Windows 98 is ready, but is your PC?


The latest release of the world's dominant computer operating system officially goes on sale Thursday with about 1/100th of the hoopla that greeted the debut of Windows 95 almost three years ago.

Even Microsoft concedes that Windows 98 is an "evolutionary" update - antitrust suits notwithstanding. But it's still worth having because it fixes a lot of the bugs that have bedeviled Windows 95 users, makes it easier to recover from crashes, supports a lot of fancy new hardware, conserves hard disk space, and can even speed up your system a bit.

Windows 98 also integrates the operating system tightly with the World Wide Web (one of the alleged misdeeds that got Microsoft in trouble with the Justice Department), but that's not a major issue for most people who will use it every day. You can get much the same effect by installing Microsoft's latest Web browser, Internet Explorer 4.0, on an existing Windows 95 system.

If you buy a new PC, you won't have much choice in deciding whether to upgrade. Most computer manufacturers have adopted Windows 98, and it won't be long before you'll be hard pressed to find a Windows 95 machine left on the shelves. Because of the timing, some analysts believe that more than half the PCs sold this year will have Windows 98 installed, which will make it the de facto standard.

While there's no compelling reason to run out and buy the $90 upgrade for existing computers, I haven't found any reason to put up warning flags. I installed the finished release a couple of weeks ago, and aside from a couple of hiccups, everything has worked well. Web browsing is a bit faster (thanks to the integration of IE with the operating system) and all my existing programs run without a hitch.

I also tried out the Windows 98 Active Desktop, which automatically provides updates from selected news, information and entertainment sites, and dabbled with a new feature that makes your files and folders look like Web pages. But they were a drag on system speed, and I couldn't find any reason to keep either of them. Luckily, Windows 98 lets you turn them off, so things look pretty much the same on my desktop.

Still, if you're considering an upgrade, its a good idea to take precautions. Remember that replacing the operating system on your PC is like a heart transplant. You want to be sure the patient is prepared for it.

First, is your PC equipped to handle Windows 98? If you install it on a machine that doesn't have enough horsepower, you and the operating system will be miserable.

While Microsoft claims Windows 98 will run on a PC with an Intel 80486 DX2/66 processor and 16 megabytes of memory, it won't be pretty. In fact, I wouldn't recommend putting Windows 98 on anything less than a Pentium computer with 32 megabytes of RAM. If you're running a 486, I'd let Windows 98 wait for your next computer.

No matter what processor you're using, upgrade your memory to 64 megabytes if you can afford it. You'll see a real gain in performance.

Hard drive space is a major concern. While the operating system itself occupies 120 to 200 megabytes of real estate, Windows 98 requires a lot more room than that for the installation process.

The fine print on the box says you'll need at least 225 megabytes of free space to complete the installation - even more, depending on the options you choose. Let me tell you right now that 225 megabytes is cutting it too close. In fact, my only real disaster with Windows 98 occurred when we tried to install it on my son's computer, which had 228 megabytes of free space available.

The installation program didn't warn us that there wasn't enough drive space until we were down to three megabytes (almost nothing by modern computing standards). We had to abort the installation, leaving us with a system running half on Windows 95 and half on Windows 98. It took hours of fooling around to get things working.

In any case, I wouldn't recommend installing Windows 98 unless you have at least 350 megabytes free on your hard drive. This is going to be a major problem for a lot of people with older primary drives that are already full. So get rid of all the junk lying around on your disk. If have a second drive, try moving as many programs as you can to it.

Once again, be careful. If you're not sure how to uninstall unused programs or move existing programs to another drive, buy a utility such as Quarterdeck's CleanSweep or the Norton Uninstaller. They'll do the job cleanly and safely.

Once you've decided that your computer can survive the operation, back up all your critical files before installing Windows 98. This doesn't necessarily mean a complete backup of your hard drive. Most of it is filled with software that can be reinstalled from the original disks if necessary.

But make sure that you've copied your business and personal records, letters, spreadsheets, Web browser bookmarks, digital photos and databases. Chances are good that you can get most of these on a handful of floppy disks. If not, invest in a 100-megabyte Zip drive or a tape backup unit. You don't want to take a chance with this stuff - it's too valuable to lose.

Pub Date: 6/22/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.