The latest Windows operating system is more stable and has some new features, but it's more of an update to Windows 98 than a replacement.
In Microsoft time, the new millennium starts Thursday, but it will last only about a year.
The new consumer version of the company's Windows operating system, officially called Windows Millennium Edition, or Windows Me, goes on sale this week, offering new features aimed directly at home users, such as video editing, easier home networking and more reliability and stability.
But its replacement, code named "Whistler," is expected to be released next year, which makes Windows Me more of a Windows 98 Third Edition than a replacement for the current operating system.
It also leaves a consumer with questions: Upgrade now or wait? Pay now and later? Are the new features worth it?
In general, we found a lot to like about Windows Me, but we also found some glitches, particularly for people with high-speed Internet connections and firewall software. They need to check to make sure what they use is compatible with Windows Me.
There's no doubt in our minds that Windows Me is a welcome improvement if you buy it installed on a new computer. Installing an upgrade on an existing computer is a closer call. It depends on how much you prize the new features it offers versus how jittery you get at the prospect of something going awry on your PC.
Originally, Windows 98 was supposed to be the end of the line for the consumer version of Windows as we have known it. But Microsoft ran into problems with Windows 2000, its business-oriented system released this year, and that forced the software giant to come out with Windows Me, the last to be based on the Windows/DOS code base.
One thing people will immediately notice is that Windows Me boots up and shuts down faster than previous versions of Windows because Microsoft removed "Real Mode DOS," eliminating the need to load and handle two operating systems (Windows and DOS, the original Microsoft operating system before there were icons to click). This also should make the system more stable.
While most DOS programs should continue to run, older programs that rely on 16-bit Real DOS mode may have trouble.
Two of the best new features of Windows Me are aimed at people who fear hitting the wrong key at the wrong time. System File Protector prevents applications from overwriting or deleting key system files. It works in the background, an invisible guardian.
When any application setup procedure overwrites one of these files with its own copy, file protector will put back the correct version. Incorrect system file versions are the most common cause of Windows instability. The file protector technology has proven itself in Windows 2000 and is a great addition to Windows Me.
System Restore is a feature found only in Windows Me, and users should consider it another safety net. Restore automatically backs up key files when applications are installed. If something goes wrong, the user can roll back the system to a point when it was working correctly. For example, a user can create specific restore points, such as "Before Office 2000 installation."
Installing a full version of Office 2000, then rolling the system back to before the install worked flawlessly, though be warned that it will use up hard drive space because it makes copies of replaced files.
Auto Update, another new feature, can be configured to monitor the Windows Update Web site for updates to your system, as well as download and install them.
As with each successive version of Windows, Windows Me's ability to recognize new devices is much improved over its predecessor, with detection for add-ons such as digital cameras and Global Positioning Satellite devices. A Sony VAIO running Windows 98 SE required individual driver installations for video and sound. Windows Me found these devices and automatically installed the correct driver to run them.
But Windows Me has more than behind-the-scenes improvements. Acknowledging the popularity of digital photography, video editing and home networking, Microsoft included features that make these activities easier, such as built-in applications for acquiring images from scanners and digital cameras and automatic detection that launches the Scanner and Camera Wizard to help users manage and import photos and pictures.
Windows Movie Maker allows users to import and edit video from digital or analog video cameras. It also compresses video, making it possible to store more than 20 hours of video on a gigabyte of hard drive space.
The My Pictures folder is where Windows saves images, and it lets users create a screensaver-like slide show of the images stored in it. The My Pictures folder features thumbnail views of each image, previews and rotation capabilities to make it easier to view and organize images.
Of course, most scanners and digital cameras come with software that does most of these functions and does them better. But some of us, preferring to load as little extra software as possible, welcome functions integrated within the operating system.
Among other features of Windows Me is a "Hibernate" option, which first appeared in Windows 2000. Instead of shutting down the system, users can choose hibernation so everything in computer memory is saved on the hard disk. When the user turns the computer back on, programs and documents that were open when you turned off the computer are restored on the desktop exactly as they were left.
For home networking, Windows Me includes the Internet Connection Wizard that came with Windows 98 SE but renames it the Home Networking Wizard. Microsoft claims the new wizard simplifies the setup of a home network. While it may make it less difficult, never believe anything you hear about "simple home networking."
Windows Me's technology also improves network performance and stability. In one such under-the-hood change, Microsoft replaced the "core TCP/IP networking stack" in favor of the version used by Windows 2000.
Some software, such as many firewall applications that were based on the Windows 98 model, will not work with it. If you use this type of software, check with the vendor for compatibility with Windows Me if you are considering an upgrade.
Windows Me also introduces support for Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) devices, though few such devices exist. UPnP is intended to improve the connectivity of PCs, intelligent appliances and wireless devices.
The idea behind it: Someday you may walk into the local hardware store and buy a light bulb that contains a TCP/IP component, and once you screw in the bulb it will "announce" itself to your home network. You'd be able to control it through some special "Home Interface Program" in a future version of Windows. UPnP could connect smart appliances such as refrigerators, toasters and dishwashers. Some of these devices will start to appear now that the capability is built into the core Windows operating system. (For more information about UPnP, check www.upnp.org.)
Using pre-release, or beta, versions of software can have its hazards. For example, we loaded Windows Me beta versions on a home PC that had Windows 98, a cable modem connection to the Internet and active firewall software. We ran into problems from the beginning, with two crashes during installation. And, once installed successfully, it was so unstable and crashed so frequently we had to take it off.
A second attempt loaded with only one crash, and it ran smoothly for about an hour. Then it started crashing frequently, which made the uninstall difficult. We later had to reload firewall software and Internet Explorer to get the PC running right again.
Since our test with the beta versions, the Black Ice firewall software came out with a version that is compatible with Windows Me. There was nothing in the pre-install guides from Microsoft that alerted users to such potential problems with firewalls.
Subsequent updates with the released version of Windows Me on a Windows 98 PC not running firewall software installed properly and the system remained stable. And in another instance, we did a "clean install," meaning it was loaded on to an empty hard drive, not over a previous version of Windows. Under these conditions, it ran almost flawlessly.
Of course before updating to any new operating system it is best to check for compatibility of software and device drivers on your system. And make sure you have a reliable backup of your important files just in case.
_ John Torro is a Times correspondent. Dave Gussow is the Times personal technology editor.
Ready for Me?
To upgrade to Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows Me, a computer should have at least a Pentium II processor with 64 megabytes of random access memory (though Microsoft recommends only a Pentium processor with 32MB of RAM). Windows Me also takes up 295 megabytes of hard drive space.
Until Jan. 15, Windows 98 and 98 SE users can upgrade for $59.95. Otherwise, the upgrade price is $109 and a full version is priced at $209.