Call Windows 98 an Upgrade, Not a Leap Forward

In a few days, Microsoft will open the Windows 98 floodgates, urging consumers to pay $89 or more to upgrade to the new operating system. Already, PC makers have started shipping PCs with Windows 98. Unless unforeseen market or government forces intervene, Windows 98 will soon become the dominant PC operating system.

I've been using various pre-release versions of Windows 98 for months, and for the last two weeks I've been testing the final version. I've installed it on several machines, and the upgrade process has been quite easy. Although it takes about 40 minutes, you don't have to baby-sit the process. After you answer a few questions, you take about a half-hour break; when you return, you'll be using Windows 98.

Best of all, I've had no hardware or software incompatibilities. All of my printers, scanners, modems and other devices continued to work after upgrading to Windows 98. If you do have a problem, you can uninstall Windows 98 and return to your old configuration. Maintaining the option to go back will require about 60 megabytes, but you can later delete the Windows 95 backup files after you're convinced the upgrade is right for you.

Unlike the changes between Windows 3.1 and Windows 95, the upgrade is relatively minor. That's good because it means there's hardly any learning curve for a user who makes the transition from one operating system to the next. But it's bad for anyone who was looking forward to major improvements.

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If you want an operating system that never crashes, keep looking. While Windows 98 is less prone to problems than 95, it's far from perfect. It doesn't happen often, but even with the final version of Windows 98, my machine sometimes freezes up, requiring me to turn off and restart.

The look-and-feel changes of Windows 98 are almost identical to those you'll experience if you add Internet Explorer 4.0 to an existing Windows 95 system. Internet Explorer is free, so if you haven't already done so, you can get a preview of Windows 98 at no charge by downloading IE 4.0 at http://www.microsoft.com/ie/download.

Many of the changes made by both Windows 98 and IE 4.0 are designed to make using your PC seem more like surfing the Internet. To Microsoft, the Internet is one big disk drive that's accessible to users in the same way as the disk drives attached to your PC.

It's an interesting concept, but personally, I don't find it all that compelling. I like having the ability to distinguish the boundaries between my personal information and information that's coming to me from outside sources--particularly companies that are trying to sell me something. If I want to access information on the Internet, I'd just as soon fire up my Internet browser and select the appropriate Web site. If I really like it, I can add it as a bookmark to my browser and go back any time I want.

Windows 98 or Windows 95 with IE 4.0 makes it possible to access your local files as if they were Web pages. You can even configure the operating system to let you access a file or program with a single click, just as you access a Web page. Thanks to user feedback during the early beta program, that's no longer the default.

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The Folder Options sub-menu of the View menu gives you lots of optional controls, including the ability to customize the look and feel of your desktop and directories. I've experimented quite a bit and found that my machine runs faster if I turn off all of the "view as Web page" options.

Other changes in both Windows 98 and IE 4.0 are the Channel Bar and the Active Desktop. The Channel Bar strikes me more as an advertising opportunity for Microsoft and its partners than a feature. It places a vertical bar on your desktop that offers you quick access to Web sites operated by Microsoft and a handful of other companies. The Active Desktop allows you to view Web content, such as a stock ticker or news feed, directly from your Windows desktop. The appeal of that depends on whether you want to constantly be bombarded with information. Some people like it, but myself, I can do without any more sensory stimulation.

One problem with Active Desktop is that it tends to slow down your PC's performance because the system constantly has to display content that's streaming in from the Internet. The Channel Bar doesn't seem to have too much of an effect on performance, but it does clutter your screen with what is basically advertising material. The good news is that it's easy to turn off these features. Just point your mouse to any blank area of the desktop, click the right button and click "Active Desktop." If it's turned on, you'll see a check mark next to "View as Web Page." Click on it once and the desktop returns to normal.

My favorite new feature in Windows 98 is the Maintenance Wizard, which you can program to automatically delete unnecessary files, check disks for errors and defragment disks to improve performance. I have mine set to run in the middle of the night so when I arrive in the morning, my PC is running at optimal performance.

The defragmentation process, as in the past, rearranges sectors on the disk so the disk drive heads don't have to move as much, thereby speeding up access. New to Windows 98 is a process that keeps track of which programs you use most often and automatically reorganizes the placement of their disk clusters so they are more accessible to the drive's read/write heads. The result is that programs load noticeably faster, which, as it turns out, can sometimes have more of an effect on performance than a faster CPU.

Another new function is an update feature that examines your system and then goes out to the Internet to see if any Windows 98 files, printer drivers or other system files need to be updated. If so, it automatically installs the updates for you. Unlike Oil Change from CyberMedia, the free Microsoft service doesn't update your application software.

A lot of the changes in Windows 98 can best be described as "under the hood." Overall performance seems to be faster, and there are some subtle improvements that slightly speed up Internet access. The new "FAT 32" file system stores data more efficiently, allowing you to squeeze more files onto your hard drive.

There is support for new hardware, including USB (universal serial bus) devices such as scanners and digital cameras that plug into the USB ports on most new PCs. It also works better with DVD drives and supports chips in new PCs that will make it much faster to turn your PC on and off.

Windows 98 also supports optional TV tuners, which not only let you watch TV on your PC screen (i.e. turn a $2,000 PC into a $150 TV set) but also allow you to access services such as WaveTop (http://www.wavetop.net) that use TV signals to download news, stock quotes and even software.

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The new operating system also comes with WebTV for Windows, which lets you download a TV guide on any PC. If you have a tuner, you can use the guide to automatically switch to a station showing your program. Even without a tuner, it's a pretty cool feature because it lets you search for TV shows by name, type or, in some cases, actors.

This would be a compelling upgrade if it were priced at, say, $35. But $89 to $109 strikes me as a bit steep. Although the bug fixes and performance enhancements make this a better operating system than Windows 95, it's not dramatically new and it won't change your life. If your PC is running well and you don't need any of the new features, you might be better off skipping Windows 98.

Larry Magid can be reached at magid@latimes.com. His Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com or keyword LarryMagid on AOL.

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