The Case for Windows 98

Windows 98--it's not quite Windows NT, is it? In fact, Win98 isn't even close to where NT is today. Even so, Win98 is an exceptional operating system (OS), with features that appeal to the most hardcore NT administrator.

Some users herald Win98 as a revolutionary upgrade from Win95 (due in part to Win98's new user interface (UI), which NT 5.0 will soon deploy). However, Win98 doesn't leapfrog over its predecessor like Win95 did to Windows 3.1. Instead, Win98 refines existing technologies. To understand the refinements in Win98, you must dive under the covers rather than skim the surface. I used Win98's retail version as my main OS for the past month, and I saw how well the software performs in a real-world environment. You'll likely evaluate Win98 as an upgrade platform, so I'll focus first on the enhancements Microsoft has made to the Windows OS.

System Stability
Although Win95 is no beacon of reliability, the software is not as bad as its detractors claim. With Win95, you get application faults and other crashes during routine tasks. Although Win98 uses the same pseudo-32-bit architecture that Win95 uses, Win98 has added a handful of tools that keep systems running long after their Win95 counterparts have crashed. As an administrator, my only gripe is that Microsoft buried these handy utilities in the OS. The Start Menu doesn't include shortcuts to the utilities, so you must invoke them from a command line.

The Registry is one of the most volatile components in Win95. If your computer loses power at the wrong time and corrupts your Registry, you can lose the ability to boot. Win98 includes Registry Checker, a program that proactively scans for errors in the Registry. When Registry Checker detects errors, the program reverts to a backup copy of the Registry. Registry Checker, which is similar to NT's Last Known Good feature, maintains up to five compressed backup copies of your system Registry. The program also provides DOS- and Windows-based tools to restore your Registry if it crashes.

Win98's new System File Checker prevents file corruption by alerting you when a critical system file has changed. For example, if you install Office 97 and the install overwrites the OLE32.DLL file, you restore the original file by simply typing the file name.

To prevent crashes during the boot process, Win98 includes Automatic Skip Driver Agent (ASD). The program loads your device drivers at bootup so you can use your hardware as soon as the system is ready. ASD detects drivers that fail to initiate, and after two failed attempts to load the driver, ASD turns the driver off.

Win98 has enhanced the Dr. Watson program so substantially that you might not recognize this utility. Now a full-blown diagnostics tool, Dr. Watson logs core information such as the tasks that were running when the application crashed, the drivers that were active, and the 16-bit modules that were in resident memory. Although Dr. Watson doesn't prevent protection faults, the tool lets you diagnose the problem easier.

Improved Performance
Win98 is more efficient than Win95. Microsoft overhauled a number of key areas that impact system performance.

For starters, Microsoft has given the outdated FAT file system (which has long been a bottleneck) a 32-bit makeover. Like the FAT32 file system found in Win95 OEM Service Release (OSR) 2, Win98's version uses smaller cluster sizes to maximize free space on your hard disk. For example, the FAT16 file system divides a standard 2GB disk into 32KB clusters. The FAT32 file system divides the same disk into 4KB clusters, resulting in a space gain of approximately 350MB. You might also see performance gains with FAT32.

Unlike OSR2, Win98 includes an on-the-fly conversion utility to upgrade your FAT16 partitions to FAT32 (third-party utilities such as PowerQuest's PartitionMagic still work). FAT32 only works with Win95 OSR 2 and Win98. NT doesn't recognize any partitions converted to the new file system. NT 5.0 will include FAT32 support, but it won't be generally available until 1999.

To speed the boot process, Win98 exploits the OnNow architecture to gain FastBoot BIOS support. FastBoot BIOS reduces power-on self test (POST) activity, which eliminates most rigorous and time-consuming tasks until a problem arises. With FastBoot BIOS, you cut 10 seconds to 30 seconds from you startup time. Win95 pauses for 2 seconds before booting to give you time to hit F8 to invoke the boot menu. Win98 bypasses the 2-second wait by forcing users to hold down the left Control key during the boot process to invoke the boot menu. Win98 also speeds the shut down process. When you issue a shut down command on a Win95 system, the OS uninitializes the drivers. Because you usually shut down with the intention of turning off the PC, uninitializing drivers is superfluous. Win98 no longer uninitializes drivers on shut down.

Win98 optimizes application launch time, which is interesting because the launch process generally falls into the hands of the independent software vendor (ISV) who developed the program, rather than the OS vendor. But Microsoft and Intel have discovered a way to speed program execution by isolating the main bottleneck: disk I/O.

Many processes run in the background between the time you execute a program and when you can input data into the program. A simple word processor bounces back and forth between the main executable and functions stored in external DLL files. This seek process adversely impacts performance. Win98 runs a watchdog program to log the applications you use most frequently. When you run the Disk Defragmenter the defragmenter program uses the log to reorder the clusters and minimize seek times. Generally, your initial application launch will be slower than normal, speed up slightly on subsequent launches, then speed up significantly after you defragment your drive.

Driver Unification
Despite the advances NT has made with third-party support, most manufacturers design hardware devices with Win9x in mind. Even today, the inclusion of native NT is often an afterthought. The new Windows Driver Model (WDM) changes that.

WDM lets independent hardware vendors (IHVs) design one driver that runs on both Win98 and NT 5.0. The NT purist will find irony in the way Win98 implements WDM. Microsoft added certain NT kernel services to a virtual device driver (VxD) that runs on Win98. Microsoft's actions communicate NT's viability as a target platform for IHVs and ISVs.

Win98 Shortcomings
Of course, not everything is perfect in Win98. The OS is disk-hungry beyond belief. A typical installation uses about 200MB. This figure can bloat to 295MB, depending on the features you install. A minimum install uses as little as 120MB, but this figure is still mind-boggling when you can shoehorn NT Workstation 4.0 into a 100MB partition.

Win98's new Internet Explorer (IE)-laced user interface introduces some interesting quirks. The Start Menu no longer expands to accommodate large folder structures by placing the folders in multiple columns. The Start Menu is now one scrollable menu. I have more than 100 items in my Start Menu. Being unable to see all the items on screen at the same time is disconcerting.

The marriage of IE with Explorer compromises the system's stability (remember when applications ran at ring 3, and only the OS components ran in the more privileged ring 0 mode?). Because the UI is now IEXPLORE.EXE by default, a Web browser crash also brings down the desktop. This design flaw might give Web developers second thoughts about upgrading to Win98 (and NT 5.0) because testing new HTML code presents the possibility of a desktop crash. This type of crash occurs less often in the smoothly integrated Win98 than in the shaky Win95/NT plus IE 4.0 combination. This instability might not be an issue for you, depending on how hard you push your Web browser. If this instability is unacceptable to you, you can take a slight performance hit and force Web browsers to open in their own processes.

The improvements to the Windows OS slow performance, even with the performance upgrades. Unless you install Win98 on a high-end Pentium or Pentium II with a generous amount of RAM, you'll experience slower performance than you would with Win95 on the same machine.

Win98 vs. NT
Win98's best performance measure is how it compares with NT. After weeks of banging on the final code, I don't find Win98 compelling enough to leave my comfortable NT Server 4.0 environment. However, as a companion OS, Win98 provides enough improvements to make it worth installing. New multimedia features such as integrated DirectX 5.0, Digital Video Disc (DVD) support, and WebTV make Win98 indispensable for game developers and players.

Surprisingly, NT 4.0 is more robust at multitasking applications than Win98. Running simple tasks such as printing a document in Word while recalculating a spreadsheet in Excel is faster in NT because of NT's superior system architecture. And Win98's networking architecture doesn't reach NT's standards. If you're looking for nearly impenetrable security, you won't find it in Win98.

Win98 shines in its desktop system role. For word processing, graphics, and light number crunching, Win98's improvements might make it more usable than NT Workstation. With multimedia features such as DirectX 5.0 and integrated DVD-ROM support, Win98 runs circles around NT Workstation. To be fair, the latest NT 5.0 betas include everything found in Win98, but if you need these multimedia enhancements now, you'll want Win98 on your desktop.

If you have definite plans to upgrade to NT 5.0 as soon as it's available and you can afford to wait for Win98's unique features, your best option is to wait until NT 5.0 ships rather than use Win98 as a stopgap. NT 5.0 will include everything in Win98 on top of a stronger architecture.

So what's the bottom line? If you run Win95 build 950 (the original retail release), you'll want to upgrade to Win98. If you run Windows 95 OEMSR2, you should examine Win98's feature list before upgrading. And if you run NT 4.0, you'll probably benefit by waiting for NT 5.0 unless you need the multimedia enhancements now. Win98 is an improvement over Win95, but it's still not NT.