Any day now, CD factories around the world will begin stamping out millions of copies of Windows 98. At about the same time, the Microsoft publicity machine will move into high gear, trying to persuade you to plunk down $90 or so for a copy on June 25, when--anti-trust officials willing--the operating system update goes on the market.
I've been watching Win98 develop since last fall through a series of test versions that culminated in the nearly final Release Candidate 2. The result is a solid, evolutionary product. Win98 smooths out a lot of Windows 95's rough edges, integrates components that have been released for Win95 over the past three years, and introduces a number of useful, but not earthshaking, features.
Whether an upgrade makes sense for you depends on how you use your computer and how happy you are with your current setups. For most people, it will be a worthwhile upgrade, though not in Windows 95's "must-have" class.
CRASH PROTECTION. If you have been using Win95 with the Internet Explorer 4.0 browser and Active Desktop, Win98's screens will look not just familiar but identical. Don't be fooled. Despite Microsoft's claims of integration, Internet Explorer was tacked onto Win95. In Win98, the integration is real and deep, and the payoff is a system that is far less prone to crashes than Win95 with IE 4.0 was.
Anytime you open a file window or use Windows Explorer to manage files, you're running the browser, and you quickly come to depend on the forward and back buttons to navigate. You can use Netscape Navigator or any other browser to look at Web pages.
The browser interface is just one of the features that had been available separately and are now rolled into the operating system. Others include NetShow, for playing audio and video off the Web, and NetMeeting, for Internet telephony, videoconferencing, and document-sharing.
One of the most important newly integrated features is an improved system for storing files called FAT32, which allows much more efficient use of disk space. FAT32 has been available to computer manufacturers since October, 1996, but Win98 is the first time it has been offered to individual buyers and the first time it has been possible to convert existing disk drives to the system.
GET ON THE BUS. Several features are brand-new to Win98. Probably the most important is support for the universal serial bus, or USB, an easier and more versatile method of connecting accessories. Some USB devices have been around for more than a year, but the difficulty of making them work with Win95 has stopped them from becoming widely used.
I plugged in a Storm Technology Scanner, a Connectix VideoClip video-capture port, and an Intel video camera into a Win98 PC, and each device was instantly recognized and installed with no fuss (although the scanner was the same one that caused a system crash when Microsoft Chairman William H. Gates III demonstrated Win98 at a recent trade show). As USB printers, modems, disk drives, and other devices arrive on the market in coming months, hooking up accessories to PCs will, for the first time, become truly simple.
I'm less certain about the value of new features designed to make it easy to view broadcast or cable TV on your PC. Right now, there's not much hardware available to handle Win98's TV capabilities, but I'll take a closer look at these features in a future column.
Win98 also contains a variety of changes designed to make badly needed improvements in the stability of Win95, including the automatic inspection and repair of critical system files. Microsoft says it has fixed 3,000 Win95 bugs, many of them not previously acknowledged. But it will take some time and experience to tell how much improvement these changes will bring. The same is true of Win98's ability to fine-tune your software, partly by automatically downloading updates from the Internet.
I have installed Win98 half a dozen times without running into any problems. Because Win98 is an update of Win95 rather than a new system, set-up is likely to proceed without difficulty. Still, if you are completely satisfied with your present Win95 setup, you may want to leave it alone until others shake the bugs out of Win98. And many businesses may prefer to hold out for the more work-oriented Windows NT 5.0, which is expected around early 1999. Most people, however, are likely to consider the $90 and half-hour or so of installation as time and money well spent.