I recently took a first look at Windows XP, the operating system that, by the end of this year, will replace all current versions of Windows, including Windows 98 Second Edition, Windows Me and even Windows 2000.
The nice thing about Windows XP is that it's based on the code used in Windows 2000, the operating system Microsoft promotes primarily for business users. Although Windows 2000 and the consumer versions of Windows--collectively referred to as "Windows 9x"--have a similar look and feel, there is a huge difference between the two operating systems. Windows 2000 is far more robust and reliable.
It's annoying and insulting that Microsoft sells different operating systems to home and business users. How would you feel if you bought a minivan for your family, only to find out that it's not as reliable as the ones sold to businesses?
People who run only one program at a time might not notice much of a difference between Windows 9x and Windows 2000, but those of us who take full advantage of Windows' multi-tasking capabilities will definitely appreciate Windows 2000--and presumably Windows XP--because even if a program crashes, it's far less likely to bring down the entire operating system.
Windows 2000 also handles memory a lot better. For some reason, Windows 9x programs sometimes "leak" memory, which means that even after they stop running, they can continue to degrade Windows' performance. The only way to right things is to restart the machine. I restart mine several times a day to keep it running as efficiently as possible.
Also, Windows tends to slow down over time. One reason has to do with disk fragmentation, but that can be cured by running the disk defragmenter program. Another reason has to do with the way Windows stores information about installed programs. The more programs you install, the slower Windows gets over time. Using the "Add/Remove Programs" feature in the Control Panel helps but doesn't get rid of the problem.
The only way I've ever been able to get Windows 9x to operate at peak capacity is to completely reinstall the operating system. And I don't mean just reinstalling a new copy of Windows over an old one. I mean booting with a floppy disk, renaming the old Windows directory and reinstalling Windows into a new directory.
Doing so offers a fresh start, but it also requires reinstalling all of your programs and the drivers for your monitor, modem, printer and other devices. Don't try it at home unless you're sure you know what you're doing, have backed up all your data and have the installation programs for all your drivers and software. And don't even think about it unless you can set aside at least a day to reconfigure your machine.
So what's a user to do? If your system runs reasonably well, wait until Windows XP comes out. If Microsoft delivers on its promises, it should solve a lot of problems. If you have Windows 98, you can upgrade to Windows 2000. But there are some drawbacks. First, it's expensive. An upgrade CD costs about $200, although Microsoft offers a $70 rebate.
Also, an upgrade can be risky. I had no problem upgrading one of my machines. But on another, the upgrade process kept failing and eventually I had to use all sorts of advanced techniques just to get Windows 98 working normally again.
You can't upgrade a Windows Me system. Microsoft designed Me for home users and apparently didn't anticipate that anyone would ever want to upgrade to Windows 2000.
Windows Me--and Windows 98--users, however, can choose the dual-boot option, which adds Windows 2000 without deleting the old operating system. If you have enough extra disk space, it's a good way to go because it protects your old operating environment as you become accustomed to the new one. Your old applications should work as usual under Windows 98 or Me, but you'll have to reinstall programs to use them under Windows 2000.
Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour.