It's true what Microsoft says: You can run Windows 95 on a computer with an 80386 processor and only 4MB of RAM. It's also true that you can transport a football team to California in a Volkswagen Beetle.
But why you would want to do either is another matter.
Microsoft says a 386 computer with 4MB of RAM is the absolute minimum hardware needed to run Windows 95. I decided to try it.
The Win95 setup utility told me installation would take "30-60 minutes depending on the speed of your computer." I settled in with a cup of coffee. A thick novel would have been better.
After 25 minutes, the program simply hung while analyzing my vintage 1987 computer. I started over, but half an hour later reached the same problem. After another half-hour on hold, I reached a Microsoft technical support engineer who spent 65 minutes on the phone (most of that time spent waiting for my glacial computer), and we got past my hurdle.
Sometime in the next two hours, the setup program flashed a cheery message promising that with Win95, "High-quality multimedia performance will dazzle you."
I could hardly wait.
But in fact, all I could do was wait, not because of Windows 95, but because of my underpowered computer.
Six-and-a-half hours after starting, my installation was complete. I opened WordPad, created a short document, gave it a long file name (a new feature of Win95) and created a "shortcut" to it (another new feature) on my desktop. Somewhat to my surprise, I found Win95, once it was installed, operated about as fast as the previous version of Windows. On this machine, that's not very fast. But it does operate.
I decided to install Microsoft Office for Windows 95. Though I had no problems, the installation took a total of 5 1/2 hours over two days (I left the PC running overnight).
I opened Word and decided to try out the program's Answer Wizard, which summons help in response to questions you write in plain English.
"Where is Bill Gates?" I asked.
Instead of a direct response, I got a list of several Help topics, including how to save a document, how to prevent losing my work and "sharing information with other people."
I asked: "What is the meaning of life?" The suggested Help topic: how to look up words in the thesaurus.
If you have enough time, Windows 95 works OK even on an underpowered machine. With this hardware, you'll never get "dazzling multimedia performance."
And "multitasking," Win95's ability to run more than one program at a time, is mostly a joke on a 386. I tested this in the middle of installing a program by opening the Control Panel and changing a setting on my screen saver. When this was Windows 95's only task, it took 57 seconds. But during installation, the procedure took four minutes, 20 seconds.
Even on this slow machine, Win95 showed off its ability to maximize chunks of internal memory called "system resources," which are used to temporarily store data. This solves a problem common to Windows 3.1.
To set up a comparison, I used another 386 computer with more than twice the RAM running under Windows 3.1. After I had opened up half a dozen applications and documents, I had almost no resources left. I tried to do one more thing, and the machine stopped responding completely. My only choice was to turn it off, losing any data I hadn't saved to a disk.
On my machine running Windows 95, I opened every application I could find until the computer finally bogged down with 13 documents and applications running (creeping is a more accurate description). Even then, I had an incredible 78 percent of system resources free, meaning the system was in no danger of crashing. A definite advantage for the new Windows.
If you have the time to install it, Win95 will work adequately even on minimal hardware. But if you have a 386 with only 4MB of RAM and you don't want to be stuck forever in the slow lane of computing, your best bet is to either add more RAM (which will speed things up considerably) or forget about Windows and use your computer for its intended purpose: running DOS programs.