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Upgrade makes life easier; Roger Clarke checks out the lean mean Windows 98.

When Windows 95 came out there was dancing in the streets and midnight queues around the block as the populus responded to an estimated $200 million advertising budget.

Windows 98's arrival has been more low key, with a mere $10 million spent on telling us about it.

I had a few problems with the beta version a few months ago, but those seem to have been sorted out and 98 loaded perfectly.

Once it is up and running there does not seem to be that much difference from 95 so you will immediately feel at home - i initially, a little cheated.

Microsoft have made 3,500 refinements to 98 from 95 and claim to have satisfied more than 75 per cent of requests from users for added features to the original Windows 95.

Many of the benefits are not immediately apparent but 98 uses less memory and is a lot more robust than 95 which means a lot less crashes and freezes and, if you have an older version of 95, could free up about 30 per cent of your hard drive.

Windows and older versions of 95 used FAT16 - these are the file allocation tables which tells the computer where to store and retrieve files.

FAT16 divided up drives into clusters of up to 32k. So, in simple terms, if a file was 33k it would take up two clusters with 31k then wasted.

Windows 98 used FAT32 with uniform clusters of 4k, so the same 33k file would take up nine clusters, 36k, a saving of 28k. I already had FAT 32 but still saved 18 per cent.

And, as smaller clusters are quicker to read, there is an increase in speed, which is also boosted with a nifty maintenance programme, which can be scheduled to operate at set intervals or run manually.

This will automatically delete unwanted and unnecessary files and data, will check your hard drive for errors and then reorganise the information on your drive to both make the operation faster - particularly on your regularly used applications - aswell as freeing up more disk space.

A system file checker will solve a lot of problems replacing missing files automatically by requesting the original installation disc.

Also on the diagnostic front, 98 includes Dr Watson which will spot any problems, such as software or hardware conflicts and suggest a solution - which allied to improved and more comprehensive help files might save a lot of head scratching.

Most home users don't use system and diagnostic tools such as Norton Utilities so Windows 98 will provide the first system maintenance many machines have ever seen, in which case increases in speed and disc storage will be quite dramatic.

The major row in the industry at the moment is that Microsoft has bundled Explorer 4 with Windows 98 to the detriment of their browsers such as Netscape, although bundled is a bit of an understatement.

Explorer is fully integrated into 98 in that, if you wish, you can operate every window and even the active desktop as a web page with back and forward and all the other web tools.

The web is an important feature of 98 in that Microsoft has said that no updates will be issued on disc, so there will be no service packs of updates and patches as with 95.

Instead you have to obtain all your updates from Microsoft's web site. Even that is made easy if you want it to be. Click on the Windows update icon and a wizard will do the job for you.

You will be logged on and your system will be checked. Any patches, updated drivers, new features and so on can be downloaded, which means you should always have the latest version of Windows installed.

It does mean though that you will need a modem to obtain the full benefits, but if you do want to sign-up to the Internet then 98 even makes that painless with wizards which will create all the sign-ons and guide you through all the installations for the major providers.

On the hardware side 98 has full support for USB ports, the new universal serial bus, which don't have a lot of things you can plug in them at the moment, a sheet scanner and a Microsoft mouse. But there are scanners, telephones, keyboards, joysticks, sp eakers and a whole host of other peripherals waiting in the wings.

It also supports IEEE1394, or Firewire, which is a new type of port which transfers data at 50Mb a second.

Windows 98 also allows you to run up to nine monitors off the same PC, which might be useful for commercial applications, with different parts of the same job on different screens or gamers might find a use for it with a different view from the cockpit o n every screen. Real virtual anorak territory.

Another new feature is Web TV which is for interactive TV over the Web, when it arrives in Britain, and also digital TV. You do need a TV card for that one.

The new windows takes advantage of MMX and Pentium II architecture, although it will run on 486 machines, and it has DVD support and makes better use of system resources.

ActiveMovie takes care of audio and video on the web while DirectX 5.0 (6.0 is to be launched later this year) improves multimedia and gaming with support for the Accelerated Graphics Port and MMX.

The crunch question is should you upgrade? If you are thinking of buying a new computer in the next few months then no, you won't miss anything vital, and it will be bundled with new machines.

It is unlikely software will appear which is 98 only, with one exception, but software will appear for all Windows versions which will take advantage of the extra features of 98, while 98 specific drivers with added features for printers, sound cards and so on will also appear.

So although your computer world will not end if you don't rush out and buy it today it is still something you should buy in the next few weeks or months, and it is certainly worth its pounds 85 price tag.

It will give you a much improved operating system which will make more use of the resources available to you on your machine, make adding new peripherals simple and save you a lot of those frustrating crashes. It could even pay for itself with the hard d rive space it frees up.

After many months of beta testing by thousands of users, by the way, unlike Windows 95 at launch, 98 appears to be relatively bug free - which is one way of guaranteeing a mega crash on my machine tonight.

Love Microsoft or hate them, Windows 98 puts everything together in one integrated package which keeps itself serviced and tuned up and makes life easier and simpler for users, and no one can knock that.

The one piece of Windows 98-only software by the way is Plus! 98 from Microsoft, which is similar to Plus! 95 in that it has plug-ins and add ons, such as themed wallpaper, screen savers, icons and sounds, including a horror theme which screams "IT'S ALI VE!!!" as you boot up.

Plus! also has McAfee virus protection, a more sophisticated file cleaner and a compression utility which will save even more disc space.

It also has PictureIt Express, a very easy to use picture editor, a few more games and a deluxe CD player.

Insert a CD and it will search the net to find the CD details then fill in the name and track names in a CD log - so far I have not caught it out, even with a couple of ancient compilation discs. Next time you play the CD all the details are remembered.

You can also ask for all the details on the particular artist. As I said earlier, 98 uses the web as a tool, as an integral part of its operations, which will increasingly become the way of the majority of software.

Minimum system requirements: You will need a PC running Windows 3.x or Windows 95 or freshly formatted drive, a 486 or higher processor with maths co-processor and 16Mb of RAM. Typical installation needs 195Mb of hard drive space although this can go up to 295Mb depending upon your configuration and what options you install.
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Author:Clarke, Roger
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 30, 1998
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