This past summer, Microsoft released Windows 98 to a far more muted fanfare. Instead of prompting people to “Start it up,” the update to Windows 95 modestly promised tighter integration with the Web, a few performance tweaks, a slew of bug fixes, and an almost imperceptibly improved design. Because Win 98 looks a lot like its predecessor, and because many of its enhancements are actually found in Microsoft’s separately available Internet Explorer (IE) 4.01 Web browser, moving from Win 95 to 98 isn’t nearly the profound experience the previous upgrade was.
Of course, that makes the decision of whether to upgrade to Win 98 even tougher. To help you decide, we’ve gone under the hood to uncover the differences between Windows 95 and its newer, spiffier sibling. We point out what’s been improved, what remains the same, and what’s still sorely lacking. Then we discuss whether you should pay the $90 and move to Windows 98 right away, or wait until you buy your next computer and get Win 98 preinstalled.
A New Coat of Paint
At first glance, the new version of Windows resembles the old. In fact, you have to look carefully to notice any cosmetic differences, although you’ll notice that Windows 98 has added a few more icons to the default desktop. Along with the My Computer, Recycle Bin, and shameless Setup the Microsoft Network icons, we found other icons that can help you with your work. For instance, someone at Microsoft wised up and placed the My Documents folder, where we like to keep our Word and Excel files, right on the desktop and in the Documents menu in the Start pop-up menu. If you use Microsoft Office 97 under Windows 95, the office suite creates the My Documents folder on your hard disk, but you have to launch the Windows Explorer file manager to find it. The new operating system puts the default file-save stash in plain view for quick and easy access. Pretty smart.
However, for some reason, Microsoft still keeps Windows Explorer–as opposed to Internet Explorer–off the desktop. For three years, each time we reviewed a new Win 95 PC, we had to drag and drop the Windows Explorer icon onto our desktop so we could launch the file manager whenever we wanted. You must do the same thing with Windows 98. Although you can now technically use IE as a file manager, we prefer to use Windows Explorer to navigate through the files on our hard disk.
The Taskbar in Windows 98 has been slightly tweaked. The Start button still resides in the left-hand corner, and in the right-hand corner you can still find the System Tools tray holding a digital clock plus icons for the programs automatically launched when you start up your PC. But next to the Start button, where Windows 95 displayed icons of your launched applications, you’ll now see what’s called a Quick-Launch bar containing four small icons–three of them, as it happens, for the Microsoft Internet tools that have launched a flurry of Windows 98-related antitrust action. These include the IE 4.01 Web browser, the Outlook Express email program, and a special icon for viewing channels (Web sites to which IE 4.01 users can subscribe to automatically receive updated content).
Although we love the fourth mini-icon–for Show Desktop, a nifty tool that minimizes all your open applications with one click so you can swiftly return to a clean screen if interrupted by prying eyes–you may find the others intrusive. Because we’re dedicated Ecco Pro users, we deleted the Outlook Express icon from the Taskbar by right-clicking on it and choosing Delete. Contrarily, if you’re a fan of Microsoft freebies, you can drag and drop icons from the QuickLaunch bar onto the desktop.
Just Browsing, Thanks
Between the launch of Windows 95 and Windows 98, a seismic event called the World Wide Web greatly affected the way the new Windows works and looks.
Several key components in Windows 98 look and operate much like a Web browser. According to Microsoft’s usability studies, nontechnical users have an easier time using a Web browser than the rest of Windows itself. Armed with that info, the company’s programmers turned the new OS into a virtual browser.
Need an example? Look no further than Windows Explorer or Control Panel. These modules once resembled their stodgy Windows 3.1 File Manager and Control Panel counterparts: a box full of icons. Now Windows Explorer looks like IE 4.01, complete with browser-like Forward and Back buttons in the toolbar and an address line where you can type either a DOS-style file address, such as C:\Program Files\Quicken, or a Web address to jump to an online site.
Not only do Control Panel, My Computer, and Recycle Bin offer views resembling Web pages, they also include a smattering of HTML code to give you more information about the contents of folders along with their bare-bones property lists. Move the mouse pointer over a disk icon, for instance, and you’ll see how much free space the disk has. We especially liked the warning that appeared when we clicked on the Windows folder, stating that we could potentially cause programs to stop working correctly if we modified the folder’s contents.
Changing to a traditional icon or list view is as easy as clicking a pull-down menu, but the browser metaphor is certainly snazzier and more helpful than the cut-and-dried look of Windows 95.
Nothing But Net
Windows 98 shines when working with the Web. In our admittedly unofficial tests, Internet Explorer 4.01 felt more stable and less prone to crashes than previous releases of IE, just as the OS itself did compared with Windows 95. If the majority of your home office tasks take place on the Web, the newlywed pair of IE 4.01 and Win 98 is worth a long look.
But legions of Windows 95 users are already browsing with IE 4.01, available free for the downloading from Microsoft’s site (www.microsoft.com/ie) or third-party libraries such as c|net’s www.browsers.com. If you’d like to join them, be prepared to set aside at least 50MB of hard-disk space to store the new browser. Expect a slight performance hit as well–IE 4.01 isn’t ideal for slower, older PCs.
Call us free-market radicals, but we still prefer Netscape’s Navigator browser (www.netscape.com)–which, like Internet Explorer, is readily available for free download. If Navigator is your favorite way to maneuver through the Web, it’ll work fine with Windows 98, but you won’t be able to use the OS’s seamless file management/Web browsing features.
Although the integration of Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer is almost enough to make us give up Navigator, we’re not in the least tempted by the Active Desktop feature that represents Microsoft’s exceptionally pushy brand of push technology. By default, the Windows 98 desktop displays a vertical Channel Bar of Web-site icons. Most of these take you to Microsoft-related sites such as the Microsoft Network and MSNBC. A few featured sites don’t belong to Microsoft (Warner Brothers, America Online, Disney, and PointCast), but you can be sure those companies paid hefty fees to appear in the Channel Bar.
Automatic delivery of favorite-site content sounds great in theory, but Web searching in the background while you try to work in the foreground is a notorious system hog. Unless you have an ultra-fast Internet connection and at least 64MB of memory, your MMX Pentium PC may start to feel like the 386 desktop you bought eight years ago.
Let’s be honest: Does the world need another invitation to try a taste of AOL? We think the regular AOL disks that litter the environment are enticement enough to try the online service, and find the Channel Bar to be overkill if you’re accustomed to using Web browser bookmarks to check your favorite sites. Fortunately, you can turn off the channels and get to work.
PC processors have grown many times faster over the past few years. Software hasn’t. In fact, applications have become heavier and more bloated with extra features, multimedia clips, and animated help files. And while you wait for Windows 95 to launch, you may have wondered why you paid for a PC with a blazing chip.
Microsoft has streamlined Windows 98 to load and shut down quicker, and tweaked Disk Defragmenter to rearrange application components on your hard disk to launch faster (after you’ve opened and closed them a few times for Win 98 to monitor their behavior). However, you’ll need an advanced Pentium II-class system and ample memory to take advantage of these performance boosts. If you have an older machine, you’re out of luck–Windows 98 will perform about the same as Windows 95.
For this review, we used a Gateway Solo 2500 LS notebook with a 233MHz Pentium II processor, 64MB of RAM, and Windows 98 preinstalled. Although we had no complaints about launching such typical sluggards as Microsoft Word 97 and Excel 97, we still had to endure a tedious wait when we powered up the notebook.
If you’re still waiting for the day when Windows appears before your eyes as quickly as the image when you switch on a TV set, you’ll need one of the new PCs starting to appear with special fast-boot BIOS ROM code. Or you’ll have to pay a slightly higher electric bill and adopt a desktop that, like the newest Compaq and Hewlett-Packard consumer models, can enter a notebook-style “sleep” mode instead of actually switching off. On such a computer, Win 98 can schedule tasks such as defragmenting the hard disk or downloading Internet pages while you sleep.
To improve performance in a broader sense, Windows 98 provides a ton of new drivers for up-to-date peripherals, which will be immensely helpful when you add hardware such as a DVD-ROM drive to your system. Some other new hardware-related capabilities are flashy, but less universally useful: Got a spare monitor? You can finally mimic the Macintosh desktop-publishing trick of using two displays simultaneously (for, say, your page layout and your toolbar palettes). Got an ATI Technologies TV tuner or All-in-Wonder card connected to your cable TV outlet? As of press time, you’re the only customer for Microsoft’s TV Guide-like WebTV for Windows 98 viewer.
By contrast, we’re truly impressed with the operating system’s support for the Universal Serial Bus (USB) standard, which lets you simply plug a device such as a scanner or printer into a USB port without having to install an internal SCSI card. With USB, the promised days of plug-and-play will have finally arrived. It’s about time.
Two other under-the-hood improvements that earn our applause are FAT32 support and the new Windows Update feature. The former replaces DOS’s ancient disk format with a 32-bit File Allocation Table–a more efficient formatting scheme that stores files in smaller chunks to reduce wasted or slack space on your hard disk.
With the latter, you can click the Windows Update icon at the top of the Start menu and dial into a special Microsoft site where an Update Wizard automatically downloads and installs software updates, bug patches, and other assorted fixes to your operating system, drivers, and applications. Think of it as a regularly scheduled tune-up for your PC.
The Final Verdict
And now the real question: Should you upgrade to Windows 98? The answer isn’t crystal clear.
If you live on the Internet, enjoy the simplicity of using a Web browser, and daily move among and manage scores of downloaded HTML pages and files, then we wholeheartedly recommend making the move to the new Windows. For Webaholics, Windows 98 can help tame the onslaught of online data and speed up your computing chores.
Similarly, if you have a recent PC with USB ports or plan on upgrading your old one to take advantage of USB peripherals, then run, don’t walk, to Windows 98. It’s the ideal solution for avoiding potential technical problems down the road, especially when combined with Windows Update-PC, heal thyself. You’ll also find Microsoft’s performance tweaks have diminished the system crashes that plagued Windows 95, but you shouldn’t expect an entirely crash-free version of Windows–ever.
But if Windows 95 works fine for you and doesn’t crash often, and your Web activity is going well enough, then stay put: Windows 98 will be an insignificant upgrade. Microsoft says that any future software upgrades designed for Windows 98 will work under Win 95, and vice versa–including, we hear, the upcoming Office 2000 productivity suite.
If you still use Windows 3.1, you’re long overdue to take advantage of the current versions’ improved interface and the extra capacity of 32-bit computing, but the catch-22 is that your hardware likely isn’t up to Windows 98′s standards. For you, it probably makes more sense to take advantage of today’s thrifty PC prices by trading up to a brand-new notebook or desktop.
If you do buy a new system, the OS decision may be out of your hands: You’ll get Windows 98 rather than 95 preinstalled. This is the ideal way to graduate to a new operating system, because the PC manufacturer installs it from scratch and tests its performance with the hardware and software you’ll be using. With a new operating system on a virgin hard disk, the chances of clashes with leftover drivers, libraries, and other bits of remaining code from previous versions of Windows are near zero.
The bottom line on Windows 98? Microsoft has created a nice update to Win 95, but with nothing that screams “Buy me! Install me now!” as the latter did at its debut three years ago. Don’t get us wrong–Windows 98 will remain on some of our test systems. But for our mission-critical machines, we can wait for the inevitable bug fixes and add-ons that didn’t make it in the initial release. Windows 98 will be here for a while…what’s the hurry?