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Is Windows 98 a Chip Off the Old Block?

There’s a war going on between Microsoft Corp. and the government over whether the software giant is unfairly forcing Windows 95 customers to use its Internet Explorer 4.0 Web browser.

But an underlying question in the fight is how it will affect the next version of Microsoft’s operating software, Windows 98, which I recently got a look at. A federal judge has tentatively rejected Microsoft’s contention that Windows 95 and Internet Explorer 4.0 are part of the same product, but however distinct they are now, they will be less so in Windows 98.

Microsoft plans to ship Windows 98 late in the second quarter of 1998, but if legal arguments drag out, the company could have to rename the product “Windows 99.”

Whenever it’s released, the new operating system will be available on new machines and as a retail upgrade for users of Windows 95 and Windows 3.1. Microsoft promises that Windows 98 will be faster and more reliable than Windows 95, and that it will support more hardware options.

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As one of about 20,000 beta testers, I installed a copy of Windows 98 on a Toshiba laptop and a Gateway 2000 Pentium II system.

The first thing I noticed is that it looked just like Windows 95 with Internet Explorer 4.0 installed. It’s far less of a change than the transition between Windows 3.1 and Windows 95.

In that upgrade, Microsoft made fundamental changes to both the interface and the operating system’s underlying technology. Windows 98, which is likely to be the last in its line before Microsoft moves everyone over to the industrial-strength system known as Windows NT, is more of an evolutionary change. Most of the improvements are “under the hood.” You don’t see them, but Microsoft says they will make your computer run better and faster.

Like Windows 95 with Internet Explorer, Windows 98 lets you browse through your hard disk the same way you browse the Internet. And although the operating system is generally highly configurable, the “install/remove program” icon doesn’t even give you the option of removing Internet Explorer.

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Windows 98 relies on the Internet to update its own files and other companies’ drivers that the user needs for printers, modems and other peripherals.

The windows settings menu has a “windows update” option that automatically takes you to a Microsoft Web site where you can run a program that checks your system and updates drivers. Drivers would be provided by hardware vendors and approved by Microsoft before being made available.

This and other features could have an impact on CyberMedia, Symantec, Quarterdeck and other companies that offer similar services. However, Kraig Lane, CyberMedia’s product manager for a program called Oil Change, feels that it “will have a positive effect on our business because it will increase awareness of the benefits of keeping your system up to date.”

Oil Change, in addition to updating drivers, supports application software, games and other software products.

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The new operating system has a number of tools designed to improve performance. As it turns out, disk access can have a greater impact on computing performance than CPU speed, according to Windows 98 Development Manager Mike Glass. Although an operating system can’t make a disk spin faster, it can improve the efficiency of the way data is accessed.

Microsoft says it can decrease the time it takes to launch programs by identifying programs that are used most often and rearranging their placement on the disk drive. Glass says most programs will load at least 30% faster, and some larger programs could load several times faster.

He showed one example where the load time for Adobe PhotoShop was reduced from 18 seconds to four seconds. Microsoft Word loaded about twice as fast.

The new operating system, according to Glass, will also run faster because it is less reliant on disk swapping, a process that increases the amount of “virtual” memory available to programs by swapping program codes between RAM and the hard disk.

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One of the most annoying aspects of Windows 95 is the time it takes to properly shut down the computer. That’s because the operating system has to notify drivers and other software that it’s about to close. Windows 98 doesn’t perform those notifications, thereby resulting in much faster shutdown. Software programs, however, still give you a chance to save and close files on shutdown.

The new operating system will also decrease the time it takes to start up a computer, but only on machines whose BIOS (basic input-output) chips have been upgraded to recognize the new software. Today, BIOS chips do extensive and time-consuming diagnostics every time you start the computer. In the future, Windows 98 will eliminate the need for the start-up diagnostics by performing them in the background while the machine is idle.

Windows 98 comes with a new file system called FAT32 that supports hard drives larger than 2 gigabytes and stores data more efficiently, resulting in about a 30% increase in effective capacity. The FAT32 is currently available in OSR2, an interim release of Windows 95 that is being shipped today by PC makers.

Windows 98 will also come with Tune Up Wizard, a program that repairs problems on your hard drive, deletes unnecessary files and runs a file defragmentation program that speeds up disk access.

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Unlike the transition from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95, upgrading to Windows 98 will not be a major improvement. Many of the features are already in OSR2 and others are available from third-party software companies. Yet, if Microsoft delivers on its promises, it should make your PC a bit faster and more reliable and just a little easier to maintain and use.

Larry Magid can be reached at magid@latimes.com. His Web page is at https://www.larrysworld.com


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