Microsoft finally announced what the world has known for over a month now: Windows 98 will be available in stores on June 25th for a suggested retail price of $109 ($209 for the full version). Most stores will likely sell the new operating system for $89, the same price as Windows 95. Windows 98, currently in the "release candidate" stage, is feature-complete and Microsoft is racing to squash last minute bugs before the product is released to manufacturing. Sometime in mid-May, Microsoft will supply the code for Windows 98 to hardware manufacturers so that they can start building systems that include the new software.

"The product is a better Windows 95," said Windows Product Manager Rob Bennett, though he also mentioned that the roll-out for Windows 98 will be far less flashy than the Windows 95 launch. Bennett said the company would even rely of "word of mouth" to sell Windows 98.

Recently, at a Microsoft pre-launch show for Windows 98 called "Microsoft eXtreme", 40,000 attendees were asked whether they would upgrade to Windows 98: 95% said they would.

"Windows 98 is catching fire among the PC enthusiasts," said Yusuf Mehdi, director of marketing, personal business systems group at Microsoft. "The beauty of Windows 98 is that it runs applications faster and easier than Windows 95, while unlocking a whole new range of hardware devices and entertainment capabilities for consumers."

Currently, there are over 150,000 people worldwide running beta builds of Windows 98. A survey by Windows Magazine found that 62% of Windows users planned to upgrade to Windows 98 in the first 6 months it is available, while 87% said they would do so in the first year. The reason? Windows 98 offers increased functionality and superior performance when compared to Windows 95.

Windows 98 offers three main advantages over Windows 95:

  • Improved performance and reliability

    Microsoft looked at the areas in Windows 95 that kept users waiting, such as application launching (an average of 36% faster in Windows 98), Internet access, graphics viewing, PC shutdown (up to 2-5 times quicker in Windows 98). Windows 98 also provides users with an average of 28% more disk space when using the FAT32 file system, which is unavailable to users of the original version of Windows 95.

  • Simplified navigation, help, and Internet access

    Windows 98 improves those areas that typically cause problems for users, such as navigating and locating information, finding help when there is a problem, and accessing the Internet. Windows 98 makes use of Internet Explorer technologies to optionally unify and simplify the desktop, making it quick and easy for users to navigate information, whether it resides on their PC or the Internet. Windows Help was also improved, with a new Web-based online help system that provides easy-to-access information, making searching for information simple. A new Web-based feature called Windows Update allows Windows 98 users to keep their PCs updated by providing a central location for the latest drivers and system updates. With Windows Update, your system will always be up to date.

  • New PC hardware and entertainment capabilities

    Windows 98 ushers in a new era of hardware and game/multimedia functionality. According to Microsoft, games run better (faster, and are more stable) on Windows 98 systems than on Windows 95 systems and game console devices. Windows 98 also includes native support for the new Universal Serial Bus (USB), which makes adding and removing hardware as easy as "plugging in a toaster" (their words, not mine. In truth, USB really *is* that good). Windows 98 also supports DVD and television broadcast capabilities, allowing a PC with a TV tuner card to receive and display television and data distributed over normal cable broadcasts.

Many people have complained that Windows 98 isn't a huge upgrade over Windows 95, citing comparisons to Windows 95 systems running Internet Explorer 4.0. The truth is that Windows 98 is much more than what you can see: much of its improvements lay under the covers, and these are the components that make Windows 98 worthwhile. If you're buying a new PC, Windows 98 is a no-brainer. But Windows 98 will likely be of value to most PC users with at least a Pentium CPU and 32 MB of RAM. We'll follow up with a full review of Windows 98 sometime before the launch