If you buy a new PC today, chances are good that the package will include a copy of Microsoft Windows.
Windows is a graphical user interface (GUI) designed to make IBM-compatible computers easier to use. If you believe the trade press, GUIs, with their pretty pictures and point-and-click operation, are the wave of the future.
But there are also good reasons to stick with the less friendly, but ultimately more efficient, DOS command line and programs that run in your PC's native character mode.
Windows and other GUIs, the most notable being Apple's Macintosh operating system, offer several advantages. By presenting a picture of a desktop with little folders full of programs and files, they insulate you from learning the handful of cryptic commands you need to keep track of your programs and documents under DOS.
They also provide a consistent set of menus and procedures for opening and closing files and editing, copying and deleting data, no matter what program you're using.
Finally, they're terrific for producing documents that require vTC complex formatting because their design makes it much easier to display graphics and a variety of typefaces. This is known as WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get).
But there's a price for all this, and it's not always a bargain.
First, Windows is slow. Because it constantly redraws the tens of thousands of little dots it uses to create your screen image, Windows requires far more computing horsepower than do standard DOS applications, which use the computer's built-in character generator.
Windows programs also tend to be large and require constant access to your hard disk.
Unfortunately, many entry-level computers, even those packaged with Windows, don't have what it takes to run the graphical environment. PCs with 80386SX processors running at or 25 MHZ -- the most common configuration for low-end machines -- aren't really fast enough for the job.
If you really want to do Windows, buy an 80486 machine or a 386 that operates at 33 MHZ or better.
Also, most low-ball computers come with only two megabytes of memory as standard equipment -- only half of the four megabytes ittakes to run Windows efficiently.
You can add more memory easily enough (two megabytes should cost no more than $125). But if you don't, you'll wonder why you paid a bundle for a new computer that gets things done more slowly than the XT model your neighbor bought back in 1985.
The type of work you do is also important. If you're producing fancy, formatted documents with a variety of typefaces, multiple columns, drawings, scanned photos or imported graphs, a Windows word processor or desktop publishing program will make your life much easier because it shows on the screen exactly what you'll get on paper.
But if your word processing is limited to standard business correspondence, and you're using a spreadsheet mainly to crunch numbers or produce basic reports, Windows may be overkill.
Some applications, like data bases, gain nothing under Windows.
If you or your employees spend most of your time typing data and hitting the ENTER key, searching for data and running standard reports, you may find Windows awkward and slow.
Not long ago, the marketing manager for a popular accounting program spent an hour showing me the new razzle-dazzle Windows version of his software. I agreed that it was terrific. But when I asked him the $64,000 question, he 'fessed up -- he still uses the old DOS version because it's faster. So do I.
In fact, many users feel more comfortable working with DOS applications.
Graphical environments such as Windows can be tough on the eyes. Although they use a "lifelike" metaphor of black print on white paper, GUIs actually force you to pick out black dots against a glowing white background. It's like staring at a dim light bulb all day.
Old-fashioned DOS applications use light text against a dark background, which is easier for the eye to pick out. They also use the PC's standard character set, which is regular and well-formed, compared with the often ragged screen representations of printer fonts you'll see in Windows word processors.
This problem can be particularly acute if your monitor isn't sharp -- and many low-end computers come with marginal video displays.
As a result, most serious writers I know -- folks who spend hours at their keyboards -- use DOS word processors.
The best of these, including WordPerfect, Microsoft Word and WordStar, offer extensive formatting and graphic preview capabilities for those who need them. They'll run acceptably on the older PCs found in most offices today, and they're greased lightning on contemporary models, even entry-level machines that groan under the weight of Windows.
You can even have progress with an escape hatch. All these programs are available in both DOS and Windows versions. With cheap upgrades available, it's quite possible to work comfortably in the old DOS version and then import your document into the Windows version if you need to do something really fancy.
(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)