Windows 98: Not as scary as many fear.

Question: Windows 98 is coming and it’s scary! I have Windows 95 and was thinking about going to Windows NT in the future. Should I wait? Do I have to go to Windows 98 and then to NT? –A.R.

Answer: Here’s a simple analogy that’ll help you put Windows 98 into perspective. Windows 95 is to Windows 98 is what Windows 3.0 was to Windows 3.1. It’s a service or maintenance release — it’s the old product, but better. So there’s no reason to be afraid.

Since its initial release, Microsoft has promoted Windows NT as a business platform, and Windows 95 as a consumer platform. Some home users like NT’s stability, and for good reason. It’s a solid platform. I’d recommend it if that’s what you’re looking for. If you’re more keen on a jack-of-all-trades operating system, which can play games, run business software and play multimedia, I’d stick with Windows 95 and consider Windows 98.

Cosmetically, Windows 98 is not much different from Windows 95. The Start button is still there, and so are the desktop and the navigation. All of that means that the learning curve is almost zero, so if you’re worried that you just figured out 95 and now you have to learn 98, don’t be. Your ATM-challenged-grandma could (and probably will) learn it.

One of the key advantages of Windows 98 over Windows NT is its lower cost. Windows 98 is estimated at $209 US for new users or $109 US for an upgrade for users with a previous version of Windows already installed. Of course, if you buy a new machine, it typically comes free, as part of the package.

Windows 98 also runs on machines with less than 32 Megs of RAM, so users who run Windows 95 efficiently need not worry about diminished performance when upgrading to Windows 98.

The guts of the new operating system have been tweaked, and it seems to crash less often. This is where it differs with Windows NT, which offers you one layer of further protection against the Blue Screen of Death (a complete crash where a blue screen with an error message is displayed). NT is more crash-proof because it protects the memory space that programs use in RAM. When an application does crash under NT, it dies without taking the operating system with it. Windows 95 and 98 are not as vigilant.

Microsoft, citing National Software Testing Laboratory results, claims Windows 98 opens applications 36% faster than Windows 95. Of course, results on your home machine will vary. It also claims Windows 98 shuts down two to five times more quickly. I haven’t done any of my own regimented tests on either claim, but I am always weary of the marketing hype pumped out by the Microsoft spin doctors. I can say, though, that the platform has been fine-tuned and it shows.

The other three key software components in the new release worth mentioning are the integration of Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0, the Windows Update function, and FAT32 support.

Netscape users will be fine — the IE 4.0 integration doesn’t stop you from using Netscape Naviagtor, it just provides an alternative and takes the web browser one step further by making it part of the operating system. As a consequence, IE is in your face a lot of the time. The idea is that browsing the web and your machine should be the same experience.

The Active Desktop feature, which is also an IE 4.0 feature, allows you to put web pages on your desktop – not terribly useful unless you’re always connected to the web, but at least Microsoft ships Windows 98 with this feature turned off, leaving it up to you whether to use it or not.

My favorite new feature is the Windows Update. It essentially makes me partially redundant. It doesn’t just nag you to update your drivers, it does it for you. If you have an Internet connection, Windows Update goes to a centralized website and looks for the latest drivers and system updates and prompts you to download them.

Windows 98 also includes FAT32 support, as did the service release 2.1 (OSR 2.1) of Windows 95 which shipped on new computers in the last year or so. FAT32 is a useful feature, even though it’s invisible. Essentially it’s an underlying technology that slices up the hard drive into smaller clusters than its predecessor, which used FAT16 technology.

Think of thousands of storage bins on a hard drive. If a piece of data is plunked into one of those bins and it doesn’t use all the space in it then the remainder is left empty and is wasted. Since FAT32 technology allows the bins (or clusters) to be smaller, there’s less space waste. Unlike the OSR 2.1 version, Windows 98 users can convert FAT16 partitions into FAT32 partitions. Expect a gain about 30 per cent more disk space. Many people will need this conversion, because Windows 98 takes up lots of disk space. I read one journalist’s account of an upgrade. Windows 95 used 153 Megs of hard drive space. Windows 98 used 289 Megs.

If you do opt to skip Windows 98 and wait for Windows NT 5, it’s expected to be released sometime in early 1999. It’ll feature approximately 85% new code in the kernel (the heart of the operating system) and 30 million lines of total code. NT 6, which is expected sometime in 2000, will likely be a service release of NT 5.0.

Of course, if you want to skip Windows 98 and NT, wait for Windows 2001 or 2002. It’s early yet, but it’s expected that the next consumer release of Windows will feature NT technology, if not its very code.