Windows Dressing

SoftPC 3.0 lets you dress for success with Microsoft Windows

by Christopher Stetson

Using a PC after experiencing a NeXT might seem like slitting your wrists to see the color red. But if you need to access a DOS- or Windows-based application or CD-ROM, then having a PC may be a necessary evil with which you have to live. Instead of putting a clunky PC on your desk for the occasional dive into DOS, Insignia Solutions offers an elegant, if somewhat slow, software solution to the DOS dilemma. More importantly, SoftPC allows cut-and-paste interoperability between your NeXT and DOS applications.

SoftPC 3.0 is effectively a robust, DOS 5.0, Microsoft Windows–capable PC running inside your NeXT machine. SoftPC offers up to 16MB of extended memory. If you have a color NeXTstation, SoftPC looks like a 16-bit-color PC. The Windows screen is also resizable, so Windows can have as much screen area as you want to dedicate to it. DOS applications that don't have PostScript print drivers can still print, because SoftPC does on-the-fly HP LaserJet-to-PostScript conversions. Since SoftPC emulates the '286 instruction set at '386 speeds, the few programs that are '386- or '486-specific will not run.

SoftPC 3.0 makes it even easier to put your DOS files in a UNIX partition, although this capability was present in an earlier version as well. As before, SoftPC will create DOS partitions on the NeXT file system, but the partitions look like whole files. Using the NeXT file sys-tem instead, all DOS files appear as UNIX files and can be accessed by NeXT and UNIX programs alike, as well as SoftPC. The preferences settings allow you to set up either DOS or UNIX disks.

Besides sharing files, you can also cut and paste between your NeXT and SoftPC. Text is support-ed bidirectionally, so you can move text either way. You can also take graphics from Windows onto the NeXT, but you can't bring NeXT graphics over because Windows doesn't support PostScript for single-page layout of text blocks.

Start your engines
So how does it feel? It is amazing in some ways to see a real, functioning PC screen right in the middle of your NeXT. Besides making you just feel good that you are not constrained to that brain-dead universe, SoftPC tackles the very difficult job with aplomb, and, in our tests, without a hitch.

In terms of speed, as promised by Insignia, it felt like a slow '386. I found that SoftPC ran Windows like my 16MHz '386 SX PC with 8-bit color turned on. I generally don't run my PC with 8-bit color when I do use it, but it is acceptable for short spurts.You need a NeXTstation Turbo or faster if you plan on using Windows under SoftPC for any time at all. Interestingly, I found that as I performed a repetitive oper-ation, such as drawing a rule, Soft-PC sped up.

The feeling of slow performance is slightly illusory, because the NeXT is so fast at the same things at which Windows appears to be so slow. Moving a window around within Windows, an operation that is instantaneous on the NeXT, is pretty slow because it can't be mapped directly to a NeXT window operation. When the mouse is over the SoftPC's Windows window, it appears as a typically lethargic Windows mouse, but as the mouse moves past Windows to other NeXT apps, it pops out and immediately accelerates.

Running DOS apps was a much better experience, because the multiple levels of emulation could be stripped away. Microsoft QuickBasic ran acceptably, both for typing and running Basic programs. SoftPC has a mouse driver that seemed to work well, if a little slowly. Insignia said that NeXT users with the new ADB mouse will see faster mouse performance.

Another drag on performance is the SoftPC's VGA emulation. To effectively emulate VGA, and even Super VGA, SoftPC looks to hardware like a Video 7 card, a common video board on the PC. Emulating VGA is not an easy task; Microsoft has not even fully implemented VGA emulation in Windows for DOS apps, and having to remap VGA to Display PostScript adds further to the strain.

Some differences
Some of the differences between the NeXT and PC became clear when I was trying to add a program to the DOS PATH command. The NeXT keyboard did not seem to support the DOS \ (back slash), a required symbol for a PATH statement. After a little searching, I found the back slash on a SoftPC palette called Number Pad, where it has been moved, along with the rest of the NeXT number pad, because SoftPC has re-mapped the NeXT keyboard to be-have like a PC keyboard. SoftPC has a Keys menu with such things as function keys, Print Screen key, Scroll Lock key, and a series of others, although it lacks a back slash key.

Another difference centers around the floppy. SoftPC supports DOS floppies, but using them is cumbersome because of the interaction between SoftPC and the NeXT floppy driver. In order for SoftPC to acknowledge a floppy, the floppy must first appear in the File Viewer when SoftPC is launching. Ejecting a floppy requires first using the Detach Floppy command in Soft-PC, then using the Eject command in the workspace. Once the routine is committed to memory, it is pretty straightforward, if inelegant.

You set up SoftPC's memory in the Preferences menu, which also lets you set up printers, com ports, and other system features. Compared to having to set up system features on a PC, SoftPC's iconic interface is much more straightforward and doesn't require you to know about cylinders, interrupts, or any of the arcane features of PC configuration.

Bottom line
SoftPC is not a program that you can casually try out on your system. It takes a minimum of 25MB of hard-disk space. It also takes a toll on your system's processor. When SoftPC is left running in the background, other applications behaved sluggishly. Fortunately, Insig-nia has included a Freeze command that stops all SoftPC activity, reducing SoftPC's CPU usage to just about zero.

Insignia was not able to support all Windows functions in this release. Multimedia extensions, which play sounds and control other multimedia devices, is not supported, although SoftPC, through the NeXT's built-in SCSI port, does support DOS CD-ROMs in ISO 9660 format. A version of Soft Node, Insignia Solutions' NetWare-aware SoftPC, was scheduled to be available in the first quarter.

Ironically, a PC emulator will be required to run programs on PCs running NeXTSTEP '486. Because NeXT will be using SoftPC's technology for NeXTSTEP '486, though, the feature set is exactly what you would want it to be. Insignia says it expects to get 90 percent of the performance of a '486 when running SoftPC on the Intel platform. This means that a 50MHz '486 will behave like a 45-MHz '486 for Windows. And be-cause NeXTSTEP '486 has support for 16- and 24-bit color, NeXT-STEP '486 will be the only 32-bit operating system able to run Windows in a true-color mode, right out of the box.

The bottom line on SoftPC is that if you require access to DOS or Windows apps and need only '386 power and the '286 instruction set, SoftPC is the way to go. At $499 for DOS-only and $699 with Windows, it is cheaper and more elegant than a PC and doesn't take up the desk space that a PC will. It also allows you to exchange data and share files between your DOS, Windows, and NeXTSTEP apps. Just a few years ago, 16MHz performance was truly speedy, but the world has changed. So if you need '486 power, SoftPC is not the way to go.

Christopher Stetson is a multimedia developer based in Brooklyn, New York. He has five years experience in the computer industry on NeXT, PC, and Macintosh platforms.

SoftPC 3.0

4 Cubes

Soft PC is a nearly flawless emulation of a low-end '386 PC on your NeXT. The performance is a little slow in Windows mode but more than adequate for DOS.

$499 DOS version; $699 Windows version

Insignia Solutions, 526 Clyde Ave., Mountain View, CA 940043.