Unless you've spent the last few months hiding in a Montana mountain cabin, you know about the controversy surrounding Microsoft Windows 98.
While an antitrust lawsuit swirls around it, the latest upgrade to the Windows operating system is due to hit store shelves on June 25.
Legal hoopla aside, Windows 98 is an important upgrade for PC users - for reasons that have little to do with the integrated Web browsing software that prompted the U.S. Justice Department's assault on Microsoft.
In fact, Microsoft has packed Windows 98 with fixes for most of what has ailed the Windows 95 operating system, along with some fundamental changes that will make your PC run better and faster.
This doesn't mean you have to rush out to the store and buy the $90 upgrade. If your computer is running fine under Windows 95, it's OK to wait a while. But if you've had problems with Windows 95 or just want to keep up to date, Windows 98 has plenty to offer.
The biggest technical change is a new way of storing information on a PC's internal hard drives. Windows 98 includes a new file system called FAT32, which replaces the venerable File Allocation Table used since the dawn of DOS.
The 32 in FAT32 stands for 32 bits, the amount of information that computers based on Intel's last three generations of processors can handle at once.
The original FAT format was designed for 1980s computers, which could handle only eight or 16 bits of data. So converting to FAT32 system should speed up your computer's disk access. FAT32 also uses technology that will fit more information into less space - essentially increasing the size of your hard disk.
Floppy disks will continue to use the old system, and you have the option of keeping it for your hard drives, too. But you won't get most of the gains in Windows 98 without upgrading to FAT32.
Windows 98 also tweaks performance with a new twist on disk defragmentation - a procedure that keeps large files from spreading out in bits and pieces all over your hard drive. As you go about your business, the system tracks which programs you use most frequently and relocates them where they can be read quickly.
To keep your hard disk from filling up with temporary files from the Web browser and other programs, Windows 98 includes a built in Disk Cleanup program that weeds out the junk for you. Other built - in disk utilities will check up on the integrity of files and fix errors on the hard disk.
If all this seems a bit arcane, Windows 98 comes with a maintenance Wizard, a mini - program you can use to make these utilities run automatically - usually at night.
Many Windows 95 users come to grief when pieces of the operating system itself become corrupted. When these files go bad, your computer can crash, and getting it working again can be a nightmare.
Windows 98 was designed to be "self - healing," automatically detecting problems like these and correcting them as they occur with two additional utilities.
The System File Checker detects errors in important Windows files, notifies you when errors are found, and offers possible solutions. The Registry Checker keeps track of the system registry, makes backups and restores the file should it become corrupted.
There's also digital aspirin for another headache - conflicts between versions of Windows components and applications. When you install older software on Windows 95 systems, you run the risk of overwriting newer versions of critical system files. The result: Other applications crash or behave insanely. Microsoft tries to prevent this problem in Windows 98 with a new Version Conflict Manager, which can detect the problem and reinstall the proper drivers if necessary.
In the event something goes wrong despite all these precautions, Microsoft has made it relatively easy to get a crashed PC back up and running. To make it work, you'll have to do a little planning and create an emergency boot disk that will start up your computer in case of disaster. Then you can use a new package of software called Microsoft Recovery to get things working properly.
While these improvements make Windows 98 substantially more stable than its predecessor, there are new features that make it work better with existing gadgets and new ones - including some that aren't available yet.
For example, you can use up to four monitors at the same time (but you'll need a separate video card for each one). Macintosh users have enjoyed this feature for some time - it's particularly popular with graphics artists. But it won't be long before games take advantage of it.
Windows 98 can also help turn your computer into a TV set with new support for television tuner cards. Some TV stations are already taking advantage of the unused portion of the TV signal to send computer data. As time goes by, you can expect interactive Web pages that match up with television broadcasts, live stock tickers, and other digital information related to TV programming.