It's better, but slightly slower, than NT Workstation 4.0

Microsoft is justifiably proud of Windows 2000 Professional (Win2K Pro), which represents a significant enhancement of Windows NT Workstation 4.0 on Intel-based systems. Win2K offers many new features, but my tests show that a given system running Win2K Pro requires additional memory to perform as well as the same system running NT Workstation 4.0. I tested Win2K Pro as a workstation OS in a standalone environment, so this article doesn't address concerns related to using Win2K Pro in a network—particularly a Win2K server network using Microsoft Active Directory (AD).

Compatibility
Like NT Workstation 4.0, which it's intended to replace, Win2K Pro is a robust, securable OS designed for maximum stability. Win2K Pro differs from its predecessor in one major respect—it runs only on Intel systems. Microsoft dropped support for Compaq's Alpha RISC processor late last year (the company stopped supporting other RISC processors in NT 4.0). Win2K Pro also isn't completely compatible with all Intel-based systems that run NT Workstation 4.0—in particular, Microsoft dropped support for EISA and Micro Channel Architecture (MCA) systems. (The company points out that most such systems don't support sufficient RAM to run Win2K.) Win2K Pro doesn't support a few drivers built into NT Workstation 4.0 (e.g., drivers for older Future Domain SCSI controllers) because the drivers fail one aspect or another of the Win2K hardware quality assurance test suite.

That test suite is harder on Win2K Pro than it is on NT Workstation 4.0 because Win2K (unlike NT) is a Plug and Play (PnP) OS. Win2K Pro is designed to support the PnP and power-management features of Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) systems and provides limited compatibility with pre-ACPI PnP and power management. These characteristics make Win2K Pro a much better system for notebook and laptop computer users and greatly simplify hardware setup and troubleshooting. Ideally, using Win2K Pro with a compatible ACPI-based system and PnP peripherals should make hardware conflicts a thing of the past.

In the real world, however, conflicts will continue to occur. If you run into one, a variety of new troubleshooting tools are available in Win2K Pro, including a safe-boot mode that lets you selectively boot without network support and a completely new console mode that you can use to repair a system that refuses to boot. Most Control Panel items in Win2K Pro have a Troubleshooting button that can help you identify and clear up problems.

In contrast to NT Workstation 4.0, Win2K Pro offers an option to upgrade from Windows 9x. However, Win2K Pro isn't completely compatible with Win9x. For more information, see "Windows 2000 Professional Compatibility," page 63.

New Features
Win2K Pro offers many new and improved features, but one that will affect nearly all users is the revised user interface (UI). The interface changes don't represent the kind of wholesale break with the past that we saw in NT Workstation 4.0 (which moved from the Windows 3.x-style UI of earlier NT versions to a Win9x-style UI). However, enough differences exist that users should expect some productivity loss, at least during their first hours with Win2K Pro.

Among the interface changes users will encounter is a drastically revised network interface, which you access through the My Network Places icon, which replaces NT 4.0's Network Neighborhood icon. A new Settings menu item, Network and Dial-Up Connections, collects in one place settings that NT 4.0 scatters among numerous locations. Web users will appreciate the many features of Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0. They'll have to—Microsoft integrated IE 5.0 tightly into the Win2K Pro UI. You can install another browser, but Win2K uses IE 5.0 by default for all Web-related operations.

The Administrative Tools folder is now in Control Panel. Users who want the Administrative Tools folder to appear on the Start menu as it does in NT 4.0 must right-click the taskbar, select Properties, choose the Advanced tab, and click Display Administrative Tools, the first entry in the Start Menu Settings dialog box. Most dialog boxes in Win2K Pro have a Help button represented by a question mark. Select the question mark and point to any item in the dialog box. A window will appear with information about the item in question.

Some interface changes will become apparent only after you use Win2K Pro for a while. In particular, the new Personalized Menus feature removes infrequently used items from the Start menu's Programs list and replaces them with a chevron (which looks like one v stacked on top of another) icon. You click the icon to list the removed items. The applications that remain on the abbreviated Programs list vary, depending on when you used them last. Personalized Menus can be extremely confusing to a user (even an experienced one) when first encountered. After you get used to this feature, however, you might find that it improves productivity.

Win2K Pro also offers vast improvements for notebook PCs, including PnP device support, built-in power management, and infrared data transmission. The new Offline Files feature enhances the little-used NT Workstation 4.0 My Briefcase. Win2K Pro beefs up security with a new Encrypting File System (EFS), which can provide local security for both notebook and desktop users. (For more information about EFS, see Mark Russinovich, NT Internals, "Inside Encrypting File System, Part 1," June 1999, and "Inside Encrypting File System, Part 2," July 1999.) And an improved systemwide Search feature efficiently locates files and other data on both the local system and the network.

All these new and improved features come at a price. Microsoft increased the minimum memory requirement for a desktop system from 32MB for NT Workstation 4.0 to 64MB for Win2K Pro. Microsoft claims that Win2K Pro with 64MB or more of RAM delivers performance better than or equal to NT Workstation 4.0. My tests show otherwise.

Performance
I tested Win2K Pro and NT Workstation 4.0 on two platforms over a period that lasted longer than a month. The platforms were a Dell Latitude CPi notebook with a 300MHz Celeron processor and 128MB of RAM, and a custom desktop system built on an ASUS P2B-D dual motherboard with two 550MHz Pentium III processors and as much as 256MB of RAM. Because most desktop users have single-CPU systems, I disabled one CPU on the ASUS system for my tests. I didn't use the Active Desktop feature on either system, and I adjusted the notebook's power-management setting to Always On in Win2K Pro to provide the closest possible match to NT 4.0, which lacks power-management features.

My performance-testing tool was BAPCo's SYSmark 2000, which runs 12 office-productivity and Internet-content-creation programs through scripted tests that attempt to simulate typical use of the applications. Figure 1, page 107, shows the results for both the notebook and desktop test beds.

In my notebook and desktop tests, Win2K Pro was slightly but measurably slower than NT 4.0. On my desktop test bed, I saw a performance difference of about 8 percent at 64MB decline to between 4 and 5 percent at 128MB and 256MB. The performance difference might disappear completely with still more RAM, but based on the shape of the curves in Figure 1, I doubt it. Because of potential testing variances, I consider score differences of 2 percent or less to be insignificant.

SYSmark uses results from a large number of individual tests to calculate a weighted average. Therefore, if you examine Tables 1 and 2, which show more detailed results for each test bed, you won't be too surprised to see that Win2K Pro actually performed better than NT Workstation 4.0 on some individual tests. However, the overall test results are consistent enough to warrant my conclusion that although Win2K Pro is only slightly slower than NT 4.0, the difference is measurable. Of course, these results are from only two systems and reflect BAPCo's particular set of applications and test scripts.

I informed a senior Microsoft engineer of my tests, and although he didn't quarrel with my results, he did object to BAPCo's SYSmark, saying, "SYSmark is not a realistic benchmark.... It keeps the processor busy at about 95 percent or more throughout the entire run. This is very abnormal. Most systems are idle much of the time, allowing background memory management and file-system-worker threads to do their jobs. SYSmark measures how long it takes to complete a whole series of operations. Because it is doing many things rapidly, the display has to be updated very frequently, and this leads to an unrealistic load on the video subsystem, making inconsequential differences between two video cards/drivers seem very relevant."

The results on the notebook and desktop show the same trend, even though these systems use very different video cards and drivers. (The Dell notebook has a built-in NeoMagic MagicGraph 256 AV card and driver, and the desktop has an ATI 3D Charger 8MB AGP video card and driver.)

The larger concern of whether SYSmark is a fair test is a matter of opinion. Although I concede that running big scripts flat out isn't representative of the kind of use systems undergo most of the time, I do believe that SYSmark constitutes a useful test of system performance. Moreover, many users most notice system performance when they must run an unusually large or complex job that stresses a system to the maximum, and this is exactly what SYSmark does. If anything, I think the SYSmark results might lead us to believe that Win2K Pro needs less RAM for general use than it actually does. After all, if you multitask many applications at once, you need more RAM than if you run just one application at a time as SYSmark does.

Note that Win2K Pro running with 128MB of RAM outperforms NT Workstation 4.0 with 64MB of RAM on the desktop and equals NT 4.0's performance on the notebook. Win2K Pro running with 256MB of RAM performs almost identically on the desktop to NT Workstation 4.0 with 128MB of RAM. Thus, all you need do to enjoy the benefits of Win2K Pro with the performance of NT Workstation 4.0 is upgrade your system memory. Based on my tests and experience with both Win2K and NT, I recommend that users moving to Win2K Pro from NT Workstation 4.0 consider a memory upgrade if they have less than 256MB of RAM on their system. (Those with 64MB should upgrade to 128MB, and those with 128MB should upgrade to 256MB.)

Worth the Upgrade
I like Win2K Pro, and I don't particularly like NT Workstation 4.0. When Microsoft introduced NT Workstation 4.0, I was disappointed that the company added a Win9x look without providing an upgrade path from Win9x and that NT 4.0 didn't support Win9x features such as power management, PnP, and Win9x's virtual device-driver model. This lack of support makes many Win9x applications incompatible with NT Workstation 4.0. Win2K Pro corrects many (though not all) of these problems.

While working on the benchmark tests for this review, I spent quite a bit of time dual-booting between Win2K Pro and NT Workstation 4.0. I found that Win2K Pro is easier to install on up-to-date systems, is better suited to those systems because of its ACPI BIOS support, is easier to troubleshoot and debug, and is almost as fast as NT 4.0. You can address the performance gap with a memory upgrade that costs only about $100 for most desktop systems, and I recommend both the memory and OS upgrades.