Windows 98: A tweak, not a major overhaul

With the release of Windows 98 due June 25, federal information systems managers face a critical question: Is it worth the money and effort to upgrade?

An upgrade to Windows 98 from Windows 95 costs $89 at its list price or $209 off the shelf. Pricing on the General Services Administration schedule will be lower, but it was not available at press time.

Our review of the shipping code shows that it is a tweaking of Windows 95 rather than a major new version of Windows. On the plus side, Windows 98 is surprisingly stable, easy to install and easy to use. Even better, users running Windows 95 and Internet Explorer 4.0 will find the interface is virtually unchanged and, therefore, requires no retraining. Also, Windows 98 offers a number of under-the-hood features that will make life easier for systems administrators.

But is it worth the money? It depends.

If you're setting up new computers—- and if you do not have the resources or need to install the more robust and expensive Windows NT—- Windows 98 clearly is a better choice than Windows 95.

If, on the other hand, you have Windows 95 systems, you probably do not need to upgrade them to Windows 98 because the most significant new features— Internet Explorer 4.0 and Active Desktop— already are available for download at no charge. However, only Windows 98 supports new hardware features such as Digital Video Disc and Universal Serial Bus.

Performance Not a Lure

Our tests show that it is not worth upgrading to Windows 98 for operating system performance. In fact, Windows 98 is 7 percent slower running a standard business application benchmark than Windows 95. And this is true even if Windows 98 has been configured to use the new and more efficient FAT32 file system, which determines how files are stored on a disk.

Windows 98 takes 18 percent longer to boot up and load than Windows 95. However, once fast-boot BIOS systems are available, Windows 98 should load quicker than Windows 95. However, shutting down Windows 98 takes a second less than with Windows 95. That is because Windows 98 no longer takes the time to uninitialize drivers while exiting, and the Windows client is no longer forced to communicate with the server before closing down.

Another minor performance gain with Windows 98 is that applications load slightly faster on a Windows 98 system with FAT32 vs. a Windows 95 system. For example, Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop loads 28 percent faster on Windows 98 than on Windows 95.

These performance differences are a matter of seconds or fractions of seconds and are therefore not significant enough to base a buying decision on.

Better Hardware Support

The strongest argument for upgrading Windows 95 systems to Windows 98 is to obtain support for new hardware, including IEEE 1349 (Firewire), DVD players, TV tuner cards, the Advanced Graphics Port and the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface. Windows 98 also provides support for PC Card32 and Infrared Data Association connections. And if a system has a device that employs the new Universal Serial Bus—- which allows for higher-speed connections, hot swapping and the attaching of multiple devices to a single port—- you'll likely want Windows 98.

Support for remote access has been enhanced in Windows 98. Windows 98 will allow "multilink" connections to Windows NT servers, which means you can connect to the server through multiple modem lines and have the benefits of the combined bandwidth for data transfers. Windows 98 offers built-in client support for Virtual Private Networks, which allows administrators to simulate private, secure networks over the Internet.

One of the hidden improvements in Windows 98 is the adoption of the Windows Driver Model, a standard for Windows 98 and Windows NT drivers that should foster speedier driver development by hardware makers and easier driver maintenance by system administrators.

Another Window 98 feature that systems administrators will like is Batch 98. This utility leads administrators through creating automated installation scripts that can be distributed or made available to users on a network server. When the user clicks on the appropriate installation script, Windows will be installed as configured by the administrator.

Easier Management

Apart from Windows 98's integration of Internet Explorer 4.0, the most noticeable enhancements for end users are the new and improved system maintenance utilities. These utilities are not sufficient cause for most departments to upgrade, but they are welcome improvements if you choose to upgrade for another reason.

The disk defragmenter, for example, has been enhanced to optionally rearrange files on the hard drive. The result is faster loading of applications.

We also found the new Disk Cleanup utility a great help in keeping as much disk space available as possible. Once a user has configured the utility, a single click is all it takes to get rid of temporary files, temporary Internet files, deleted files in the Recycle Bin, unwanted Windows 98 uninstall files, and ActiveX and Java applets.

The bottom line: If you need faster performance, you are better off buying additional RAM than moving to Windows 98.

Windows 98 is decidedly stronger and more stable than Windows 95, but there is no compelling reason to spend money to upgrade existing systems unless you need Windows 98's broader hardware support or one of the few features that cannot be added to Windows 95. Even if you can upgrade to Windows 98 for free, you probably do not want to spend up to an hour to upgrade each system unless it is necessary.

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