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A sneak peek at Windows 98

The world's richest man certainly doesn't need me to help sell his newest product, Windows 98. Between now and June 25, the date when Windows 98 will be released, you will probably see and hear hype and promotion from one of the best marketing machines in the world: Microsoft.

Will you want to upgrade? Will you need to upgrade? Let's take a look at some of the more interesting features of Windows 98 so you can decide for yourself if it will be worth the time, expense and potential problems.

First, don't confuse this upgrade with the switch from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95. That was a radical change from a 16-bit operating system to a 32-bit one that included a drastically different user interface. Programs designed for Windows 95 wouldn't run on Windows 3.1.

Windows 98 and Windows 95 are both 32-bit, and most programs should run under both. In fact, many of the new features on Windows 98 are already available as part of Windows 95 OSR2, once Internet Explorer 4.01 is added. However, Windows 98 still has enough completely new features that certainly give it value on its own.

+ Hardware requirements: Microsoft recommends a minimum 486DX/66 PC with 16 megabytes of RAM and 125 megabytes of available disk space. However, don't even think about updating if you have less than 24 megabytes of RAM. Windows 98 is billed as a better, more robust and efficient operating system, but it requires more memory. With memory prices so low, I recommend at least 64 megabytes for today's PCs.

+ Installation: It's much improved over the Windows 95 installation: Wizards will guide you through the entire process. The software includes more than 1,200 of the latest device drivers, so so it knows how to deal with most hardware. Windows 98 will upgrade Windows 3.1, Windows for Workgroups 3.11, and Windows 95 systems.

+ Boot-up: It can sometimes seem like eternity passes between the time you turn on your computer and the moment it is ready to use.

Windows 98 significantly reduces this time by bypassing the routine testing of each component at startup. Only systems with a BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) designed to the Fast Boot specification for PC 98 will be able to take full advantage of this. Beyond the BIOS, Windows 98 can load a minimal driver set necessary for boot-up. Drivers for things such as scanners, joysticks and so on will load after boot-up.

+ Disk space: Probably one of the more interesting features of Windows 98, especially for existing systems that are low on free disk space, is the FAT32 file system. FAT32 is an improved version of the FAT16 file system. FAT32 allows disks over 2 gigabytes to be formatted as a single drive. FAT32 also uses smaller clusters than FAT16 drives, resulting in a more efficient use of space on large disks.

On average, users will get as much as 28 percent more hard drive space using FAT32. FAT32 was already available as part of OSR2. However, Windows 98 provides a converter that will keep all your data intact while it converts your system. With Windows 95 OSR2 you had to reformat your drive and then reload.

Curious to know how much space you would save? Download this utility program at www.microsoft.com/windows98/info/fat32.htm and find out.

+ System File Checker: Did you ever load a program and then discover some of your other programs no longer work? Windows 98 includes a utility, System File Checker, that helps resolve this type of system file problem. It verifies that your system files have not been modified or corrupted. In addition, this utility can easily restore the original versions of any system files that may have changed.

Along the same lines, Version Conflict Manager detects file version conflicts with installed programs, a big source of headaches. Version Conflict Manager also stores all files and has an easy user interface.

If that's not enough, Windows 98 comes with 15 Troubleshooting Wizards, which ask a series of questions that can help you quickly diagnose and solve technical problems. Each Wizard has its own area of expertise, such as modems or printing.

Completing the system integrity features is the Registry Checker. This is a proactive program that resolves Registry problems, makes automatic backups of the Registry and will fix almost any Registry problem. In Windows 95, a user has to be fairly knowledgeable to try this, and attempting a repair carries with it the possibility of corrupting the Registry.

+ System updates: Almost all the components of your PC are dependent upon drivers _ programs that run as part of the operating system and control different functions such as your video, sound, disk and CD-ROM access. These drivers are continually updated as bugs are discovered and/or new features added.

So how do you know when a new driver is needed or is available? Where do you find it and how do you install it?

Until now this required some diligent hunting and at least some degree of technical proficiency. But Windows 98 comes with access to the Windows Update Web site, which allows registered Windows 98 users to keep their systems up-to-date by providing easy access to the latest drivers and system files. Upon connection, your PC is examined and any new/updated drivers are automatically downloaded and installed.

+ System maintenance: In an effort to reduce the average PC user's reliance on technical support, the Maintenance Wizard schedules regular tuneup jobs that will:

Delete unnecessary files. The Disk Cleanup component (which you can also run separately) will scan your disk for junk files and delete them, freeing up space on the disk.

Make sure your hard disk is functioning properly and launch applications up to 36 percent faster. The new Disk Defragmenter keeps track of your most frequently used applications and stores them in a single chunk of space on your hard drive, a process known as defragmentation. This helps these programs load and run as quickly as possible.

+ Built-in support for Universal Serial Bus: If you have bought a PC in the past six months, chances are it included what is called a Universal Serial Bus port (it looks like a small telephone jack). With USB-compliant PCs and peripherals, you just plug them in and turn them on; USB makes the whole process automatic. You never need to open your PC, and you don't need to worry about add-on cards, DIP switch settings or IRQs.

USB lets the PC automatically sense the power that's required and deliver it to the device. USB also lets you connect many peripherals at one time. Many USB PCs come with two USB ports. And special USB peripherals, called USB hubs, have additional ports that let you daisy chain multiple devices together.

Keep in mind that this is a new technology; there are not yet a lot of peripherals that are USB compliant. Of those that are, printers, scanners, joysticks and digital cameras are the most common.

+ User Interface: One of the more talked about features of Windows 98 is the Integrated Shell, in which the entire PC can be accessed as if it were seamless with the Internet. I love new interfaces, but I have been slow to adjust to this one.

The good news is that the Windows 98 interface can be completely customized. You can even make it look just like the Windows 95 interface. On my computer, I switched all my icons and file names to single-click launch. This takes a little getting used to, but is a more natural way to interact with the PC.

Should you upgrade? The newer and more powerful your PC, the more likely you will be to get added benefit. For brand-new PCs it's a no-brainer _ go with 98. For those of you with older PCs, it's a judgment call.

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