Windows 2000: Worth The Wait

Home users should be wary, but this time Microsoft got its priorities straight

After a gestation period a lot longer than an elephant's, Microsoft Corp. has finally given birth to its latest operating system, Windows 2000. Based on my experience with both test and final versions and the reports from dozens of companies that participated in an "early deployment program," the wait seems to have been worth it. For once, Microsoft held off on shipping a major piece of software until it was ready. And by concentrating on reliability and security rather than spiffy new features, Microsoft got its priorities straight.

Still, Windows 2000 is not for everyone, and home users should be especially wary of it. The unfortunate choice of name suggests that it is the successor to Windows 95 and 98. Instead, it is a replacement for the corporate-oriented Windows NT 4.0--and that makes a big difference.

PLUG AND PLAY. Microsoft's two families of PC operating systems are based on different philosophies. Windows 95 and 98 were designed for compatibility with the broadest range of hardware and software. This goal forced compromises that left the system painfully crash-prone and with a tendency to become more unstable over time. NT trades convenience and compatibility for fewer crashes and reboots. But programs and devices that don't play by its strict rules will not work. In particular, many games, especially arcade-style action titles, will not run under NT.

Windows 2000 brings a lot of the convenience of 98 to NT. Plug-and-play hardware installation now works, as do accessories that connect using the Universal Serial Bus. NT didn't work very well on laptops: It drained batteries quickly and had a lot of trouble with PC Cards. Windows 2000 was designed for mobile use, and early reports indicate that it gives slightly better battery life than 98.

In one sense, 2000 is even fussier than NT. In an effort to improve reliability, Microsoft set up procedures to certify both applications programs and drivers, the critical bits of software that run accessories such as printers. Windows 2000 can be set up to allow the use of printers and other devices to use software that has not passed compatibility tests, but it's not a good idea. Waiting for certification may render some peripherals temporarily unusable. Many applications, including Microsoft Office 2000, will require reworking to meet all the certification requirements. Fortunately, most programs, including just about all that run under NT 4.0, are "Windows 2000 Ready" and will perform just fine.

So who should use Windows 2000? Most big corporations plan to move their desktops and laptops gradually from NT 4.0 or Windows 95, since 98 is little used in big enterprises. In the past, I have recommended that smaller businesses stay away from NT because of the difficulty of setting it up and administering it. The generous use of wizards, which provide step-by-step help, has made 2000 much simpler, even for shops that lack full-time technical support, and increased reliability makes it attractive. But before choosing to upgrade, you should check critical hardware and software for compatibility at And you may do better phasing in the new software as you replace computers, rather than trying to upgrade existing machines. In addition to being a bit tricky, an upgrade requires 650 megabytes of free disk space.

SERIOUS SECURITY. The closest call is for home machines that are used both for work and fun. If you want arcade-style games, forget about 2000. A lot of consumer hardware, especially low-end inkjet printers, won't work. Windows 2000 security is serious: A lost administrator password cannot be recovered. And while it is easy for different members of a family to set up separate identities, it's not always simple for them to share data or programs--even on the same computer.

Microsoft plans to release a consumer version of 2000, probably in late 2001, that will solve many of these problems. It plans a relatively minor Windows 98 update, called Millennium Edition, later this year. Until then, if you can live with 2000's restrictions you may want to try it, especially if you are getting a new computer, where installing 2000 costs only $75 more than 98. You may lose convenience, but you'll spend a lot less time watching your computer reboot.

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