There are few free lunches in the world of computers, though sometimes it might seem otherwise. Compression software, for example, can squeeze the information on a hard drive into as little as one half the usual space, but the price is a bit of speed and a bit of added risk to data.
The aggressive marketing for a program called Softram 95 (Syncronys Inc., about $30) seems to offer not only a free lunch, but also wine, dessert, brandy and cigars. "Imagine: 4MB becomes 8MB," the box reads.
The claim that "you become doubly productive" is obvious puffery, but what about the assertion that "Softram's patent pending RAM compression technology takes your Windows memory and at least doubles it," or that the program can "instantly speed up Windows?"
Ann Stephens, president of the market research concern PC Data, said Softram has been the best-selling business program other than Windows 95 for the last three months. Rainer Poertner, chief executive of Syncronys, says more than 700,000 copies have been sold.
But amid a hail of criticism, two lawsuits "relating to consumer complaints," and an inquiry by the New York office of the Federal Trade Commission, the company last week recalled all copies of the product.
The official issue is the packaging, which says the product "works with Win 95 and Win 3.0 and higher." A company news release Oct. 20 said that "a problem exists with the Windows 95 version, the net result of which is that RAM compression is not being delivered to the operating system."
In other words, when it came to Windows 95, a $30 product purporting to do what would otherwise require $150 or more of random access memory essentially did nothing at all.
In response to a cease-and-desist letter from Microsoft Corp. objecting to use of Microsoft's "Designed for Windows 95" logo, Syncronys put stickers on its boxes that said "Windows 3.0 & 3.1 Version only," but the stickers did not hide the logo or the Windows 95 claims on the back.
That package is to be replaced by a new one expected to state that the program will run only with those earlier versions.
Mr. Poertner says the program in the box will not change. Unfortunately the Windows 3.1 version of Softram is only slightly less suspect than its Windows 95 counterpart.
Again and again, respected computer journals like Infoworld, PC Magazine, PC Week, PC World and the German Magazin fur Computer Technik have reported the same basic results as those of independent experts: Softram essentially offers Windows 3.1 users no benefit except the ability to open additional programs under certain extreme conditions. It does not "speed up Windows." It does not "double your memory" or compress it. It performs three or four tricks that can be duplicated at no cost.
An excellent guide to the literature is available at www.ora.com/windows/feat/Soft ram/index.html.
Mr. Poertner insists the critics are wrong, and that Softram does indeed compress the information in memory. "Our compression ratios are higher than 2, and sometimes go as high as 5," he said in an interview. He mentioned a handful of favorable reviews, a survey claiming customer satisfaction and tests performed for his company by XXCAL Testing Laboratories Inc.
But those tests show no real speed improvements and prove nothing about RAM compression. At first blush they do suggest that machines with Softram can run many more applications at once than machines without it.
Closer inspection reveals that the tests used machines that had been crippled with a Windows swap file of only four megabytes, roughly one-fourth the standard minimum. XXCAL noted that Syncronys specified the machine configurations under which the tests were conducted. Troy Sukert, XXCAL's technical manager, admitted, "They weren't configurations that were typical."
The swap file is a portion of the hard drive where Windows temporarily stores information when much faster random access memory is full. An artificially low size limits the amount of memory available to Windows and makes Softram look better, because Softram does increase the swap file's size, something you can easily do yourself.
This is not unlike calling a product "Cargo Doubler" and saying it allows small vans to carry longer loads but testing it only against vehicles with locked rear doors.
So far, the usefulness of this entire "RAM-compression" software category seems dubious. As discussed in the January issue of PC World and elsewhere, similar programs, such as Magnaram and Ram Doubler, do not deliver stunning benefits either.
If you want to run more Windows programs at once, switch to Windows 95. If you need more random access memory, buy it, not software that makes outlandish promises.
According to Mr. Poertner, a software "patch" to make the Windows 95 version of Softram functional should be available on line by the end of the year.
Registered users should receive a revised copy shortly thereafter, or they can return the product to the store or call (800) 691-7981 to ask for refunds from the company. In the spirit of the season, I wish you many happy returns.
Stephen Manes is a columnist for the New York Times.