Preface takes the unfriendliness out of arcane DOS

Personal Computers

October 01, 1990|By Michael Himowitz | Michael Himowitz,Evening Sun Staff

OVER THE YEARS I've heard a lot of adjectiveS used to describe the Microsoft Disk Operating System that comes with IBM-compatible computers.

Most of them are the kind of words you see abbreviated in Beetle Bailey car-toons, such as "#!!&#!!$&."

The word "friendly" certainly isn't among them. In fact, the arcane list of commands and abbreviations you need to run programs and manage your files has been known to drive otherwise intelligent and competent computer novices into fits of temporary insanity.

So it's no surprise that a mini-industry has sprung up to help the hapless. Its main product is menu software - programs designed to let users run applications, organize their hard disks and delete, copy or rename files by selecting from a "Menu" of choices on the screen.

Often known as DOS "Shells" because they put a friendly mask on the ugly face of DOS, they've become increasingly popular over the last few years.

Some, like the Norton Commander (my favorite), are designed for people who know how to use DOS but want a utility to speed up th process. Other, such as AutoMenu, are designed to let experienced DOS users set up simple menus for the DOS-ignorant.

Newer programs, like PFS:Preface, are targeted directly at the novice market, allowing users to create their own menu systems with a minimum of DOS expertise.

The $49.95 Preface comes with a good pedigree. The Software Publishing Co., which produces the program, has long been known among novices for PFS:Write, PFS:File and PFS:First Publisher, friendly but effective progarms that get new users up and running with a minimum of fuss. With Preface, Software Publishing has taken the same simple menu-driven interface and applied it to DOS itself.

When you install Preface, it scans your hard disk and automatically recognizes about 100 popular programs, including Lotus, Word Perfect, dBase, Microsoft Word, Procomm, Symphony and, of course, the entire PFS series.

If that's all you have on your disk, there isn't much more to it. Preface puts an attractive menu on your screen. Select the program from the menu, and you're there.

If you use software that Preface doesn't recognize automatically, Preface makes it fairly easy to select additional programs and put them on the menu. Just fill out an on-screen form telling Preface the name of the command used to launch the program and the directory in which the program resides.

Obviously, you have to know a little bit about DOS to use this feature, but not much.

The program makes it easy to create submenus (menus branching off from other menus). This lets you set up a word processing menu, or spreadsheet menu, or a menu for financial programs.

Preface also offers a simple file manager that displays all the files in your current directory and lets you switch easily from one directory to another. You can tag individual files or groups of files for copying, deleting or renaming. A file viewer lets you look at the contents of any file you select.

A nice feature allows you to rename a directory without moving all the files in it - something that most other DOS shells can't do.

A file-finder lets you search for specific file names anywhere on your disk. However, this is a bit more awkward than others I've seen because it shows you the files one at a time instead of presenting you with a list.

Finally, Preface offers an alternative to the DOS command line. You can select from a menu of DOS commands and execute that command. Along with the menu, you get a useful help screen that explains how the command works.

As one might expect from a heavy-weight like Software Publishing, Preface went about its business smoothly and flawlessly. The user manual and on-line help are direct and understandable.

As an experienced DOS user, I chafed at some of the program's limitations. For example, if you have nested subdirectories for files created by a program that resides elsewhere on your disk, you'll still have to create a batch command file for Preface to use.

But for new users, Preface comes as close to plug-it-in-and-run as I've seen. If you're stymied by DOS, it's a good choice. For information, contact Software Publishing, 1901 Landings Drive, Mountain View, Calif. 94039.

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