(In light of the latest Windows 8 mess, I thought we should look back at the 98 madness)
t’s not surprising that many corporations have decided, at least initially, to limit migrations from Windows 95 to Windows 98. For most corporate buyers, immediate wholesale upgrades of Windows 95 clients won’t make sense. In PC Week Labs’ tests of the final code, we saw numerous incremental improvements in the operating system; however, none of the improvements will translate into dramatic increases in productivity or reductions in IT spending.
The upgrade to Windows 98, which will become widely available through retail and PC OEMs next week, does offer some advantages to corporations interested in tapping into the newest hardware innovations. In addition, the upgrade is more stable than Windows 95 and provides a convenient means of getting the latest patches and drivers. And the newest desktop and portable systems will be the best platforms for running the new operating system.
In many ways, Windows 98 is a victim of timing. With corporate-focused Windows NT 5.0 due next year, upgrading now as an interim step doesn’t make sense — especially since NT 5.0 is expected to eliminate the feature gap between Windows 9x and Windows NT (see table, Page 96).
Furthermore, in PC Week Labs’ testing, many of the performance gains promised in the upgrade didn’t materialize. The systems that could have the most to gain from performance improvements — the 486DX2- to low-speed Pentium-based desktop PCs — may have fallen too far down the technology curve for even Windows 98 to save.
Cost is also an important factor. The upgrade has a list price of $109, and although corporate buyers will probably be able to buy the software for less, there is likely to be a cost incurred in deploying the upgrade as well as a hit in lost productivity as employees adapt to tweaks in the user interface.
In benchmark testing of Windows 98 against Windows 95, we found the new operating system delivered gains on some midrange Pentium-based desktop PCs but had little impact on a system that matched the minimum system requirements, a 66MHz 486DX2 processor with 16MB of RAM (see chart, Page 96).
Two Windows 98 technologies improved overall system performance in tests: the fast application load technology and improved memory paging. The fast application load technology relies on improvements to the FAT (file allocation table). The new FAT32 file system, which writes to disk in small 4KB cluster sizes, places applications in the optimal location on a system’s hard drive.
To benchmark the operating system, we ran macros in Microsoft’s Word and Excel that performed typical daily operations, such as formatting text, recalculating spreadsheets, saving files and printing. On the 486DX2-based system, performance using Windows 98 dropped about 3 percent in the Microsoft Word test and about 6 percent in the Microsoft Excel test.
We attribute the performance hit on the 486DX2-based system to the fact that we were unable to convert the system’s FAT16 drive to FAT32. After installing Word and Excel and upgrading to Windows 98, there wasn’t enough room on the system’s 340MB hard drive to perform the conversion.
However, we could see the benefit of FAT32 on a 90MHz Pentium-based PC with 32MB of RAM and a 2GB drive. We were able to convert the drive to FAT32 and see improvements of 6 percent and 14 percent in the Word and Excel tests, respectively.
Making room on the drive
For many of the 486-based and low-speed Pentium desktop PCs still in use, trying to make Windows 98 work with small disk drives will likely be a problem. A typical Windows 95 installation, without any application software, requires about 153MB of disk space. That grows to 289MB after upgrading to Windows 98. With a partial installation of Microsoft Office and data files, even the 528MB drive found in many of the early Pentium desktops would not have enough room to perform a FAT32 conversion.
One obvious solution to this problem is to start from scratch, installing Windows 98 on a formatted hard drive and then reinstalling software and data. But this approach is too time-consuming for an additional 28 percent more disk space and a 6 percent to 14 percent boost in performance, considering that most companies would like to replace slow systems that have smaller-than-528MB hard drives anyway.
The second performance-enhancing technology, smart paging, works much the same way as memory optimizers, such as Network Associates Inc.’s Hurricane. Instead of continually paging memory to disk when system memory runs low, Windows 98 anticipates low-memory situations and pages to disk while the system is idle.
We noticed that the system still began paging when a few documents and applications were open simultaneously, but the lengthy disk activity that accompanies paging was greatly reduced from what we have seen with Windows 95.
Microsoft has also improved the startup and shutdown time for Windows 98. But, although the operating system is ready to operate in a fast startup mode, systems with the fast-boot BIOS that will enable the technology won’t be available until later this year.
The fast shutdown feature is the type of improvement users will love, because it gets them out the door a little earlier in the day and makes using notebook PCs a little more convenient. However, a feature that lets workers clear the building in record time will be a tough sell to the chief financial officer.
Web integration is the mantra for Windows 98 but, in the final version, the central Web element, the Active Desktop, is disabled. For corporate sites looking to deploy the operating system to any users, the fact that the Active Desktop isn’t enabled after installation should help avoid big training costs. However, the Web-based Windows Update and Channel Bar components are on the desktop after the operating system installs.
The consumer-oriented Channel Bar isn’t any more dangerous than the Windows solitaire game. All it does is encourage users to view Channel-based entertainment and news. The Web-based update feature, on the other hand, is an administrator’s nightmare because it gives users the ability to go to Microsoft’s Web site to download the latest drivers and software updates at their leisure.
Both features can be disabled, however, by using the Batch 98 utility to create an automated install script. (For more advice about corporate deployment of Windows 98, see the story on Page 93.)
A must for new PCs
Windows 98 is a good match for notebooks and newer desktop PCs because it supports new hardware and improved dial-up networking, so companies making PC purchases should specify Windows 98 instead of Windows 95. Windows 98 has better support for USB (Universal Serial Bus) devices than was available in the most recent OSR (OEM Service Release) of Windows 95.
For those who need to use a USB device, such as a scanner, a PC running Windows 98 or Windows 95 OSR 2.5 is the only option, because USB support won’t be available on Windows NT until Version 5.0 comes out sometime next year.