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Warp 4: First Looks


With the amount of controversy surrounding the Warp 4 beta test and IBM's ability to release solid code on schedule, some may have thought the launch would be reminiscent of the Windows 95 event more than a year before. Much to many people's surprise (and to some people's dismay), it was not. True to its nature, IBM got down to business in a, well, businesslike fashion, and rolled out the next workhorse OS for the rest of us. But in some ways, it's a whole new kind of workhorse.

After playing with the OS for a few weeks, we have some first impressions. In depth testing of advanced features such as VoiceType OpenDoc, Plug-n-Play and Java capabilities, Lotus Notes Mail and peer to peer networking will be discussed individually in upcoming issues. Below, we present what we found in our day-to-day use of the more "earthy" parts of the new OS/2.

The New Face of Warp

IBM's retooling of OS/2's marketing has not been limited to retaining the nickname "Warp" and collapsing the product line to only one version of the client. They have also refined the default appearance of the Workplace Shell, making it much prettier "out of the box". While the WPS has always been lauded for its amazing flexibility, this new, fresher look will be appealing to business and home users alike that don't want to tinker with bitmaps, icons and WPS enhancers.

Many people remarked quite early in the beta program that Warp has become decidedly more Windows 95-ish. Without getting too philosophical about who has borrowed what from whom (Xerox, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, etc.), a simple answer is: yes, it has. But only to a certain extent. Default icons (GIF, 7.3K) are more "3D-like", default backgrounds and schemes are somewhat "fluffier" (for example, the "Space" and "Garden" sound themes), the new "Warp Sans" font is used throughout the system and initial clutter on the Desktop has been reduced to a more logical and pleasant minimum.

And of course, the LaunchPad has been replaced by the new WarpCenter (GIF, 2.7K), a sort of Windows 95 Start button on steroids. But, in true OS/2 fashion, the WarpCenter is eminently configurable, yet still simple to use. Users can easily drag and drop objects (including folders) to the WarpCenter for an instant, multilevel launch bar (GIF, 4.5k), plus many common tasks are already built in, such as a clock, the Assistance Center folder, a task list and more. Fly-over labels (GIF, 1.2K) are available for all first level objects on the WarpCenter. Also, users can have multiple "trays" (GIF, 1.6k), each one a complete menubar for a different user or different task.

For those of you who actually liked the LaunchPad, fear not, it remains a part of Warp 4. Located in the OS/2 System folder and renamed the Toolbar, its function remains unchanged.

We had a few gripes about the WarpCenter: It includes, as a default, a section which displays a user selectable combination of a "system pulse" and free drive space. We didn't want any of this information (at least not so desperately that we wanted it sitting in front of us at all times) but turning all options off, just left a blank section on the WarpCenter. It would be much better design if the section where the pulse and drive space info would have appeared could be reclaimed to add additional objects for launching. As it is, on a 640x480 screen using small icons there is room for only 8 objects (4 if using large icons!) -- no scrolling is performed if more are added, the objects off the available space are just inaccessible. Using the wasted space of the disk monitors would more than double this object launching real estate.

Another much discussed improvement is the new colour-coded Properties notebooks (GIF, 7.1k). Along with their horizontal tabs and redone look, they feature a handy pop-up menu (GIF, 9k) (accessed by right-clicking close to an edge of the notebook) which lists all the pages and sub-pages in the notebook.

The new button styles for maximize, minimize, hide and the title-bar icon are, by now, quite familiar to anyone who has seen pictures of the Merlin beta or Warp 4 release (if you haven't, just have a look at many of the above screen shots). And most people are also familiar with the new close button. We would have preferred a close button that could be moved to the left or right of the title-bar but its addition is still a welcome improvement. Unfortunately, the handy roll-up button that was included as a config.sys selectable option in the beta has been removed from the final release of Warp 4. It appears Xit will still have a place on many users' Desktops.

Another pleasant addition to the Warp 4 Desktop is the Connections folder which contains drives and printers which the user has access to as well as a folder full of WWW URL objects (GIF, 5.4k).

Installation Problems?

Many testers were concerned with the apparent plague of installation problems experienced during the Merlin beta program. Overall, the consensus on the 'net seems to be that by the release of Warp 4, IBM had cleaned up its act. While all is still not perfect, this version seems to handle many more hardware configurations without tinkering and the included CD full of device drivers (with handy HTML index) is a great improvement.

Fortunately for us (but unfortunately for the purposes of this review), we have never had any serious problems installing any version of Warp on our test hardware. The Merlin beta install was uneventful, as was the Warp 4 installation.

However, we are still distressed by the mildly obtuse way that Warp handles installation and setup on non-networked machines. This part of the installation is much improved over the beta but still allows the possibility of confusion for non-experienced users. We understand that IBM believes that every person who might want Warp 4 is a "connected consumer" but this is not the case. Cleaning things up with a clearer explanation of how to select and configure "no network adapters" would be an improvement.

Extras

As with Warp 3, Warp 4 includes some very complete Internet utilities. Once again, configuring them to connect using our standard USR modem was simple. The familiar Dial Other Internet Provider utility (GIF, 7.7k) has not changed with this release of OS/2 and 'net surfers will be up and running in no time. The now-stable (read: no longer in development) WebExplorer comes bundled on the main CD, this time in the version 1.2 variety. Also present are the familiar FTP, Telnet, Gopher, news reader and (ugh) UltiMail Lite (in all fairness to UltiMail Lite, we had such bad experiences with it in the past that we did not even test it under Warp 4).

New to Warp 4 is the FTP Folder. While this is not a new concept -- Lynn's Workplace FTP has been accomplishing exactly the same thing for users of Warp 3 for some time -- it is a nice enhancement to Warp's object oriented graphical interface. FTP sites and their directories can be opened on the Desktop (GIF, 3.3k) just as regular folders (assuming you are connected the Internet or some other source of FTP sites). FTP folders can be created by dragging the appropriate templates from the "Templates for the Internet" folder (found in the OS/2 System->Templates).

Those of you who were hoping for a spiffed up BonusPak may or may not be disappointed. The BonusPak still consists of FaxWorks Lite (v3.0 now), HyperAccess Lite and a slightly modified IBM Works. The major change to the BonusPak is the addition of AskPSP (GIF, 12k), an expert system for solving problems with OS/2. From the read.me file: "It's your own personal help desk to assist in discovering solutions." Our initial experiences with this tool indicate it may not be of much benefit to casual users.

What may be of great help to casual users however, is the WarpGuide. If you turn the WarpGuide's "cue cards" on, any time you try to perform a task that the WarpGuide knows about, help is shown (GIF, 6.3k), guiding you through that task. There is also a WarpGuide Folder (GIF, 5.3k) (located in the Assistance Center Folder on the Desktop) which contains objects to start and explain common tasks such as adding program objects or customizing your system (GIF, 30k). In practice, most experienced users will probably turn the WarpGuide off but it can be a good tool for beginners.

Command line junkies will be pleased with some of the enhancements to the OS/2 and DOS Command Prompts. Warp 4 allows users to select whether to be prompted when they close Command Prompts with the close button or by double clicking the title-bar icon (an ability available to users of Xit for some time). Command Prompts now feature "auto-marking", meaning it is possible to simply begin highlighting text from a command line window without first selecting "Mark" from the system menu. There is also a new pop-up menu for Command Prompts (GIF, 4.6k) with some common actions on it.

Performance

Since Warp 4 is more of an evolutionary change than a revolutionary one in terms of the underlying code, we were not surprised to find that it is still a rock solid OS. In the course of three weeks, we had only one system lockup, which occurred when exiting a WIN-OS2 session. In fact, in our tests, we found Warp 4 to be more stable than Warp 3 was. Again, this is not surprising since the OS is equivalent to Warp 3 with later FixPaks applied (and even more enhancements).

On our standalone test machine, we found most common tasks such as window population, moving, copying and shredding objects and starting up and shutting down, to be similar to corresponding times with Warp 3. (For these tests, we compared a non-networked machine running Warp 3 with no WIN-OS2 support to non-networked Warp 4; both setups had similar swap files, amounts of RAM and multimedia support installed.) For example, the time required to boot Warp 3 on our test machine until all disk access stopped was about 1 minute 45 seconds; on Warp 4, 1 minute 48 seconds. Shredding a folder containing shadows of all the files in x:\OS2 took about 15 seconds on Warp 3; 26 seconds on Warp 4.

While these figures are bound to vary with different hardware configurations, they are meant to give an impression of the similarity in the workings of the two operating systems.

A quick and dirty application killing function has been added to this version of OS/2. Normally clicking on the Task List icon on the WarpCenter will produce a drop down list of running tasks (GIF, 3.4k); clicking an entry will switch to that entry. However, adding the line:

SET KILLFEATUREENABLED=ON
to the Warp 4 config.sys file allows the Task List icon to double as a task killing icon. After adding the above line, holding the CTRL key and clicking the Task List icon produces a list of all running processes (GIF, 6.4k); clicking one of these kills the process.

Perhaps the most talked about performance feature of OS/2 for the past year has been its synchronous input queue. Before Warp 4 was even released, it was reported in various print magazines that IBM had included the new, asynchronous input queue solution that users had been demanding. This was news to many beta testers.

As we have said, due to the fact that Warp 4 is so well behaved on our systems, we are actually not in a good position to discuss fail-safes such as asynchronous input queues. However, the on-line documentation does have some interesting notes on this issue. From the "OS/2 Warp Command Reference", "Speeding Things Up" section:

SET PM_ASYNC_FOCUS_CHANGE=ON in the CONFIG.SYS file to fix the single input queue problem. The OS/2 solution detects misbehaved applications that cause system hangs in what is often incorrectly attributed to OS/2 as the Single Input Queue (SIQ) problem. The fix is implemented at the system level as a separate OS/2 thread that monitors the status of the input queue. No modifications of applications are necessary.
To make things confusing though, in the System Properties notebook, there is a "User Interface" tab (GIF, 7.9k) with a checkbox to turn the Asynchronous Focus Change on or off and to specify a time delay before the fix takes over. This is checked by default. Common knowledge has it that this setting overrides the config.sys file line and that the mention of the config.sys entry is something that IBM forgot to remove. Either way, things have been working smoothly on our test system since installation.

Conclusions

Warp 4 is, as we have said, an evolutionary change from Warp 3. In the Windows world, this might be seen as a bit of an anticlimactic release. But in the OS/2 world, where companies are still running their networks on OS/2 v2.11, the philosophy is "if it isn't broken, don't fix it". Warp 4 is yet another great set of improvements on an already great base OS.

With other even more amazing "add-ons" such as VoiceType Dictation and Navigation, Java and OpenDoc and much more, Warp 4 is a killer client or standalone OS. In the modern age of the Internet and Intranet, Warp 4 is the OS that everyone should have on their Desktop.

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