The best OS for business and mobile users

Windows 2000 Professional (Win2K Pro) is a huge upgrade from Windows NT Workstation 4.0 and Windows 98. To fully evaluate this release, you need to understand Microsoft's goals for Windows 2000 (Win2K). In fall 1996, when Microsoft began preparing Win2K (then NT 5.0), the company set simplicity and reliability as the OS's primary goals. Microsoft later decided that it wanted Win2K to be the easiest-to-use Windows version, to offer the best solution for mobile users, to be more reliable than its predecessors, and to lower a company's total cost of ownership (TCO). Let's take a look at whether Win2K achieves those goals.

Easiest-to-Use Windows
Although Win2K Pro's interface is similar to its predecessors', the Win2K interface is less cluttered. When you select the Start menu, you'll notice Win2K uses a new feature, Personalized Menus, that tracks the way you use the Start menu. Program icons that you use infrequently disappear from the default menu, and the program icons that you use daily have fewer meaningless choices obscuring them. When you need to reach the icons that disappeared from the default menu, click the small chevron symbol at the bottom of each menu or hold the pointer over the menu for a few seconds to expand the menu choices.

Microsoft revamped the Find feature from earlier versions into an HTML-based Search wizard that opens an enhanced Windows Explorer window, which Screen 1, page 52, shows. The Search wizard lets you perform detailed searches of your local drives and remote resources. Microsoft also fixed an annoying limitation of the earlier Find feature: When the Search Results pane displays the found files, you can now right-click a filename to open the file.

Microsoft has always provided good multilingual support in its OSs, but Windows 2000 Professional, MultiLanguage Version's functionality is amazing: You can change from one language to another without rebooting. The ability to switch languages for the entire OS on the fly is a welcome addition for the booming markets outside of North America. But more important, when you have one application in French and another in English, you can use Win2K Pro to work in both languages simultaneously. For example, you can use French for most tasks but view, print, and write documents in English. With more than two dozen language packs due in mid-2000, the possibilities are endless.

Win2K Pro's support of the latest hardware surpasses Win98's support. Win2K Pro's Add/Remove Hardware Wizard is similar to Win98's Add New Hardware Wizard, but the Add/Remove Hardware Wizard is a more powerful tool. This wizard lets you add a new device, troubleshoot an existing device, uninstall a device, and unplug a hot-swappable device. Microsoft also included Device Manager, which Screen 2 shows. Device Manager lets users check the status of hardware installation and configuration. Win2K Pro also supports dynamic Plug and Play (PnP) for automatic hardware configuration and new swappable devices such as PC Cards, mobile computer batteries, and USB devices. Win2K Pro lags behind Win98's support of legacy devices and certain classes of multimedia hardware. For more information about Win2K's hardware support, see Jonathan Chau, "Windows 2000 Update," http://www.win2000mag.com/articles, InstantDoc ID 4870.

The Network Connection Wizard, which Screen 3 shows, is another Win2K improvement that makes the OS easier to use. In Win2K Pro, the Control Panel Network and Dial-up Connections applet handles all types of network connections, including dial-up, VPN, Ethernet, NIC, and direct connections. And the Network Connection Wizard makes setting up and managing connections easy. Throughout Win2K, Microsoft similarly combines two related applets into one more logical applet, which is a welcome and successful move toward simplicity. However, Win2K Pro offers no facility for creating different profiles for the same connection. For example, you might use certain TCP/IP settings for a network connection when you connect your laptop to the corporate LAN, but use different settings when you're on the road. Microsoft plans to remedy this Win2K limitation in future versions, and third-party tools, such as NetSwitcher, are also forthcoming to help users manage multiple network connections.

New technologies, such as Win2K Pro's Active Directory's (AD's) Group Policy settings and IntelliMirror's centralized change management for Win2K networks, provide administrators several management capabilities. Group Policy makes managing roaming users easy because you can publish or assign software applications to users and computers. IntelliMirror technology also supports roaming users and enables automated software installation. (For more information about IntelliMirror, see Darren Mar-Elia, "IntelliMirror Adds Manageability," July 1999.) You can remotely install software on Win2K Pro machines if their hardware supports remote booting. Plus, you can use the Microsoft System Preparation tool to prepare for corporatewide migrations.

Win2K Pro supports Win98 features such as DirectX, OpenGL, a new backup program, a disk defragmenter, and a disk cleanup tool similar to the one in Microsoft Plus! 98. Win2K Pro also supports Win98's FAT32 file system and puts an end to the agonizing file-system incompatibilities between NT and Win9x. (Win98 still can't read NTFS, but Win2K and NT can fully utilize FAT32.) Win2K Pro's support for all next-generation hardware, such as USB, IEEE 1394 (FireWire), AGP, multiple monitors and video cards, DVD, and Device Bay, makes the OS ready to go on the latest systems.

Is Win2K Pro the easiest-to-use Windows OS? Absolutely. Microsoft streamlined many tasks and simplified the user interface (UI). However, several simplistic features seem out of place in Win2K Pro. For example, do professional users need the balloon Help feature, and why does a business OS use names such as My Computer and My Network Places when it would be more practical for the OS to automatically use the computer name and domain name? But overall, Win2K is the easiest-to-use Windows yet.

Why would you use Win98 when Win2K Pro provides so many useful features? The biggest reason you might choose to stay with Win98 is compatibility: Win98 is compatible with all the available hardware and software. Win2K Pro's current hardware support for Direct3D and OpenGL video cards is spotty at best. I have a 12MB Voodoo 2 card that Win2K doesn't natively support because the drivers are merely NT 4.0 drivers that the vendor renamed. These drivers don't provide Direct3D support, so playing many new games is out of the question. Microsoft will no doubt improve this situation, and Win2K will become a superset of Win98 and offer the necessary device drivers.

Microsoft says Win2K Pro's performance is better than Win98's performance on systems that have 64MB of RAM or more, but don't believe it. If you run typical Microsoft Office and Internet applications, you'll need at least 128MB on your workstation to detect any improvement. To satisfy the power-hungry, Win2K Pro supports up to 4GB of RAM and two microprocessors. And you can easily add a second processor to a system through Device Manager, whereas NT 4.0 requires a tool from the Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 Resource Kit.

Inevitably, the question of whether Win2K Pro is an appropriate upgrade from Win98 arises. Assuming that your Win98 business desktops meet the minimum hardware requirements, the answer is yes. For example, if you use a workstation with a 300MHz Pentium II processor or better and more than 64MB of RAM, Win2K Pro is a must-have upgrade. And surprisingly, on Pentium II laptops with at least 64MB of RAM, Win2K Pro blows Win98 out of the water.

Superior Mobile Support
How is Win2K Pro's excellent mobile support possible? NT 4.0 virtually abandoned the mobile market by not supporting power management and mobile hardware. Users depended on OEM-specific add-ons to partially fill NT 4.0's mobile hardware needs. However, you don't need third-party solutions when you use Win2K Pro because it offers excellent power management support and adds support for the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) power management specification. To take advantage of Win2K's state-of-the-art mobile support, your laptop needs an ACPI-compatible BIOS dated after January 1, 1999. Advanced Power Management (APM) laptops will receive a subset of the ACPI power management features but will lack the hibernation and programmability options. For example, with ACPI, you can set your laptop to enter standby mode when you close the lid or press the power button; you can't do this with APM.

After examining how mobile users interact with data, Microsoft decided to make it easier for users to access network data when users' laptops don't have a network connection. Win2K Pro includes two features that make accessing this data possible: Offline Folders and Synchronization Manager (SyncMgr). Let's say a mobile user needs to access data from a network share after disconnecting the laptop from the network. To make this data available, a user with a network connection navigates to the necessary resource, right-clicks it, then chooses Make Available Offline. This sequence launches the Offline Files wizard, which guides the user through the process. Users can choose to automatically synchronize these files every time they log on and off the computer, as Screen 4 shows, or use SyncMgr to manually synchronize the files. The Offline Files wizard lets users configure options such as offline reminders and desktop shortcuts to the offline resource.

Win2K Pro's NT Inheritance
Although the name Windows 2000 sounds like an upgrade of Win98 instead of NT, Win2K Pro builds on NT 4.0's core and adds several new features. Because Win2K's basis is the NT kernel, Win2K Pro is also extremely reliable and scalable. Win2K Pro benefits from 3 years of steady NT improvements, such as the security updates, bug fixes, service pack functionality, and Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) fixes through IE 5.01. So, Win2K is the obvious Windows platform of choice for developers, power users, engineers, high-end graphics users, and anyone who needs a reliable and secure 24 x 7 OS.

Win2K Pro requires fewer reboots than NT 4.0: Microsoft identified 75 tasks in NT 4.0 that required a reboot (e.g., networking settings changes) vs. only 7 in Win2K. To test this claim, I changed IP addresses on my workstation, enabled and disabled Internet Connection Sharing, and performed some networking-related changes. Win2K Pro didn't require a restart. To an NT or Win98 user, this reliability is miraculous. Also, Win2K-certified hardware drivers don't require reboots after installation. Microsoft is digitally signing and certifying Win2K drivers, offering the ultimate in protection when you install new devices.

Win2K Pro oozes security features that Win98 lacks. Win2K Pro requires a logon, and you can choose to encrypt data, as Screen 5 shows. Win2K is secure from the ground up because it uses Encrypting File System (EFS) for local security, Kerberos for network security, public key infrastructure (PKI) for Internet security, and smart card support for physical machine access. Therefore, Win2K Pro is the ultimate OS for anyone worried about data invasion.

In addition, Win2K Pro's System File Protection (SFP) protects the OS's .sys, .dll, .exe, and .ocx files. This amazing feature is a valiant and successful deterrent to DLL problems that occur when an application overwrites key system files with proprietary or outdated files. SFP prevents file overwrites, which are the main cause of instability, so you don't need to reboot your computer. And applications that use Microsoft Installer (MSI) technology can automatically reinstall missing or corrupt files.

To further protect the system, Microsoft instituted an exhausting Win2K logo certification program to ensure that certified applications adhere to the company's system reliability features. Although most NT 4.0 and Win9x applications will install and run correctly on Win2K, certifying applications helps to ensure that the system will run correctly.

Lower TCO
Because Windows networks are historically expensive to maintain and support, Microsoft designed Win2K to lower a company's TCO. Microsoft added technologies to Win2K that make Win2K-based networks easier to deploy, install, manage, and support.

Win2K's and NT's structure virtually guarantees the upgrade from NT 4.0 to Win2K Pro, but upgrading from Win9x to Win2K Pro often results in an OS with incompatible programs and utilities. However, Win2K's installation program tells you which hardware and software is incompatible before the OS installs. Still, I don't recommend upgrading Win9x clients to Win2K unless you have a compelling business reason.

Win2K Pro's manageability is a mixed bag. Microsoft attempted to clean up the numerous Control Panel applets and administration tools (Win2K Pro hides the administration tools by default), but Win2K merely reshuffles the numerous applications you need to effectively administer the OS. So, many NT and Win98 features appear in different places in Win2K Pro. For example, when you try to manage services, you won't find a services control panel; you'll need to locate the Computer Management tool or select Administrative Tools from Control Panel.

The good news is that Microsoft plans to handle service packs and other Win2K updates in a more refined manner than the way it handled NT 4.0 fixes. Win2K service packs will only fix bugs, not add new features. Unlike NT's service pack installations, administrators will be able to load the updated Win2K files from service packs into a server's i386 installation directory and maintain one OS master image that has the latest updates. Therefore, future Win2K installations will include all the fixes without requiring separate service pack installations. And you won't need to reinstall applications after applying service packs. Microsoft implements this feature in the Windows 2000 High Encryption Pack, which adds 128-bit encryption. After you add the necessary files and directory structure to the i386 installation folder, all new Win2K installations automatically add this feature.

To help lower TCO, Microsoft added other features, such as a new boot diagnostic utility that you enable by pressing F8 when the system starts. Like Win98, Win2K Pro lets you access a command-line Recovery Console (RC) prompt at the boot, instead of requiring you to boot into the GUI. The Windows 2000 Setup CD-ROM includes a system-recovery feature as well.

Internet-Ready
Win2K Pro's IE Web integration feature bears some mention. During the Win98 beta program, Microsoft tried to push a single-click, mouse-over highlighting feature for the interface that brought Web-like functionality to Windows Explorer. The company argued (somewhat successfully) that implementing this method of file-system navigation would require users to learn only one method. However, customer complaints caused Microsoft to back away from this approach: Win2K and Win98 use the standard double-click interface and leave the single-click style as an option. In Win2K Pro, Microsoft also downplays IE's Active Desktop, which is turned off by default, although you can easily access it. And IE 4.0's annoying Channel features (e.g., the desktop Channel bar) are gone from Win2K Pro.

In Win2K Pro, Microsoft added the Start menu's Personalized Menus feature to IE 5.0's Favorites menu. Although I'm a fan of the personalized Start menu, adding this feature to IE 5.0 was a mistake. By definition, Favorites are features you explicitly add to your system, so the OS shouldn't hide them from you. You can select Tools, Internet Options, and the Advanced tab, then clear the Enable Personalized Favorites Menu check box to remove this feature.

By now, I expect that most people are comfortable with IE's integration into Windows. But Microsoft's thorough IE integration into Win2K Pro almost makes the point moot. I'd like to think that IE has matured to the point at which its inclusion isn't a problem (although IE 5.0 required several security fixes). Time will tell how IE's inclusion in Win2K affects the OS's stability and security.

Final Thoughts
A major OS release such as Win2K Pro creates a lot of material to cover. But ultimately, Microsoft effectively determined what people wanted and implemented those changes in a way that makes sense.

Win2K Pro isn't an OS for everyone: Game players will find better hardware and software compatibility in Win98, and legacy hardware is out of the running for an upgrade. But Win2K Pro excels in areas that Win9x can't touch, such as security, reliability, and scalability.

Win2K Pro is the best Windows desktop OS for business users, mobile users, engineers, graphics artists, software developers, and power users. This OS has powerful features that Microsoft integrated in a simple and elegant manner. I strongly recommend that users who have the proper hardware (check the Hardware Compatibility List—HCL—for compatibility) evaluate Win2K Pro immediately.