3 new features make Win2K Pro a must for mobile computing

After running various Windows 2000 Professional (Win2K Pro) beta versions and numerous release candidates (RCs) on a couple of laptop computers, I'm comfortable saying that Win2K Pro on laptops isn't only a good choice, but a necessity. Initially, I found two features that make Win2K Pro a good laptop OS: Microsoft Plug and Play (PnP) support and power management support through Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI). But after working with the OS for more than 6 months, I've also begun to appreciate how valuable the Offline Files and Folders feature is to mobile users. I don't often recommend that you upgrade an OS for the sake of only three basic features. However, in the case of Win2K Pro, I think these truly useful features justify the switch—at least for mobile computing users. (For other opinions on Win2K's mobile computing benefits, see John Ruley, "Windows 2000 Pro on a Notebook," June 2000, and Sean Daily, "Win2K Pro on the Road," June 2000.)

Plug and Play
You can install a PnP driver on Windows NT 4.0 that kind of works, but until the release of Win2K Pro, true PnP was available only in consumer Windows versions. "Plug and Pray" jokes aside, the lack of PnP has severely limited NT's use as a laptop OS. Several companies attempted to rectify this problem. For example, Digital Equipment, which Compaq now owns, wrote a custom PnP driver for its HiNote line of notebook computers, but the implementation was only moderately successful. NT's ability to penetrate the laptop market at all is impressive given that simple operations, such as swapping a PC Card, require you to turn off the computer. Add NT's abysmal power management, and I'm amazed that the OS is on laptops at all.

By contrast, using a PC Card device in Win2K Pro is simple. When you insert the PC Card in the PC Card slot, the OS identifies the card and requests the appropriate drivers, if necessary. To remove the card, select the system tray's Unplug or Eject Hardware icon. From this applet, which Screen 1, shows, you can stop any PC Card device. You can also start and stop PC Cards and other removable devices from the Control Panel Add/Remove Hardware wizard. For a NIC, you can select Properties from the applet to launch the same properties window that you see when you use the wizard to investigate the device.

You can also use the Unplug or Eject Hardware applet to swap devices in the modular bays that many laptop computers provide. To switch from the CD-ROM drive to the 3.5" disk drive in my Dell Latitude CPi notebook, I stopped the currently installed drive, removed the device from the system, and installed the required drive type. If you remove a drive before stopping it, Win2K Pro gives you a warning message—a far cry from NT 4.0, which doesn't give you a warning but might give you a blue screen when NT tries to access the floppy.sys driver and the drive isn't present.

The key to successfully swapping devices in Win2K Pro is to have the appropriate Win2K driver for the PC Card or swappable device. When I originally upgraded my laptop to Win2K Pro, the OS pronounced my PC Card Ethernet adapter unsuitable. Win2K Pro told me that no drivers were available for that PC Card, which was a major brand, and that the OS was disabling network services until I provided a suitable driver. Although I acquired the laptop and the PC Card together and the laptop was on the Win2K Hardware Compatibility List (HCL), the PC Card wasn't. At the time, my solution was to buy the ubiquitous Xircom CreditCard Ethernet PC Card, which worked like a charm. This driver-availability problem can be a bit of a gotcha when you're upgrading to Win2K Pro. (To find potential incompatibilities, you can download and run Microsoft's Win2K compatibility test from http://www.microsoft.com/windows2000/upgrade/compat/default.asp.)

Power Management
The Power Options Properties sheet, familiar to Windows 9x users, is now available in Win2K Pro. These configuration properties let users tailor their laptops' power-saving behavior. Five standard power schemes (i.e., Home/Office Desk, Portable/Laptop, Presentation, Always On, and Minimal Power Management) are available. You can also create and save custom power schemes and add them to the available list by configuring a power scheme, then selecting Save As on the Power Schemes tab, which Screen 2 shows, and giving the scheme a unique name. For example, you can save a special Portable/Laptop power scheme for short airplane flights and cross-country jaunts so that you don't need to explicitly reconfigure the standard Portable/Laptop setting each time.

The most useful new power management tool is the hibernation option for ACPI-compliant devices. Although Microsoft attempted to improve Win2K Pro's boot time, most users still have time to grab a cup of coffee while the system starts. And if the Startup directory stores enough information, users might have time for a quick lunch. Hibernation can make startup delays a thing of the past by letting a system go from powered down to up and running in less than 1 minute (Microsoft claims 30 seconds). To enable hibernation from the Power Options Properties' Hibernate tab, select the Enable hibernate support check box, which Screen 3 shows. This option creates a hibernation file on the boot drive; the file size is equal to the amount of memory in the system. Basically, hibernation takes a snapshot of the working memory before the user shuts down the system. When the user reboots the system, Win2K Pro reads the snapshot back into memory to return the user to the system's prehibernation state. Totally drained batteries don't pose a problem because hibernation, unlike the Standby or Suspend options, doesn't require any system power.

The hibernation feature is available only if your system is ACPI-compliant. If your system is compliant with the older Advanced Power Management (APM) standard, Win2K Pro replaces the Hibernate tab with an APM tab, which controls APM features. ACPI, however, is the recommended power management system for Win2K Pro, and the hibernation feature alone makes ACPI worthwhile. The only problem I encountered with system devices restarting from hibernation mode involved the audio driver in the Dell notebook I use for testing—the driver didn't always reinitialize correctly after I powered the system back up. Networking restored correctly every time, and I encountered no problems with applications that I'd left open when I put the system in hibernation.

Offline Files and Folders
Microsoft has highly touted Win2K's Offline Files and Folders feature. A user's mobile system stores offline files locally, but the files appear to be in their regular network location, even when the user doesn't have a network connection. Much of the buzz surrounding this feature concerns its ability to provide central administration for offline files and to let network administrators control and designate files in a pure Win2K (server and client) environment. The feature—without centralized management capabilities—is available in any network environment to which a Win2K client can attach, so a Win2K client can designate any visible network file to be available offline. To configure individual files or entire folders for offline availability, you can launch Windows Explorer, right-click the desired target, and select Make Available Offline from the context menu. After you make a file available offline, a round-trip arrow (i.e., an icon that shows two arrows forming a circle) appears in the lower left corner of the file's icon.

When you select a folder, all the files and subfolders in the folder become available offline. Dropping additional files into that folder makes those files available offline as well. If you've marked a folder to be available offline, you can't clear individual files within that folder—you need to move those files out of the synchronized folder. Otherwise, you can select and clear individual files from the context menu.

Because I work in a remote office and don't connect directly to my corporate Microsoft Exchange Server system, I store my Microsoft Outlook 2000 mail database .pst file locally. Because the Offline Files and Folders feature works well in a peer environment, my NT 4.0 Service Pack 5 (SP5) desktop shares files well with my Win2K Pro laptop. I've shared the data drive on my desktop and used the laptop to mark the large outlook.pst file to be available offline. As far as Outlook knows, the network drive is always available, and so is my email.

Win2K Pro provides the Synchronization Manager applet, which Screen 4 shows and which you can use in different ways to synchronize offline files. The Offline Files Folder, which is open in the background in Screen 4, contains the local copies of the files marked to be available offline (you need enough local storage to contain those files). Using the Synchronization Manager, you can configure the offline files to synchronize at a scheduled time, synchronize anytime a file changes, or synchronize on command. You can use all these synchronization options together, applying different rules to different files. Because I generally use my laptop only while I travel, I synchronize on command. If the laptop were my only desktop, I'd synchronize on change. Keep in mind that synchronization is two-way, so when I plug back into my office network, Win2K Pro automatically updates the file versions that I left behind to reflect my modifications. (If modifications have occurred in both files, the most recent modification takes precedence.)

Make the Move
Although I haven't been advising users to rush headlong to Win2K for servers or desktops, laptop computing is one area in which the OS shines. If you buy a new laptop, specify that you want Win2K Pro on it. You won't be sorry. And if you want the security of NT on your Win9x laptops, take a look at the Win2K HCL. If your hardware is compatible, go for it.