Note: I wrote this way back in 2003, so my advice as far as replacing Windows 3.1 is a bit dated, but the strengths and weaknesses remain valid. If you’re thinking of a new computer, please don’t run anything older than Windows 7.
I found a search in my log analysis for “disadvantages of windows 3.1,” which I found interesting. I can talk about that.
Someone asked for it, and I aim to please. So let’s head down memory lane.
In all fairness, let’s talk about what’s good about it first. The main thing is that it’ll run–or at least load and execute–on pretty much anything, as long as it’s old. It’s anything but ideal on a 286, but it’ll execute. And on a 386DX, plain old Windows 3.1 is reasonably zippy if you cut down the number of fonts it has, only load a few applications, and install 16 MB of RAM in it. On a 486 or a low-end Pentium, it’s plenty fast.
Windows 3.1 freeware doesn’t have much in the way of strings attached–no need to worry about spyware. That’s a good thing.
Fine. Now for the hatchet job. To be completely honest, I didn’t like Windows 3.1 in 1993 and 1994 when it was what everyone was using. I ran it for a few months and then went out and bought OS/2 and never looked back. So you’re getting a perspective from someone who’s been willing for a long, long time to run anything other than Windows 3.1. But I’ll do my best to be fair.
You may have trouble running it on newer hardware. Let’s face it, it came on the market 10 years ago and not many people use it anymore. There’s not a lot of demand for drivers, so it can be hard to find a modern video card with Windows 3.1 drivers. And not only does Windows 3.1 have spotty capability with new hardware, it’s very limited in its ability to take advantage of anything made since 1995 or so.
More importantly, modern operating systems give full pre-emptive multitasking, or in the case of Windows 95/98/ME, at least something that vaguely resembles it. Under pre-emptive multitasking, the OS decides what applications get CPU time and how much. In Win3.1’s cooperative multitasking, the apps just have a knock-down, drag-out fight for CPU time. If you send an application to the background, it’ll get some work done, but not as much as it would under a newer OS.
My biggest beef with Windows 3.1 was its crashes. If you just run an app or maybe two all the time, it works reasonably well. But I’m the kind of guy who always has three or four or twelve apps open–the first multitasking systems I ever used, Unix and AmigaOS, had no problem doing that–and if you try that with Windows 3.1 for very long, you’ll see a lot of blue screens.
I wasn’t a fan of the Windows 3.1 Program Manager interface. I’m not in love with the Explorer interface of newer versions either, but it’s easier to use and faster to navigate than Progman was.
And although its software selection is pretty good, I guess Windows 3.1 now falls victim to the same argument I heard time and time again against my preferred alternative operating systems: What, don’t you like software? Sometimes Windows 3.1’s available offerings are adequate and sometimes they aren’t: Microsoft Office 6.0 is certainly adequate for 99% of all people’s needs. If you dig deep enough (I found a copy here), you can find Internet Explorer 5.0 for Windows 3.1. It’s not the best browser in the world but it’s the best one you’ll find for Win3.1 and it may be good enough for you. Sticking with Windows 3.1 limits you to a much smaller selection of software than newer operating systems. At this point, ironically, even Linux, which was once notorious for its lack of software that Joe Sixpack would want to use, now has a better selection of mainstream software than Windows 3.1 had.
At this point in time it’s hard to recommend Windows 3.1. PCs capable of running Windows 95 adequately are very, very cheap (I see 133 MHz Pentium computers sell for $35 when people are willing to mess with them, and a 66 MHz 486 will run Windows 95 decently and just about anyone who works in the computer field can find one of those to give you for free if you ask nicely enough), and although support for Windows 95 is starting to dry up, it’s much easier to find hardware and software compatible with Win95 than it is for Windows 3.1. Windows 98 is better still, but I definitely recommend a 200 MHz Pentium and more than 32 MB of RAM for Win98. Still, that’s doable.
And if you’re thinking that Windows 3.1 is adequate for you and you’re not totally strapped for cash, you might want to give the $199 Wal-Mart PCs running Lindows a look. Lindows is basically Linux with a pretty graphical user interface, and it’s perfectly fine for word processing, web browsing and e-mail. The budget Wal-Mart PC is hardly a barn burner, but it’s much faster than any computer you’re likely to be running Windows 3.1 on, and since it will be much newer, the hardware itself will also be a lot more reliable. Double check with your ISP before you buy one to make sure you can get connected (they’re probably getting used to that question by now), but if you can get connected, think about it.