than have to find a separate button. This is more a matter of preference than a design or manufacturing flaw, though. Some of the people who used the phone were perfectly happy with the "Off" button - but the majority didn't like it. Still, it's a pretty small criticism and it certainly didn't impede our enjoyment of the phone.

The other problem we had was intermittent, fortunately, because it was much more serious. Periodically, the phone would just shut down and refuse to work. It usually didn't happen while we were using it, though it did a couple of times. When it decided to take a siesta it would just be dead when we picked up the handset or pressed the speakerphone button. And nothing we could do would wake it up. We shook it, yelled at it (we stopped short of throwing water on it - for obvious reasons), but nothing would work.

A while later, however, it would function just fine - as if nothing had been wrong. It was very frustrating when it happened, but fortunately it didn't happen often. It did make us wonder if there's a design flaw in this phone, however.

Still, when we took all things into consideration, we liked this phone a lot. The two line, cordless aspect of it is a powerful selling point; the rest of the handy features are gravy. And we're confident that the occasional problem of it becoming comatose would be covered by AT&T's warranty service, though we didn't try that part out.

Interplay's Carmageddon

Carmageddon LogoBlood boiling - and splattering - Road Action

Interplay calls it the racing game for the chemically imbalanced, and that says it all.

If you like driving simulations, but find they don't satisfy your craving for senseless violence, then Carmageddon may be just the game you've been seeking. It's packed with full-throttle, pedal to the metal driving action, with enough mayhem thrown in to satisfy the most desensitized gamer.

Carmageddon is like a rally race simulator, except that you're only going to succeed if you manage to take as many pedestrians and other vehicles (but especially pedestrians) with you as you can. If you have impressionable youngsters you don't want exposed to the sort of game you keep hearing about - this is the sort of game you keep hearing about.

If, however, you're a little more comfortable with blood and guts being splattered across your windshield, well friend, strap yourself in for some pulse pounding people pounding.

It's kind of like Doom meets Andretti Racing.

Carmageddon is set in a reasonably fictional near future and the object of the race is to survive and flourish. You fight your way across 36 different tracks in five different environments, careening off any of the other vehicles with whom you're competing. You'll have to drive across snowscapes, cityscapes, construction sites, and underground tunnels in a well-rendered 3D environment that whizzes by your virtual vehicle so fast you'll be on that next sharp corner before you have a chance to think about it. If you aren't careful, you'll slam hood first into a concrete abutment, slide off a high ledge, or find out halfway around an apparent loop the loop that - PC game or not - the laws of gravity still apply.

Pedestrian bounces off your fenderBashing into a stationary object like scenery is nothing compared to the battering you can take from your opponents. They'll be on you before you know it if you're not careful to avoid them, and they want to waste you and your vehicle as much as you're supposed to want to waste them.

We started the game using the keyboard to control our vehicle, and it was lots of fun. But when we attached a real racing wheel to our game port, the action came positively alive. Using the steering wheel you get incredible skid recovery capability and, though we haven't tried it on our city streets lately, it felt very real indeed.

If you get off the track, you have the whole 3D environment to drive around in, which may not garner you all the points you want, but which can certainly be entertaining. It's easy to get lost, too - but fortunately there's a map that'll let you know just how far off course you've gotten yourself.

We weren't that impressed with Carmageddon's graphics when we first installed it, but discovered that the game's so fast moving that you scarcely notice it.. And the action more than makes up for it. As mentioned, the feel is very good.

You actually can win Carmageddon three different ways: you can pass all the checkpoints, hit all the pedestrians, or climb from 99th to 1st place in the standings. Our experience was that we couldn't pass all the checkpoints on most levels in the time provided, so we had to mow down our allotment of pedestrians because doing that extends your time limit. Diabolical.

Naturally, there's a multi-player mode as well which lets you play against up to five others.

Political correctness aside, Carmageddon is one heck of a hoot to play. The driving experience is terrific, the tracks are a lot of fun to figure out, and the fact that you can wind down from a frustrating day at the office by pretending to run down all the jerks you've met during the day only adds to the game's appeal.

Maybe we're chemically imbalanced, too.

Civilization II

Civilization II screen shotReaching New Heights

A classic game has been re-tooled for the 1990's.

"Sid Meier's Civilization" was one of the most popular titles of yore and, even though it's now "technologically challenged," it's still a terrific opportunity for would be Napoleons to practice their strategy.

With Civilization II, Microprose Software is seizing the opportunity to wring a new generation of sales from this old generation game. "II" recreates all that was great about "I," adding today's expected multimedia razzle dazzle for good measure.

In "Civilizations," your empire starts with the founding of your first city and spreads across the globe like a plague, meeting and - eventually - fighting other civilizations to the death. As you grow, your "wise people" discover new sciences or technologies, adding to you strength and knowledge; you can also build Wonders of the World. The object is to advance your civilization to as high a level of sophistication as possible while ridding the world of competing civilizations. They should call it the Game of Life…

The differences between Civilization I and II are mostly form, rather than substance. The new graphics are far superior, as is the audio (though the music's annoying). The world map is now 3D (like the one in "SimCity 2000"), there's a menu of musical themes from which to choose, and video sequences play when you finish building a Wonder. The latter's more of a distraction than anything, though. Fortunately, a mouse click sends the movie to electronic oblivion, allowing you to get on with the game.

Civilization II lets you form cooperative alliances with other cultures (before stabbing them in the back, of course), develop more technology than before and there's even a sixth level of difficulty - Deity - which will undoubtedly send you very quickly back to a more "down to earth" level: the object is not, after all, to see your people wiped from the face of the Earth within minutes.

The diplomatic system has also been expanded, and you can add many more improvements to your cities, including sewage, supermarkets and an airport.

In short, Civilization II gives you Civilization I, Plus. And that's exactly what it should offer the millions of customers who lapped up Sid Meier's first classic over the years. As a sequel, it offers more for your disposable income than some of the other "Parts II" on the market today. For example, Descent II, while a terrific game, was released close enough on the heels of Descent that you don't see much new technology leaping off the screen at you (the advances are more subtle), except for its terrifically-rendered opening sequence.

But Civilization was a technological dinosaur, and the sequel brings it up to date, making it competitive in today's extremely crowded computer games marketplace. It's also fun.

Civilization II is available just about anywhere that sells computer games.

Corel Click & Create

Click & Create Storyboard EditorEasy Multimedia Authoring

Corel Corporation is targeting multimedia makers with "Click & Create," an authoring tool that lets you make glitzy digital brochures, screen savers, and games.

Click & Create (Windows 3.1, 95, NT) is easy to use - for the most part. But the documentation and online help are pretty sparse, which means you’ll get lots of trial and error experience while learning how to use the product.

The software comes on two CD-ROM’s and includes the usual Corel cornucopia of extras – in this case clip art, animations, sounds, and even an abundant selection of frame-to-frame transitions.

Developing your project is done via "frames" and "storyboards." You start in the "Storyboard Editor" screen (above), which displays thumbnails of all the screens in your masterpiece. Clicking next to a frame loads it into the "Frame Editor" (below), where you actually assemble each screen - by adding a background, typing in your text, and inserting whatever artwork and animations you want. Later, you switch to the "Event Editor" and add the interactive elements that bring your project to life. This interactivity can include mouse clicks, joystick controls, the activation of audio or video clips, etc.

Click & Create Frame EditorOnce you’ve clicked and created a project, you save it as a standalone application. Then, when your clients receive your floppy disk, they just run the "Setup" utility Click & Create includes, install the program to their hard drive, double click the icon, and marvel at your creative genius.

Click & Create comes with both 16 and 32 bit versions, and users of Windows 95/NT will obviously want to run the 32 bit program. Be careful, though: if you do that your work will be unusable to those who’re still saddled with Windows 3.1, and that means a huge segment of your audience will be frustrated with your presentation, instead of blown away by it.

We created a nifty multimedia brochure with the 32 bit version, then had to install the 16 bit program to make it "old Windows compatible." This created software conflicts that meant neither version of Click & Create worked properly.

We ended up uninstalling both versions, then re-installing them together. This worked fine – but running the 32 bit file in the 16 bit Click & Create would cause the onscreen text to disappear once the screens had loaded. We had to translate the 32 bit brochure into 16 bits by running both versions of Click & Create simultaneously, then copying and pasting between them. From then on we worked in the 16 bit version.

You can get beautiful results with Click & Create and, once you’re used to it, it’s quite straightforward to use. But we wish Corel could have included a "Save as 16 bit" option in the 32 bit program so you can best exploit your own computer while clicking and creating something any Windows user can view.

 

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Fastpoint Light Pen

FTG Fastpoint Light Pen

Point, yes - fast? Well...

FTG Data Systems’ FastPoint is a light pen that replaces your mouse so you can interact directly with the monitor as if it were a touch screen.

"Great idea," we thought, "especially for illustration and paint programs." What better way to draw – besides a graphics tablet, perhaps - than by actually drawing with a pen? So we begged for a demo unit and salivated in anticipation.

The FastPoint hooks between your monitor and the computer, and occupies the serial port usually claimed by your mouse. Another version uses an ISA expansion slot, but our test computer’s slots are stuffed with other goodies so we needed the serial model.

Calibration is easy; the software paints a line along each edge of the screen in succession, and you just run the pen’s point along the line until it disappears. It’s slick.

Unfortunately, the joy of anticipation came nowhere near the actual pleasure of using the FastPoint. In fact, we quickly pined for our more familiar mouse.

The first thing they have to do is get rid of the connecting wire, which catches on the edge of the keyboard, wrist rest, anything nearby. It may not be as bad if you use the little holster that comes with the FastPoint; it attaches to your monitor and holds the pen out of the way, but since we were only borrowing the beast, we didn’t want to use up FTG’s stickum and left the pen parked on the keyboard.

The second thing they need to do is make the thing work better when there are dark colors on screen. It’s okay when the background is light, but if you’re trying to paint it black (or even a darker shade of pale), the pen slows down or stops working. There’s a "screen flood" feature for Windows 95 that’s supposed to correct this, but we’ll still take a mouse – it doesn’t care what colors you’re using.

And since the version we tried replaces your mouse, you need to replace the mouse buttons. Left clicking is accomplished by pressing the pen onto the screen, while right clicking requires you to hold down the "ALT" key while pressing onto the screen. Alternatively, you can click the onscreen "virtual button" the FastPoint installs. Neither way’s particularly handy or efficient.

We found another unexpected "drawback" while drawing and painting: when working closely, especially pixel-by-pixel, your hand and the pen get in the way and you can’t see what you’re doing!

FastPoint, at least for us, also seems to encourage bad posture. Every one of us found ourselves leaning into the screen with our elbows on the desk, a habit that would make our mothers cry after all their hard work.

Don’t get us wrong. We love the FastPoint’s concept, but having lived with it we wouldn’t spend $400 US on it. Yet.

Maybe next time around.

Raising Monitors and Mayhem

TechnoFILE looks at the CD Monitor Stand

Do you suffer neck spasms from staring down at your desk-mounted computer monitor?

Then MediaMate wants you. No, they aren't Chiropractors; they want to sell you their "CD Monitor Deck," a plastic stand that raises your monitor four inches off the desktop. The extra elevation doesn't seem like a lot, but it lets you look more directly at the screen, keeping your head erect. This could make a difference in your long term comfort.

Even better, the stand holds 21 CD-ROM's, organizing them right in front of you, within easy reach, and it's awfully nice being able to actually find your favorite disks for a change. The only drawback is that, depending how close you like your monitor to be, your keyboard (if it sits on your desktop) might make it a bit difficult to get at the bottom rows of disks. This isn't a big deal, though.

When mounted at eye level, my fifteen inch screen actually seems bigger; the stand supports 19 inch monitors weighing 32 kilograms, making it a visual treat for desktop publishers and game players alike!

FINGER-POINTING AND CLICKING

Cirque's "Glidepoint" - My Kingdom for a Mouse?

Here's a gadget we were just dying to try. You see, our office is cursed with dust and cat hair (not only do we have lots, we never seem able to get rid of it all) that has caused a series of mouses (?) to clog up, refusing to let us drag and drop till we drop.

Enter Cirque's Glidepoint, a little pointing device you drag your finger across instead of dragging yourmouse across the desktop. With no little ball to get fouled up, the only moving parts being the two buttons you click, we figured it might be the greatest thing for our environment since sliced bread.

Glidepoint is a breeze to hook up. All you have to do, for the average computer, is unplug your current mouse and plug in the Glidepoint. Even I could do that! It runs right from the installed drivers on your computer, too, for the most part; if it doesn't you also get the appropriate software, including a tutorial, on a floppy disk.

Getting the lay of the land…

On the desk, Glidepoint mounts with the buttons on the bottom, closest to you. This is a 180 degree change from what you're probably used to with your mouse, and it requires some major getting used to. The thing can also accept taps of your finger as well as clicks on the buttons.

The surface across which you glide your finger is a little square about 1½ by 2¼ inches, which initially seems excessively small. Actually, it probably is, but you can control the speed sensitivity to make up for most of that shortcoming. It's easy to set it so you can drag the cursor from opposite top to bottom corners, but it always has a kind of claustrophobic feel to it and we found ourselves moving so quickly we had a new problem: overshooting our destination and slamming whatever we were dragging into the edge of the screen. Fortunately, little damage was done.

We were a bit worried that putting continued pressure on the finger pad would end up leaving permanent depressions in it. This would have been very depressing: we'd had an experience like that with a flat-faced calculator some years back that ended up with more holes in its face than the most prolific zit-poppers.

As it turned out our fears were groundless. Very little, in fact virtually no, pressure is required from your finger on the surface. In fact, it's so sensitive we often found ourselves grabbing and dragging objects we didn't want to grab and drag, which tended to wreak havoc on our desktop and our work. We got very used to the "UNDO" command while using the Glidepoint.

If you load Glidepoint's "mouse" driver, you get several different options. You can set the contraption to restore the 'buttons-on-top' configuration you know and love, by reversing buttons and flipping the unit over, but then the wire runs out of the left side, which may not be as convenient. There are also shortcuts and a few other wrinkles, but we found the straight Microsoft Mouse driver we ran through Windows to be the best compromise.

The reason we preferred keeping the buttons on the bottom was that since you run your fingertip across the flat, gray surface to move the cursor, and the index finger was the finger of choice, it was much more comfortable using the thumb to click the left button. That made clicking the right button more than a trifle uncomfortable, and we never really did get quite used to that.

So if you're running Windows 95 or applications that give you a lot of right button flexibility, Glidepoint will be more or less a waste of these features. We found it generally as quick, and much easier, to zip up and use the menu bar for those features, as if there were no right button at all.

Game Over….

And games! Playing a game with a mouse can be pretty rewarding, but the Glidepoint really fell down there. Trying to control your movements in something like Doom or Dark Forces was pointless (but not clickless!) and we quickly tired of it, going back to using the keyboard.

It was also a challenge to use in programs like CorelDRAW!, which require some accuracy of pointer control. The tutorial that comes with the unit says you can roll your fingertip on the thing's surface for fine positioning, but we didn't like that and think that, like tapping the surface to click instead of using a button, it could lead to those permanent depressions on the surface.

Actually, though, using the Glidepoint did teach us the value of keyboard shortcuts. In fact, it was so much faster using "Ctrl-x" to cut (and the other keyboard commands) that we're permanently spoiled and even a return to a conventional mouse won't make us go back to just dragging and clicking.

A Portable Whole…

So our experience with the Glidepoint wasn't the happiest time of our life. Does that mean it's a product without any redeeming social value? No.

Where Glidepoint will shine is in conjunction with a laptop or notebook computer. Its tiny footprint means you can take it with you easily and use it almost anywhere. It's at least as good as some of those chintzy "mouse compatible" devices they stick on the little computers. When asked to compete with the likes of trackballs that fall off the side of the keyboard or little "pencil nib" projections from just above the 'home row' of keys, it aquits itself admirably. In fact, a couple of major notebook makers are now offering a Glidepoint-like device on their wares, and in this environment it should work just fine.

But as a full-time "mouse substitute" for your primary computer, we can't recommend it.

Which leaves us wiping tears from our eyes and looking for a better mini-vacuum to get all that damn hair and dust away from the desk again.

"WINDOWS 95 WITHOUT HEADACHES"

the Windows 95 Without Headache Box How do You spell relief?

by Marianne Bray

(Editor's note: this tutorial will also be helpful to new users of Windows 98, though some of the interface is different.)

Here's a cool way to make the transition from no computer to Windows 95 (or from DOS to Win 95). Electric Eye Entertainment Corporation has unleashed this 80 minute video "Windows 95 Without Headaches," and it's a pretty fair introduction to the new operating system.

Better than that, it's also an intro to the Windows concept itself, so even if you've never used Windows 3.1 or 3.11, this video can help make you feel more comfortable pointing and clicking your way around your monitor screen.

A Spoonful of Sugar…

Humour abounds on this videocassette, right from the box (which proudly claims the tutorial is "magnetically coated & easy to swallow"). The company claims it used award-winning comedy writers to produce its script and, while we might argue that point, the lighthearted touch is welcome and doesn't get bogged down in silliness (much) or inanities.

Computer animation is used extensively to help illustrate concepts, including onscreen icons - that appear when a particular topic is being covered - telling you if this is a new feature to Windows 95, a longtime Windows convention, or whatever. There's even an "acronym buster" icon that appears whenever the subject matter is in danger of degenerating into 'technish' and quickly explains (in virtually layman's terms) what it is they're talking about.

Screen shot from the videoright: This conductor is prone to popping up periodically, pointing out particular or peculiar parameters people might appreciate being apprised of.

An Abundance of Topics…

There's enough meat in this video to keep novice and more experienced user interested, though if you're already comfortable with Windows 95 and are looking for more detailed info on some of its more complex features you'll be out of luck. That's 'cause this video is only Part One in a series; an "extra strength" sequel should contain the more complex stuff seasoned Windows watchers want.

That said, however, the video still covers plenty of space, from basics like how to open and close windows, adjusting your mouse and keyboard (there's a nice tour of the Control Panel), installing hardware and software, and file management. You're given a nice overview of Windows Explorer (we even learned a few things we probably should have known anyway, but had never bothered to try) and an introduction to the Briefcase feature that lets you keep current files on more than one computer without getting hopelessly confused over which one's the most up-to-date.

A nice wrinkle is an overview of how to get help in the Windows environment. This might not seem like a big deal, but if you've ever been frustrated trying to find something in the help menus, you might be pleased at this feature.

You even learn how to format disks, manage files, exploit the clipboard, use shortcuts and the accelerator keys. It's a good introduction.

Valued Production…

Production values are good; Electronic Eye Entertainment has put a few bucks into this: it's not one of these talking-head-sitting-at-a-computer tutorials that look like they were shot in someone's home office.

In short, "Windows 95 Without Headaches" is a worthwhile tool if you've just embraced this operating system and are unsure where to begin. Even if you use the old Windows, you can use this as a way to familiarize yourself for the inevitable upgrade (and it'll happen to you some day!).

We look forward to volume two…

"Windows 95 Without Headaches" sells for $19.95 US.

(Editor's note: this tutorial will also be helpful to new users of Windows 98, though some of the interface is different.)

LucasArts' Indiana Jones and his Desktop Adventures

A Whip-snapping Time Waster

LucasArts Entertainment has come up with a nifty new way to kill time.

"Indiana Jones and His Desktop Adventures" ($20, for Windows), is a cute little game that lets you be Lucas/Spielberg's famed action hero, without squandering more than an hour per adventure.

As a "desktop adventurer," it's your job to guide Doctor Jones through what's actually a series of "short stories" set in Mexico during the 1930's. LucasArts says there are millions of possible paths that take you toward fifteen different quests. And, though each game looks much like the last, the adventures are set up randomly and there's always enough difference between adventures to throw a monkeywrench into your natural born cockiness.

Dr. Marcus Brody sets up each adventure, outlining the "crisis du jour" (unless he's been kidnapped and is himself the subject of the quest), after which you grab your bullwhip and sally forth in search of lost relics and not-nearly-lost-enough bad guys.

Along the way you'll barter for artifacts or other items that'll help you solve the mystery. One of the first things you'll want to do is find a map of the playing area, because it can be a real pain keeping track of where you've been if you don't have it in your inventory, especially since each game is slightly different from the last in its layout as well.

And watch your step! There are Nazis, spiders, and snakes galore, and you know how much Indy likes them…

Interacting with other characters, and they're in abundance, is via "speech balloons" similar to those in comic books.

LucasArts' first desktop-based game, "Indy" fits well with such Windows office favorites as Solitaire and Hearts in that it's ideal for playing during slow periods at the office, over lunchtime, or on the road.

"Desktop Adventures" comes on a single floppy disk and, despite that comparatively minuscule amount of data, you get a pretty neat game. The graphics are admittedly not on a par with most of the CD-ROM games of today, but they're good enough for what's needed here. There's also minimal sound: a synthesized version of the "Indiana Jones" musical theme, and assorted weapon and/or action sounds, like thuds or "oofs."

You can shut off the sound and hide the game in the background - much to the chagrin of employers everywhere - so you can look like you're hard at work when the boss checks up on you. Unless your boss is familiar with Windows 95 (if you're running that), of course, and can pick out the minimized icon on the taskbar.

The straightforward simplicity of "Indiana Jones and His Desktop Adventures" can turn you off initially if you're used to the latest multimedia masterpieces. Don't be fooled, though; this is a well thought out game that's more than capable of letting you happily while away many otherwise productive hours as you chase down priceless trinkets and evil scientists. And the brevity of the scenarios ensures you won't have time to get bored…

The Library of the Future

Read all about it!

This CD-ROM absolutely knocked my socks off when I looked through the table of contents. It's easy to see why...

"The Library of the Future - Third Edition" is jammed with about 1750 works of literature, history, science, religion, you name it. Designed to run under either DOS or Windows, it's probably the greatest reference library a family can have without adding an extra wing to the house.

You get Aesop's fables and fairy tales by both Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Beowulf is here, as is the Hippocratic Oath, the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The list goes on: the Magna Carta, the King James Bible, the Koran, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Casey at the Bat, Ben-Hur, War and Peace, Shakespeare's works, Conan Doyle's works, Frankenstein and Dracula, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Added Nauseam?

Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, Wizard of Oz, Gulliver's Travels, Don Quixote, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Get the point? If you can think of something that could possibly be in the public domain, it's probably here in this fabulous collection.

You even get illustrations and a few video clips! All for $149 U.S.! Why this collection, if sold separately in stores (not to sound like a K-Tel ad!) would cost thousands of dollars and take years to collect.

Warts?

All this gushing doesn't mean "The Library of the Future" is without flaw, however. But it's such an outstanding value that it's easy to over look them.

We still have to talk about 'em, though! First, while you can search by word, subject, phrase, date etc., it's not the most sophisticated search engine you can find and you might find it frustrating at times. But only a little.

And the whole shebang is a gigantic text file, through which you scroll up and down. It would have been nice (though probably not available for $149!) if the viewing interface (i.e. the computer monitor) were set up like an old fashioned book, and you could "page through" it from left to right as you would with a real book. That's admittedly a pretty nitpicky point, but it would have made the reading experience more enjoyable.

It would also have been nice to have the illustrations appear in the text, as they would with a real book. You have to go searching for them, though they're easy enough to find.

To counter that, however, you can also cut and paste the quotes or passages you want and, to a certain extent, you can change the typefaces you're reading to make it easier on your eyes. Of course, you can also print out your favourite book or section, though it comes out as ASCII text, which isn't as easy to read as one might like.

Still, a real page turner

In short, this is a work that every home should have. It's not only a terrific tool, it's a way to catch up on all those classics you were supposed to read in school, but opted for the "Cole's Notes" digest version instead. And you know, there's a lot of good and enjoyable reading here that'll keep you busy for years.

And if there's ever a nuclear war, you've got Mankind on a disc, all ready to use in the rebuilding process! Assuming, of course, that there's still electricity....

Taking it to the M.A.X.

By Jim Bray

Gamers with a penchant for exploration, colonization, and vaporization can take strategic warfare to the M.A.X., thanks to Interplay’s new game.

M.A.X., short for Mechanized Assault & Exploration, is set in a future in which Earth has been ecologically destroyed (how original!) and humanity’s remnants have split into eight opposing clans. These gaggles build gigantic "generational starships" to take their descendants to the strange new worlds their probes discover for them.

Unfortunately, more than one clan is likely to claim a particular world, and neither is neighborly enough to share.

You’re started off with a basic colony and as you wait for the inevitable conflict you build factories to construct various types of vehicles, from scouts to heavy duty ordnance. You’ll also want a few gun turrets and the other staples of a colony that just happens to be in the middle of a war zone.

You need to be strong enough to make your opponents think twice about messing with you, though chances are it won’t take them long to think twice anyway, and you might find your fledgling colony under attack before you’re ready for it.

I never did master M.A.X.; even when I hamstrung my computerized opponents (via settings in the options menu), they had a nasty habit of showing up at the most inopportune times. More often than not, they provided me with the same nasty surprises I was planning for them – and very rudely blew my hard-working colony into mounds of rubble that littered the planetary landscape.

It happened depressingly quickly and depressingly often.

The gaming area is a bird’s eye view of your new homeworld, and you can zoom in and out to your heart’s content, which is nice when you’re trying to find those pesky other folk before they find you. Secondary windows include readouts that are supposed to help you cope.

If you’ve played Warcraft II, you’ll find M.A.X.’s concept familiar, though it’s more like Dune 2 than the fantasy world of Warcraft II.

M.A.X. features 24 different worlds to conquer and exploit, and lots of different vehicles, tactics, and campaigns from which to choose.

If it sounds tough, it is. Fortunately, there’s a generous series of training missions that teach you the various ins and outs – and I was grateful they were there, for all the good they did me.

You can play up to three computerized opponents at a time, if you have a death wish; up to four people can duke it out over a network, and two can have at it via modem.

Interplay says M.A.X. will run on a 486–66, but it got choppy at times on my Pentium 133 with 32 Meg of RAM and 6X CD-ROM.

Maybe it was just slowing down to match my skill level…

Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries

Mercenaries screen"Mech" -anized Mayhem?

by Chris Bray

Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries is the "prequel" to Activision’s popular Mechwarrior 2 computer game. Mercenaries (DOS/Windows 95) is set in a time before Mechwarrior 2, before the development of the clans, but unlike Mechwarrior 2, where you fight for your clan’s honour and survival and your basic needs are taken care of for you, in Mercenaries your incentive and reward is cold, hard cash!

There are three different modes of play: you can manage a Mercenary outfit, be a member of an established Mercenary outfit - which is basically the same type of play as Mechwarrior 2 - or play individual missions (as opposed to a tour of duty).

As the Boss, you’re responsible for the smooth operation of your company. You choose your missions based on how much you get paid for them, and whether or not there are bonuses.

You control your own Mech in combat, so you still get all the adrenaline you’ve come to expect from the genre. The hard part comes when you return from a mission: in Mechwarrior 2, you were automatically reloaded and repaired, but now you have a business to run and a damaged Mech requires a certain amount of money to repair and reload. You’d better hope you earn enough dough to pay for it, or you’ll quickly go bankrupt!

A nice addition to the game is the ability to salvage parts from damaged Mechs.

If you play as a member of a Mercenary group, the game is more or less like Mechwarrior 2. You are assigned a mission to complete, you go out and fight, and you complete it or die trying!

Your Mech is repaired and reloaded, as in Mechwarrior 2, so if you don’t want to worry about the business side of things, you can devote all your effort to blowing up your foes!

"Instant Action" is the third type of play. The big difference between this and Mechwarrior 2’s version is its flexibility. In Mercenaries, you can choose from any Mech in the game, big or small, (as opposed to the more limited choices of Mechwarrior 2) and there are a lot more of them."thermal view"

(right: "thermal view" of your Mech from Mercenaries)

You can also pick your enemies’ Mechs (or have them picked at random), your type of mission (attack, defend, etc.), and have nearly any kind of showdown you like. This mode is great if you don’t have time to start a tour of duty, or if you’re more into battle than politics and don’t care about the story.

Control is virtually identical to the original, except for a few minor changes: for example the light amplification view is now a thermal camera, and one or two key controls have been moved. One feature that some of us missed was "image enhancement" view, which made targets stand out (though some hated it because it wasn’t as realistic). One thing it was good for, though, is speed: if your computer isn’t up to snuff, it’s much smoother and faster than the other graphics modes.

Luckily, we discovered that this mode is just disabled by default, but is still included in the game - though you’ll have to find someone who knows how to enable it (we found it through links at Activision’s Mercenaries web page). This is a life saver for older systems (DX4’s and below) because the 320x200 resolution is really crummy to use, and Mercenaries is even more of a resource hog than Mechwarrior 2!

If you are a fan of Mechwarrior 2, you’ve probably noticed the musical score. We always thought the music went really well with the game; it was well composed, upbeat, and overall one of the better musical scores for a simulation. Mercenaries’ is a more aggressive score (which we liked because it gets you riled up and thirsty for enemy blood), and reflects the Mercenary’s surly, self-centred viewpoint rather than the Clan member’s code of honour.

The graphics in this game are first rate, if you have the hardware. The graphics are basically like those in Mechwarrior 2, with good depth perception, shading, textures, etc, but are better rendered and smoother edged. There is more detail to the Mechs and the buildings, too.

Be warned, however, of the hardware you’ll need. As mentioned, if you have an old DX2 or DX4, be ready to use the 320x200 resolution or enable the "image enhancement," because even with all the detail turned off, Mercenaries is noticeably more choppy than Mechwarrior 2 was. If you want to do it justice, you’ll need a decent Pentium.

We’re not joking! We’ve run many programs that recommend a Pentium but that ran with little or no problem on a DX4 with extra RAM, but this ain’t one of ‘em! If you’re running Windows 95 (Both DOS and Win95 versions are on the same CD), you’ll want at least a Pentium 133, and even then some of the detail must be turned off at 640x480 resolution to keep it smooth. But if you have the resources for all the detail, Mercenaries will knock your socks off!

If you liked Mechwarrior 2, or if you like first person simulators with a "blow-up-everything" theme, you’ll probably love Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries.

Micrografx Small Business Graphics and Print Studio

Small Business Graphics and Print Studio BoxIf you need a graphics suite but don’t like the ultra power and high cost of mighty packages like CorelDRAW or Adobe Illustrator, there’s a smaller, easier to manage suite you might like.

MicroGrafx’ Small Business Graphics and Print Studio is not only a mouthful to say, it’s a pretty good set of applications with which you can draw, paint, create 3D images and more, quickly and easily. And while it isn’t as all-encompassing as its larger competitors, that’s okay because it’s aimed more at the entrepreneur than the professional graphic artist.

"SBGAPS" (2 CD-ROMS for Windows 95/NT 4.0) lets you use Wizards to walk through the creation process, as well as an abundance of ready-to-print designs for things like business cards, letterhead, brochures, and such.

And if you’re more into tasks like creating landscape plans than the next Mona Lisa, "SBGAPS" may suit you well.

Naturally, it also comes with the requisite bundle of stuff, including some 20,000 clipart pictures and photographs and 250 fonts. You also get a bunch of sample logos, and support for the PaperDirect designs.

There’s more, too. MicroGrafx tosses in ABC Media Manager, which lets you catalogue your graphics, and the ABC QuickSilver application that lets you place, view, and even edit Windows Draw files inside Web pages. And there’s a selection of sample Web pages, buttons and bullets to sweeten the deal.

some sample projectsBut the heart of the suite is Windows Draw 5, Picture Publisher 6, and Instant 3D.Draw 5’s ready made designs include everything from business cards and newsletters to Internet graphics (icons, buttons, dividers, logos, etc.) and customizing them is point and click easy. Of course, you can also throw caution to the wind and start a project from scratch, and Draw does a pretty good job. It’s fun, too, which makes the learning curve much more pleasant.

With Picture Publisher 6 you can retouch photos to make them a little more, shall we say, newsworthy (or correct defects in them), including adding nifty special effects. You can use masks, manipulate a picture, and partake of most of the main features of this type of software, though we didn’t find Picture Publisher as intuitive as Corel’s PhotoPaint.

Then again, we’ve been using PhotoPaint for several years and only messed with Picture Publisher for a short time.

As for Instant 3D, it isn’t an application we’d use a lot, but we certainly had fun playing with words - sort of visual, virtual punning. Instant 3D does a neat job of extruding, adding bevels, and the like, and it’s reasonably flexible – so if you’re looking for a quick and easy way to make a 3D logo or picture, this may be a good choice.

The only real problem we had with the suite was when we tried using the "buttons" templates for Internet graphics in Draw: the program would crash on our NT-equipped system. Everything else worked fine, though.

All in all, "SBGAPS" is a bargain at the price, and while it may not have all the power of its bigger brothers, it does manage to pack a lot of punch for relatively little outlay.

 

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January 31, 2006