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Windows 98: Should you upgrade now or never?

June 8, 1998
Web posted at: 3:05 PM EDT

by Scott Spanbauer and Harry McCracken

(IDG) -- After months of waiting, an endless cycle of beta versions and "release candidates," ongoing legal wrangling, and inescapable hype, it all boils down to a simple question: Does upgrading to Windows 98 make sense?

The question may be simple, but it's not easy to answer. If Windows 95 was a great leap forward, Win 98 is a series of baby steps. No single feature of this $90 (street price) upgrade screams "buy me," and many improvements are available as free downloads or in recent Win 95 versions.

Ultimately, the new operating system's fate will be decided in court. Moreover, industrial-strength Windows NT 5.0 waits in the wings. It will incorporate most of Win 98's new features and should be more secure, stable, and manageable. With NT 5.0 due early next year, many users (especially corporate types) may wait before upgrading.

To determine whether Windows 98 is really safe for human consumption, PC World's testing team spent countless hours installing and using the latest release candidates on a range of PCs, from 66-MHz 486 systems to 300-MHz Pentium IIs. The version we tested was very close to final code, though it didn't have every last tweak in place. Still, our informal testing shows the new operating system to be about as fast and at least as stable overall as Windows 95 (next month we'll publish final test results based on shipping code of the new operating system). Our conclusion: Windows 98 improves on its predecessor in ways that many users will appreciate. But it's not for everyone.

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Fight or Switch?

Many PC users own parts of Windows 98 already. Since Windows 95's debut, Microsoft has released a steady dribble of updates, plus new releases preinstalled on new PCs (called OSRs, or OEM service releases). All have been integrated into Win 98.

Any PC purchased within the last 18 months probably came with Windows 95 OSR 2. This version includes the FAT32 file system, which can free up hundreds of megabytes of wasted hard disk space. (To identify the version of Windows you own, open the Control Panel, launch the System applet, and click the General tab. If you see version 4.00.950 listed, you have the original release of Windows 95. If you see 4.00.950 B, you have OSR 2 or later.) The more recent OSR 2.1 adds limited support for Universal Serial Bus peripherals; most new PCs shipped this year use OSR 2.5, which includes Internet Explorer 4.0. Other updates that found their way into Windows 98, such as improved Dial-Up Networking, are free for the downloading from Microsoft's Web site.

Should you move to Windows 98? It depends on what version of Windows you're now using, and whether you're upgrading one machine or a hundred. Odds are, you fall into one of these four camps:

RECENT PC BUYERS. If you bought a system in the past six months, you own many of Windows 98's innovations (you lack enhanced support for new hardware devices and a raft of troubleshooting utilities). If you plan to add a USB scanner or a DVD-ROM drive, upgrading makes sense. If not, and you're happy with Windows 95's stability and performance, you probably shouldn't bother.

WINDOWS 95 VETERANS. People with older versions of Windows 95 have the most to gain from an upgrade. Windows 98 collects nearly three years of bug fixes on a single CD-ROM. That's a lot more appealing than downloading a multitude of patches--especially if you have to do it for more than one machine.

WINDOWS 3.1 DIEHARDS. Still clinging to Windows 3.1? Now might be the time to let go--if your hardware is up to snuff. Microsoft recommends at least a 66-MHz 486 system with 16MB of RAM and around 170MB of disk space. That configuration will work, but we recommend no less than a P-90 with 32MB.

CORPORATE CLIMBERS. If you have an office full of PCs, they probably all sport slightly different versions of Windows. Windows 98 offers an easy way to standardize your OS, and Microsoft's Web-based Windows Update service should help you keep up with future fixes. But if you can hold off for another 6 to 12 months, you might want to check out NT 5.0 before hopping the Windows 98 boxcar (unless the feds manage to derail NT first).

Finally, if you buy a new system, it's likely to come with Windows 98 preinstalled. And that's okay. Aside from better hardware support, Windows 98 promises smoother Web surfing and slightly better performance--and mostly, it delivers.

Installation: More Pain, Less Gain

Many users found upgrading from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 a nightmare. Well, we're happy to report that installing Windows 98 over Win 95 is far simpler. The setup program asks you a few questions, gets you to accept the license agreement and enter a cryptic code, and then completes the rest of the installation--you can go to lunch. The total installation time ranged from 30 minutes or so on a 300-MHz Pentium II with 64MB of RAM to over an hour on older systems.

But installation wasn't entirely a cakewalk. Systems low on disk space experienced difficulties, even when our beta testers set aside more free space than the installation program asked for. On two different computers, both with about 100MB of free disk space, Windows 98's setup failed due to insufficient space.

Lesson learned: Though the exact amount of free space required depends on your PC's configuration and the options you choose, make sure you have at least 150MB of free space before attempting to install the new OS (170MB if you're moving from Windows 3.1). After you upgrade to Win 98, your operating system consumes about 300MB of disk space, if you choose every component and retain the option of uninstalling it. In our tests, uninstalling effectively restored the system to its previous state.

We also installed the new OS on a 486-66 machine running Windows 3.1. The process took a hair over 90 minutes but was remarkably painless. And installing it over Windows 3.1 or Windows 95 lets you decline to install some elements, saving valuable disk space.

One warning: After we installed the prerelease version of Windows 98, we encountered problems with some peripherals and drivers that had worked fine in Windows 95; see "Hardware Support: Good News, Bad News" for details. Still, we didn't have to reinstall any software or buy new apps. Microsoft says any software that ran under Windows 95 (except older versions of some disk utilities) should work fine under Windows 98. In our tests, major business programs ran problem-free. But some utilities, such as Nuts & Bolts' Registry Wizard and Wilson WindowWare's WinBatch, don't function fully under the new OS.

Interface: The Desktop Meets the Web

If Windows 98's interface looks suspiciously familiar, then you're probably already using Internet Explorer 4.0. Windows 98's slick new menus, enhanced Taskbar, browserlike buttons, and customizable folder views are all part of IE4's drably named Desktop Update feature (not to be confused with Windows Update; see "Housekeeping: Keeping Win 98 Alive").

Windows 98's Webified look is also highly customizable. You can adopt the features you like and shun the ones you hate. Though you can bolt all of these things onto Windows 95 by installing Internet Explorer 4.0, upgrading to Win 98 is easier. Judging from our experience, it yields a more stable system, too.

Two Clicks Or One?

Windows 98's most obvious innovation (also found in IE4) is the ability to open files and launch applications with a single mouse click. You can adopt the new Web-style interface, the classic Windows 95 arrangement (in which a single click selects an object and a double click opens it), or a customized mixture of the two.

Another big change: Windows Explorer (the file manager) looks and acts a lot like Internet Explorer (the browser). The Forward and Back buttons on the Windows Explorer toolbar make it easier to move back and forth between, say, a folder at the top of drive C: and a file in the middle of E:. Type a URL into the address window, and your Explorer window turns into IE4--an efficient way to jump to a Web page. The left pane of the Explorer window can hold a traditional file tree or display elements of IE4, such as your list of favorite Web sites. And instead of having a blank background for each folder, you can display an image or an HTML file that describes its contents.

A beefier Taskbar is another useful IE4 innovation conscripted into Windows 98. Besides the usual buttons for jumping between running applications, you can add customizable icon toolbars; these let you launch apps or load documents without rummaging through the Start menu.

Active Desktop, yet another IE4 alumnus, turns Windows' backdrop into a placeholder for snippets of Web content such as stock tickers and weather maps. But add enough of these applets and your screen will mutate into a blinking digital Christmas tree. Despite all the flash, the content itself is largely static: To see updated ticker, weather, or news data, you need to be connected to the Internet. Our consensus? Active Desktop is slow, clutters up the Windows desktop, and doesn't do anything you couldn't easily do with a browser. Fortunately, you can turn off Active Desktop with a few clicks.

Internet: Mo' Better Browsing

Browsing the Web is no longer a fad, it's a necessity. No wonder Windows 98 is a much more "connected" operating system than Windows 95 ever was. Besides integrating Internet Explorer 4.0, Win 98 adds several technologies that make Net connections more secure and may make them more reliable.

Fully integrating Internet Explorer 4.0 into Windows 98 seems to have improved IE4's reliability: In our tests, the browser crashed less often than when used in conjunction with Windows 95. That's lucky because--while Win 98 doesn't prevent you from using Netscape Navigator--you can't uninstall IE4.

Clear the Channels

One piece of Internet Explorer 4.0 you can get rid of is the Channel bar--essentially, a list of Web pages that IE4 checks at regular intervals for updates. You can view the updated pages in the browser, in a full-screen Channel viewer, or as Active Desktop items. But if the Channel bar disappeared tomorrow, none of our beta testers would miss it.

On the other hand, the Outlook Express e-mail client is a highly successful IE4 innovation. Much simpler and slicker than the Internet Mail and News applets that preceded it, Outlook Express also delivers power-user features such as filters for automatic sorting of incoming mail. Corporate IS types will appreciate Windows 98's Virtual Private Networking -- a secure, encrypted networking protocol that permits telecommuters and remote-office workers to log on to a Windows NT server connected to the Internet. (It's also available as a download for Windows 95 users.) Because this feature is proprietary, you can't use it to log directly on to a NetWare or other non-NT server (Microsoft says it will support other VPN technologies once a standard emerges.) But VPN works, and it could save your business hundreds of dollars per month on leased lines and long-distance charges.

Windows 98 also supports RSVP (resource reservation protocol), another emerging network technology that works with compliant Internet routers to reserve bandwidth between two points. In other words, someday you may be able to purchase faster, more reliable service from Internet service providers that support the new protocol.

Performance: The Fastest Windows Ever?

As it has with every prior version of Windows, Microsoft claims that Windows 98 will be faster than its predecessor. In this case, the speed enhancements focus on four key areas: swifter start-ups, faster shutdowns, more efficient loading of your favorite applications, and better memory management to speed general-purpose Windows jobs such as task-switching.

So is Windows 98 any faster than Windows 95? Our extensive but informal beta testing suggests that it's a smidgen quicker in some areas and a tad slower in others. When we get our mitts on the final version of the operating system next month, we'll run it through a complete battery of WorldBench 98 and custom application tests across a range of hardware. Bottom line: If you decide you want to upgrade to Windows 98, you won't do it because of any dramatic difference in speed.

Start Me Up, Shut Me Down

Windows 98's first trick, faster start-up, has one big catch. To employ this feature, you need a FastBoot BIOS--and machines that support this system are just beginning to appear on the market. (In fact, we weren't able to get hold of one in time for our testing.) These new PCs reportedly skip the long system-testing and initialization phase that occurs when you first power them up.

On the other hand, even if your system does have a FastBoot BIOS, there's no guarantee that your computer will start up any faster than it did under Windows 95. Windows 98 loads big chunks of browser code during boot-up, and since Microsoft doesn't give you any way to uninstall IE, you can't get around this problem. If you now use Windows 95 without Internet Explorer, you may find Win 98's slow start-up irritating, especially if you lack a FastBoot BIOS. Several of our testers griped about Windows 98's sluggish boot-up.

Faster shutdowns are another story. Windows 98 noticeably improves on Windows 95 in this area, especially for systems connected to a network (including those using Dial-Up Networking). The reason? While Windows 95 waits patiently for network connections to close in an orderly fashion before telling you to power off the system, Windows 98 just pulls the plug. It's a nice innovation that won't cause problems with your network and will get you out the office door a few seconds faster.

Get Loaded Fast

How much time do you waste each day waiting for your word processor or browser to load? Cumulatively, it probably totals a couple of days per year. Windows 98's improved Disk Defragmenter utility could put an end to your finger-drumming. Rather than simply rearranging program files into a series of contiguous blocks on the hard drive, as Windows 95's defragmenter does, the Windows 98 version monitors how a particular program loads into memory, and then carefully rearranges that application on your hard drive to achieve maximum loading speed. The software you use most frequently should receive the greatest performance boost. As with disk defragmenting of any sort, how long the process takes will depend on how large the drive is, how full it is, and how badly it's fragmented. Our testers' defrag sessions ranged from less than 20 minutes to several hours. Fortunately, you can schedule Disk Defragmenter to run when you're not using your machine.

Most of our testers reported noticeable if not dramatic improvements in application launching under Windows 98. Standard business apps that were woefully inefficient to start with tended to benefit most. Ponderous loaders like Navigator 4.0 and Word 97 started up faster on most systems, while relatively speedy loaders like Excel 97 showed comparatively little improvement.

Windows 98's last major performance tweak is the toughest to explain and the most difficult to measure. Both DOS and Windows have long boosted performance by using disk caching--keeping a copy of the most likely needed and the most frequently accessed disk files in a chunk of RAM set aside for the job. Windows 98's caching introduces a time- and memory-saving shortcut dubbed MapCache. Instead of copying files from cache into main memory, Windows 98 treats the cache's contents as part of main memory. The result: Windows doesn't have to copy the file (a time saver), and consequently it expends only half as much RAM. In Windows, memory equals speed.

Is anyone but a devoted Windows geek likely to notice MapCache's benefits? We didn't, but we'll let you know more next month, once we complete our testing on the shipping version.

Hardware Support: Good News and Bad

Three years may be just a blip in the life cycle of an evolving operating system, but for hardware it's an eon. Today's PCs sport peripherals and hard drive capacities that did not exist when Windows 95 was born. Overall, Windows 98 does a decent job of keeping up with evolving PC technologies, but we also saw prerelease incompatibilities with existing devices.

On the plus side, Windows 98 natively supports just about every acronym coming down the pike--USB, DVD, 3D graphics with AGP, and more. Though Win 95 also supports these technologies to some degree, Windows 98 integrates them more fully into the operating system, and the Win 98 CD-ROM comes stuffed with up-to-date drivers. In theory, this should make for easier installations and smoother performance.

Indeed, setting up a Storm PageScan USB scanner under Windows 98 couldn't have been much simpler: When one beta tester pressed the scanner's cable into his machine's USB port, Windows 98 instantly identified the device, asked for the Windows 98 disc, and got the scanner up and running within seconds. By contrast, installing the same scanner under Windows 95 requires using the PageScan's own CD-ROM and then rebooting the system.

FAT City

If you have a big hard disk, you'll appreciate Windows 98's improved support for the 32-bit file allocation table file system (or FAT32). It uses smaller cluster sizes than the old FAT16 standard did, which enables you to recover wasted disk space (hundreds of megabytes, in some cases) and to create partitions larger than 2GB. Windows 95 OSR 2 and later support FAT32, but converting a Win 95­based drive from FAT16 to FAT32 isn't easy.

Windows 98 simplifies matters by supplying a utility that lets you painlessly convert your drive to FAT32. (The conversion is almost instantaneous, but you have to defrag your disk as part of the process.) Once you've converted, the only way to go back to FAT16 is with a third-party utility such as PowerQuest's PartitionMagic. In our tests, FAT32 proved to be quite stable and not noticeably slower than FAT16. If you have an older Win 95 system, FAT32 could provide some much-needed breathing room to your cramped hard drive.

Less useful is Windows 98's support for multiple monitors. If you have enough open PCI slots (and video cards to fill them), you can link up to eight displays to a single PC and view different applications on each. You might work in a word processor on one monitor while keeping your e-mail open on another. However, you shouldn't count on this feature working with your graphics cards. It supports only certain PCI and AGP graphics chips--including some (but not all) popular models.

Windows 98 seems poised for the coming television-Internet convergence. Add a TV tuner card to your PC, connect it to an antenna or cable, and Windows 98's new WebTV for Windows tools will let you watch Oprah while you read your e-mail. The OS even comes with a built-in guide to local TV listings. In beta form, however, this TV tuner software was slow and unstable, clashed with Windows 98's screen savers, and locked up regularly even when nothing else was running.

Your Hardware's No Good Here

Though Windows 98 offers plenty of support for new hardware, we were surprised at the number of problems we ran into while trying to get existing devices to work smoothly with the prerelease version. Practically every PC World beta tester reported compatibility glitches, including problems with mice, video cards, graphics tablets, and modems. And who can forget Bill Gates's embarrassing encounter with a scanner in front of a large Spring Comdex audience? A company spokesperson says that "Microsoft is going to address as many of the known issues as possible" before the final code ships. Until the shrink-wrapped version of Windows 98 arrives, we'll have to hope that these stumbles are simply due to ordinary beta jitters.

Housekeeping: Keeping Win 98 Alive

Almost every day, something in Windows goes awry: Deadwood files clutter your drive; software bugs make the OS unstable; and damage to the Registry can sink your system. Windows 98 assembles a grab bag of nifty housekeeping tools, and offers a way to keep up with future updates and bug fixes. (For more details on new utilities, see Windows Tips in this issue.) These are among the few Win 98 enhancements that really are completely new.

Clear the Deadwood

Windows loves free disk space--and for good reason: It needs all that room for its Virtual Memory swap file. When your disk fills up, the swap file gets smaller and performance degrades. Windows 98's hard drive housekeeper, Disk Cleanup, helps you nuke temporary files, cached Web pages, Java applets, and other digital detritus.

The System Information utility brims with other helpful gadgets. The Windows Report Tool lets you e-mail a problem report (including your system configuration) to Microsoft or your company's help desk. With the System Configuration utility, you can turn off programs and system tray applets that launch automatically when your PC starts. The System File Checker spots missing or corrupted Windows DLL files and other crucial items and helps restore the originals.

The Windows Registry has been the system's Achilles' heel for years. Windows 98's Registry Checker gives you some long-overdue tools for correcting many kinds of Registry problems and automatically creates Registry backups.

Of course, the new OS is sure to have its share of bugs. Windows 98 aims to simplify swatting them with Windows Update, a shortcut to a special Microsoft Web page that will keep track of patches available for Windows 98. This could be a dream come true for frustrated users, but its value will depend on how diligently Microsoft maintains the site.

My OS Won't Wait

The arrival of Windows 98 isn't an earthshaking event. But if you decide to make the leap to the new OS, you probably won't regret it--the bug fixes and system maintenance utilities alone make it worth the money.

When you add it up, Windows 98 is the best (and Microsoft says, the last) version of Windows 9X. If the company works out the final hardware glitches, you may find Windows 98 a worthwhile upgrade. Heck, you'll probably get it anyway with the next PC you buy--unless Windows NT captures your heart first.

Scott Spanbauer is a senior associate editor and Harry McCracken a senior writer for PC World. Staff Editor Angela Navarrete, senior associate editors Denny Arar and Brad Grimes, and executive editors Jim Welp, Eric Bender, and Daniel Tynan contributed to the story.
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