Words of warning from an early explorer

Last August, Microsoft summoned geek journalists from around the world to Seattle, Washington, for a briefing about Windows NT 5.0. The presentation spanned two days, and Microsoft jam-packed it with information. I had already heard some of the information the briefing covered, but a little review never hurts. (For more information about the briefing, see "NT 5.0 Update," page 151.) The best part of the trip was the participants' going-away present: a copy of the then-brand-new NT 5.0 beta 2.

Saying I was excited about the new release understates my enthusiasm. Later that evening when I had to choose between going to a nice restaurant with colleagues and holing up in my hotel room to install beta 2 on my laptop, the dinner was no contest for the software.

In general, beta 2 is pretty neat. If you can get your hands on a copy, try it out. But please don't email me asking how to get a copy; I can't help you. The folks at Microsoft told me that the only people who received beta 2 were attendees of the mid-October Professional Developers Conference, which will have already happened by the time you read this article; members of the Rapid Deployment Program, a group of customers that Microsoft is using to wring out NT 5.0 rollout problems; and people with Universal subscriptions to the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN), which includes all Microsoft Certified Solution Providers (MCSPs).

If you really want a copy of beta 2, your firm could become an MCSP. The suggestion isn't as goofy as it sounds. All your company needs are two Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs­people who have passed one Microsoft test) and $1400 per year. In return, you get all of Microsoft's current Office, BackOffice, and developer tools; a network version of TechNet; and a bunch of other software.

Before You Install Beta 2
Despite my enthusiasm about the latest NT 5.0 beta, I wasted hours trying to get the software to work with all my hardware. I hope this report from an early user will save the rest of you time on beta 2 installations.

First, don't worry about establishing your NT 5.0 domain until you finish your beta 2 installation. I wanted to set aside a test machine as a beta 2 domain, but I couldn't figure out how to do that. I was used to previous versions of NT, which ask you during Setup whether you want to create a new domain. NT 5.0 doesn't create domains during Setup. (This feature is an improvement over previous versions of NT. If you've ever searched Microsoft's Knowledge Base trying to figure out how to convert an NT 4.0 member server to a backup domain controller­BDC­you know that you can't change NT 4.0 machines' domain functions without completely reinstalling the operating system­OS.) NT 5.0 installs without requiring domain information. To enter domain information, you click Start, Run after you have the OS up and running and type

DCPROMO

These instructions are in the documents that come with beta 2, but they're not easy to find. If you want to make the machine a domain controller, make sure you have at least one NTFS drive on the system.

Second, think twice before you set up a system to dual-boot NT 4.0 and NT 5.0. Such a configuration can cause problems if you store the boot files or system files on an NTFS drive. In order to support cool features (such as user quotas) that NT 5.0 includes, Microsoft redesigned NTFS to a new format, NTFS 5. When you install NT 5.0 on an NT 4.0 system, NT converts the system's NTFS 4 drives to NTFS 5 drives. The original version of NT 4.0 can't understand NTFS 5 drives. Service Pack 4 (SP4) includes the code NT 4.0 needs to work with NTFS 5 drives, so you can install NT 5.0 on an NT 4.0 SP4 system that has NTFS drives. But you can't reinstall NT 4.0 on such a dual-booting system. NT 4.0 Setup can't work with NTFS 5 volumes. The installation program will react to NTFS 5 drives in much the same way it reacts to FAT32 volumes.

Third, don't even try to install NT 5.0 beta 2 on a computer that has a removable C drive. One of my test machines uses a Jaz drive that I configured as SCSI target ID 0. The result of this configuration is that the system's C drive is a removable 1GB cartridge. This is a terrific way to make one computer do the work of many; I have an NT 3.51 cartridge, an NT 4.0 cartridge, a Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition cartridge, and a Windows 98 cartridge. To change OSs, I just shut down the system and swap cartridges. However, such a scheme doesn't work on NT 5.0 beta 2. Microsoft employees tell me that the company intends for NT 5.0 to install on removable media C drives by shrink-wrap time.

Fourth, be aware that in the process of installing itself, beta 2 might disable software that is already on your system. Beta 2 clobbered the functioning copy of Outlook Express that I was running under NT 4.0, requiring me to reinstall Outlook Express.

Fifth, and probably the best piece of advice I can give you about installing beta 2: Back up your system completely before you install the new NT. If you have GHOST (and if you don't, you might as well download it from http://www.ghostsoft.com; it's cheap and staggeringly useful), copy your system drive to a network share or another drive on your system. (For more information about GHOST, see Michael P. Deignan, "GHOST 5.0," October 1998.)

Hardware Headaches
Even if you follow all my advice about installing beta 2, you'll likely have trouble getting beta 2 to run on your hardware. The beta's incompatibility with much of my hardware was the biggest obstacle I faced during my installations. (For information about NT 5.0's official hardware requirements, see Jordan Ayala, "NT Server 5.0 Hardware Specifications," August 1998.)

The first machine I installed beta 2 on was my laptop, a Digital HiNote Ultra 2000. The Ultra 2000 is a new computer with a 266MHz processor, 144MB of RAM, and a built-in Xircom modem and 100 megabits per second (Mbps) Ethernet combo circuit. The Xircom circuitry works fine with NT 4.0, and it's one of the main reasons I purchased the laptop. However, beta 2 couldn't detect the modem and NIC combination and refused to load the card's NT 4.0 drivers, offering the unhelpful explanation The required line was not found in the INF.

I decided to surrender the built-in network hardware and popped in a 3Com Etherlink III PC Card NIC. I use the PC Card NIC all the time, so I know it's good. But when NT detected the card, it asked for the drivers CD-ROM. When I supplied the CD-ROM, the computer just locked up. The mouse didn't work. Alt+Esc didn't work. The PC was frozen solid, and nothing short of flipping the power switch unfroze it. Microsoft technical support representatives helped me try to make the 3Com card work, but we were unsuccessful. The oddest aspect of my beta 2 installations is that several other PC Card NICs refused to work with beta 2, but some PC Card NICs did work, and NT 5.0 seemed to like my older NICs better.

After I returned home, I tried putting NT Workstation 5.0 beta 2 on my primary workstation. The computer is a Quantex 166MHz Pentium system with 96MB of RAM, an Adaptec SCSI Card 2940, a Matrox video card, and a 3Com Etherlink XL NIC. This computer has run NT Workstation 4.0, Win98, and Win95 for long periods without trouble.

NT Workstation 5.0 Setup starts with a few text-mode screens in which you identify which disk you want NT on and what your hardware looks like before you move on to the graphical part of Setup. Unfortunately, the Quantex never reached the Setup GUI. Beta 2 Setup froze after a few text screens. I've seen plenty of systems run into trouble after the text portion of Setup, because NT is very sensitive to boot viruses. But I've never seen another system stop dead in the middle of NT Setup's text mode.

A Microsoft representative advised me to shut off Plug and Play (PnP) from the BIOS. This tech support solution is interesting, considering that NT 5.0 is a PnP OS. I shut off PnP, but beta 2 still didn't boot. As I write this, I'm about to follow Microsoft's next suggestion, which involves testing the 2940 in different slots in an effort to break the logjam.

After two failed installations, I thought beta 2's hardware compatibility didn't look good. So I tried another installation, this one on a built-from-parts Intellect Computers clone that has a 300MHz processor, 128MB of RAM, an Adaptec SCSI card, and a generic S3 ViRGE video board. NT installed without trouble on this clone, so at least I had one machine to play around with.

But I saved the best installation for last. I finally got to the machine I was most looking forward to installing NT 5.0 on, my Compaq Presario 333MHz system. I bought the Presario because it has all the newest hardware doodads that NT 4.0 doesn't support, such as Universal Serial Bus (USB), Digital Versatile Disc (DVD), and an Intel Video Phone camera. I needed to test all those gadgets for a Win98 book I wrote. And I've been salivating at the prospect of using this stuff with NT 5.0. Beta 2 ran on all the Presario's hardware except for one very important piece: the built-in modem. I ended up surrendering and buying an external modem for use with NT 5.0.

Nevertheless, It's Worth a Try
All my complaints aside, NT 5.0 beta 2's a blast. Oh, and one more piece of advice before you install beta 2: If you have speakers attached to your system, turn them way down. Beta 2 blasts music when you log on. Waking up a whole house when you sit down to play with a new beta at 5 a.m. is quite embarrassing.