Is it really worth $90?

Sunday, June 21, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

It arrived in a plain, white Federal Express envelope. When I showed it to collegues in the office, they eyed it with fascination and apprehension.

"Who wants to try it?" I asked. No one seemed eager.

The online developer and game reviewer bit first, but returned it the next day, unopened. Another wanted to try and borrowed it over a weekend, but also chickened out.

"Everything is working so well, I decided not to chance it," he said.

It was up to me. I would be the first in the office to install the Windows 98 upgrade.

First question: Which computer to sacrifice? I decided on a laptop; it would be the easiest to put back together should something go wrong.

Ready to spend $90 for Windows 98? Hold on, you may need a few more things:

Processor: Yes, Virginia, Windows 98 will run on a 486DX, but you'll need at least a 66 megahertz processor with a math coprocessor.

RAM: Microsoft recommends a minimum of 16 megabytes of RAM. If you want to run a couple of applications too, considering bumping up to 24 or 32 megabytes. RAM's cheap these days, and adding RAM is the cheapest way to speed up a sluggish computer.

Hard drive: You should have about 100 megabytes of hard drive space available to upgrade from Windows 95 to 98; it could be more or less depending on your computer and the options you choose (such as keeping a backup copy of Windows 95). Microsoft says a typical Windows 98 system averages about 200 megabytes.

The documentation I received with the upgrade didn't mention installing it on a compressed disk, but I'd be wary of attempting that, especially if you're using non-Microsoft compression software.

Software: The upgrade will work on any computer with Windows 95 or 3.x -- yes, you can upgrade directly from Windows 3 to 98. If you decide to install onto a clean, reformatted drive, you'll need a Windows 95 CD or Windows 3.x setup disk.

Also, get the latest version of a quality virus scanner. Both Symantec ( and McAfee ( have virus scanners available on their web sites. If you have an old version of a virus program, get the latest upgrade or virus definitions file. Even if you don't have a virus, scanning your disk will help you deflect Microsoft's standard "you have a virus" line should a problem occur.

CD-ROM: If you don't have a CD-ROM drive, get one (a DVD drive will work, too). The upgrade box contains a coupon to order 3.5 inch floppies, but you don't get the whole package on the floppy version.

1. Back up your hard drive. If you don't have the hardware or software to do that, at least pull off any important data files. Make sure you have installation disks for applications. Prepare for the possiblity you may have to reformat your hard drive.

2. Clean out your StartUp folder. Windows will automatically start any programs (or shortcuts) in this folder, and you don't want stray programs starting up during the installation process. The path to the StartUp folder is C:\WINDOWS\Start Menu\Programs\StartUp. A quick way to disable your StartUp folder is to rename it (right clickRename) to OldStartUp then create a new, empty folder called StartUp. Restart your computer and check to see that your new StartUp is still empty. (I've seen shortcuts mysteriously reappear in an emptied StartUp folder.) After you're sure Windows 98 is installed and working, you can manually start the programs in OldStartUp to see if they cause problems.

3. Run your virus program. I prefer to run a simple scanner from the DOS command prompt. With some programs such as Norton AntiVirus you can restart from an emergency floppy disk and it will check everything including the Master Boot Record.

4. Find something else to do for the next hour or so.

Remembering the problems many computers encountered upgrading from Windows 3.1 to 95, I decided to start with a fresh disk. I booted from a floppy, formatted the hard drive, copied in a startup DOS system with CD-ROM driver, shut down, swapped the floppy for the CD drive (the laptop can only use one at a time) and restarted.

The computer booted up and recognized the CD. I inserted the Windows 98 CD, typed "D:' then "dir'. The contents of the CD flashed on the screen. So far, so good.

Nothing to lose at this point, I typed "setup" and hit Enter. The Windows 98 installation program sprang to life. It checked my hard drive, inventoried the hardware, then began copying files from the CD. It reached a point where it creates a Windows 98 startup disk.

Freeze. Then the dreaded gray window: General Protection Fault ... I turned off the laptop and restarted it. "Operating system not found," the screen said. The hard drive was toast.

Not really toast, but the partition information was gone, wiping out everything. I repartitioned, reformatted and tried again. Same thing happened.

I called Microsoft and the technician suggested my computer had a virus. I knew better; I ran a quick virus scan before I started. I probably had a flaky CD drive.

I reformatted again, created a CABS directory on the C: drive and copied the contents of the CD's WIN98 directory to CABS. Then I ran the installer from the hard drive.

Success. Windows 98 installed as cleanly as anyone could hope. It wasn't exactly speedy, taking about an hour. But unlike Windows 95, it no longer asks you a bunch of annoying questions or tells you what it's doing, requiring you to keep clicking Next or Enter.

Once I got past the point where it creates the startup floppy -- I had to either give it a floppy or click Cancel -- it ran unattended. It recognized and installed drivers for every gizmo on the computer, including an infrared port and PCMCIA modem. It even rebooted itself when necessary. Nifty.

Now that I had Windows 98 installed, what was different? Not much, really.

The truth is Windows 98 is just a major tuneup for Windows 95, not a big, buggy overhaul the way Windows 95 was for Windows 3.1. If you use Windows 95, you won't have any trouble using Windows 98. You can even set things up so the casual user won't even know he's using Windows 98.

But if you're a regular user of your PC and the Internet, you need Windows 98. Never mind the $90 pricetag, or the fact that Microsoft is charging for stuff it has been -- or probably should be -- giving away to Windows 95 owners. Based on everything I've read about 98 and my own short experience with it, there's about a 98 percent chance your computer will run better, faster.

And that's pretty good for Microsoft -- or personal computers, for that matter.

Your PC should shut down quicker and crash less. On new computers it will boot up quicker. You'll be able to fix things faster, add new hardware more easily and use the Internet to automatically find and install Windows updates.

If you're hung up on the upgrade's cost, look at it this way: The much-improved system utilities package alone is probably worth as much as $90 of third-party software.

Here are some highlights of the upgrade:

Active Desktop

This is one of the features that got the U.S. Justice Department all riled up. Basically Microsoft made the desktop look more like the Internet, and made the Internet more accessible from the desktop. From the user's perspective, Microsoft's browser, Internet Explorer, is part of Windows Explorer. Fire up Windows Explorer to view your hard drive, then type a web address into the Address field and, voila, you're on the Internet. One Explorer does it all, even though both Explorers can be found in the Start menu.

Pretty slick. Unless you're a stockholder or employee of Netscape, of course.

The cut-and-paste method of moving files and folders takes some getting used to, but otherwise I like the browser windows for viewing directories. The files and folders are displayed on the right, while information about the items can be displayed in a scrollable pane on the left. (Click on My Computer and it shows a colorful pie chart of free space your hard drive.)

It's helpful without being intrusive.

Choose the Web Style folder option and just one click will open a file or folder. This is nice for laptops or whenever double-clicking is awkward.

The first thing you'll notice after upgrading is the Microsoft Channel Guide. No, this isn't the new TV Guide, it's a list of Web sites Microsoft thinks you might be interested in visiting. Want to visit Disney's Daily Blast site? Just click on the icon -- once again, one click and you're there.

In Microsoft-ese, a Web site is now a channel (sound like television?) and being a default site on the channel bar is better than buying an ad on the Super Bowl broadcast. No matter, you can customize your channel bar, or even turn it off.

For that matter, you don't even need to use the Active Desktop. Using the Display Properties and Folder Options windows, you can make Windows 98 look just like 95.

The Active Desktop really, really wants you to be connected to the Internet -- what's the point if you're not? So until you're connected, the Internet Connection Wizard regularly pops up, offering to connect you. Unless you disable it, this can be annoying for those who choose to remain un-plugged.

Easier installation

Despite my unfortunate initial experience (which I should emphasize had nothing to do with the program), Windows 98 is much easier to install and configure. One reason is a data base of more than 1,200 device drivers that comes with the program. Another is the streamlined installation utility, which goes about its business rather than asking you to make decisions which might screw up the installation process anyway.

If you install Windows 98 and none of your peripherals work anymore -- or you just hate it -- you can uninstall 98 and revert to Windows 95. I didn't try this, but the option was there during installation. How many times have you to had to reinstall Windows on your PC in the past year? If the answer is one or more, you need Windows 98. If you're reinstalling an early unpatched version of Windows 95 to fix things, you're compounding your PC troubles.

Installing new hardware also is easier. First, there are all those new drivers on the installation CD. Second, there's the Automatic Skip Driver utility, which helps detect and correct driver problems. On Windows 95, drivers can drive you crazy. They sometimes conflict, corrupt and otherwise behave like bad schoolboys. Assuming you can track down the problem in 95's System Properties Device Manager, you must then uninstall the bad driver and reinstall a good driver. And if a driver is keeping your computer from booting up, you'll probably need a third-party utility program.

Windows 98's Automatic Skip Driver will disable a misbehaving driver and warn you of the trouble. If it happens at bootup, the utility won't load the driver during the next bootup.

Then there's Universal Serial Bus.

Most people probably think USB is some satellite television service, but it's the neatest thing to happen to PCs in years. Imagine a day when you can just buy a computer gizmo, like a mouse, or joystick or printer or digital camera, and just bring it home and plug it in and it works! No trying to find and install the right cable or driver or IRQ setting or DIP switches. You don't even need to turn off the computer to hook it up.

That day is almost here.

USB uses a standard plug. You can daisy-chain dozens of devices together. You can use PC devices on a Mac, and vice versa.

There aren't many USB devices available yet, but Windows 98 supports USB so lots of USB-capable PCs and devices should appear on the market soon.

More disk space

Yes, Windows 98 can actually give you more space on the hard drive. But then, you'll need more space to install the upgrade.

First, the upgrade adds anywhere from 70 megabytes to 100 megabytes or more of system files to your hard drive. That's in addition to what Windows 95 is already using.

But if you're using a large hard drive -- one with more than a gigabyte of space -- you're probably wasting about 20 percent of your hard drive anyway.

That's because many Windows 95 hard drives use a format (called FAT16) that cuts a hard drive into big segments, called clusters. Windows 98 allows you to use a drive format called FAT32, which uses much smaller clusters. Without getting too technical, the smaller clusters allow Windows 98 to be more efficient at using hard drive space. And with FAT32, you don't need to divide a big drive into smaller partitions.

FAT32 was available for Windows 95 systems, but the 98 upgrade includes a utility to convert a FAT16 hard drive to FAT32. The utility also checks for applications that may be confused by a FAT32 drive and warns you if it anticipates any problems.

The conversion on my laptop's 1.3-gigabyte drive was surprisingly quick, measured in minutes, despite the software's warning that it could take hours.

All this FAT16-FAT32 stuff has nothing to do with disk compression. And if you're using a compression utility like Stacker or DriveSpace, you won't be able to run compression on a FAT32 drive.

Better diagnotics

Being a tinkerer, I zeroed in on the nice tool kit that comes with Windows 98. Some of these new utilities install automatically, others must be installed separately from the Resource Kit on the upgrade disk.

Microsoft wants Windows 98 to be more reliable and part of that is providing a decent set of tools. Windows 95 spawned a large market for third-party utilities. Unfortunately, they vary in quality and are of limited usefulness when seeking support from Microsoft. With Windows 98, advanced users can more easily tweak the system settings, and those who prefer to call Microsoft for support can quickly find information to help the technician straighten things out.

Most of the new programs are found in the Start menu under Programs>Accessories>System Tools.


- System utilities: The System Information Utility pulls together in one place lots of interesting information about your computer. (You could find the same info in Windows 95 if you looked in several places.) The System Configuration Utility helps you fix the Config.sys, Autoexec.bat, System.ini and Win.ini files, back them up and restore previous versions if a problem develops. The System File Checker monitors what's happening to system files, and helps you restore fresh copies from the Windows 98 CD. A Link Check Wizard deletes dead shortcuts.

Task scheduler
Windows 98 allows you to schedule programs to run at certain times, primarily for routine maintence.
| ZOOM |
- Maintenance Wizard: This program zips through your hard drive deleting unnecessary files, cleaning up the Start menu, checking for disk errors and defragmenting the hard drive. It can configure your drive so the most frequently used applications load faster. Since some of these activities -- like defragging -- can take considerable time, the Wizard can be set to run when the computer's idle.

- Registry Checker: The Registry, where Windows stores complex system settings, is a mystery to most users. But a problem here can send the computer into fits. Every time you start your PC, the Checker scans the registry for errors. If the registry checks out OK, Checker backs up the current settings. If it finds a problem, it restores the Registry from a previous backup.

- Dr. Watson: The venerable debugging utility is updated for Windows 98. When something bad happens inside your computer, Dr. Watson takes extensive notes and writes them to a file in your hard drive. You can either use this file to fix things yourself or send it to a vendor's tech support service.

Automatic updates:

It's the rare Windows 95 user who has discovered, downloaded and installed the numerous patches and upgrades Microsoft has released for 95 in the past 30 months, all in the right order.

Microsoft promises that this won't be a problem with Windows 98. The solution is the Update Manager, which uses the Windows Update web site to keep everything current. Here's how it works:

The Manager links your computer to the web site, where an Update Wizard scans the system to see what hardware and software is installed, then compares the list to the site's database of most current drivers and system files. If an update is available, the Wizard can install the drivers. You can later uninstall the drivers if problems result. If this sounds a bit scary -- a Web site inventorying your hard drive -- Microsoft assures users that "This process is completely configurable, allowing the user to choose which updated drivers and system files to download." The truly paranoid can disable the whole thing.

Final thoughts:

I think the average, middle-of-the-road home PC user with $90 to spare should upgrade. Windows 98 offers substantial bug fixes, new drivers and better connection to the Internet.

You won't need to relearn Windows, and the kinds of things that most users never master anyway -- like keeping track of drivers and updates -- promise to be easier. Windows 98 is backward compatible, meaning you can still run that ancient DOS program you just can't part with. And it shouldn't crash as much as Windows 95.

Unlike Windows 95, Windows 98 isn't a new product. The technology in the box has been around for a couple years and we can safely assume that Microsoft has most of the kinks worked out.

True geeks should remember that Windows NT 5 is due out soon. This is the industrial-strength Windows model that corporate users need. Those who must have the best of everything, hardware and software, might want to skip Windows 98 and go straight to NT 5.0 Workstation.

On the other hand, if your computer is used for basic things and working fine, you may not need Windows 98. As they say, if it ain't broke, why fix it?

And what about that little CD-ROM problem I encountered? Microsoft said they'd never heard of such a thing (aside from those dastardly viruses, of course). And I successfully updated a second desktop PC with no apparent problems.

But I found this tidbit in the Windows 98 article from the May issue of Windows magazine (

"Yet for all the thinking that went into the new Setup, it's far from bullet-proof. We pressed the CD's eject button about halfway through the file-copying phase . . . and the entire upgrade went kaput. We had to perform a major operating system overhaul to revive it."

There's one for a Microsoft Knowledge Base article.

Send e-mail to Charles Brewer at