Operating Systems: head to head comparison (NT section)

by Alan Zisman (c) 1997. First published in Computer Player, April 1997.

>1. What are the hardware requirements for your OS (memory disk space, CD Rom)?

16 meg ram minimum. 32 meg better. Approx. 120 meg disk space. CD-ROM required for installation.

>2. Dual processing - whether the OS can address more than one processing chip?

NT supports multiple processors. NT 4.0 also supports Intel (80486 or above), MIPS, DEC Alpha, and PowerPC RISC processor machines, but MIPS and PowerPC support is being dropped in future versions.

>3. Does the OS support multi tasking? Specifically, preemptive multi tasking?

NT offers very well-implimented and stable pre-emptive multi-tasking, including pre-emptive mult-tasking of 16-bit Windows applications, DOS applications, and 32-bit Windows applications.

>4. Does the OS support threading?

The OS SUPPORTS multithreading... it doesn't REQUIRE it. (Does any OS? ) Multithreading support needs to be specifically written into individual applications. (This is true of other OSs that support multithreading, as well).

>5. How well does it handle simple task switching?

Task switching is well-supported; the Win95-style taskbar makes it easy to switch between tasks.

>6. What environment (home, business, school etc.) is your OS best suited? (eg.
>average home user shouldn't pick WinNT)

NT is designed as an industrial-strength workplace operating system. Many home users will be frustrated by its lack of plug-and-play, lack of drivers for some popular peripherals such as printers, and the need to dual boot to DOS to run many games, as well as its high hardware requirements.

Its built-in networking client support and security features make it well-suited for many business-users.

Until better power-management support gets added, it is not a good choice for portable users who rely on their batteries!

>7. Does the OS have built in support for the Internet? How easy is it to hook
>up to the Net - what are the steps involved?

TCP/IP and Dial-Up-Networking are included and relatively straightforward to install. NT 4.0 ships with Microsoft Internet Explorer 2.0, an obsolete version, but it is easy to obtain copies of either MS-IE 3.01 or Netscape Navigator.

>8. What makes your system a good web server? What makes it a bad web server?

NT Server version includes Microsoft's web server, this version makes a good web server. Microsoft's license for the less expensive NT Workstation version forbids more than 10 connections at a time, limiting its use as a web server, even though tests suggest it could otherwise work well in that context.

>9. Future - What's being planned for your OS? Changes etc.

NT 5.0 is currently beginning beta-testing. Biggest change for home users would be implimentation of Windows Driver Model, merging NT and Win95 drivers, along with additional plug-and-play support. This version may add the next version of Internet Explorer (4.0) as an optional desktop (so-called Active Desktop).

>10. OS prices for individual client versions for desktop.

Typical prices are:
NT Workstation: $390 ($190 upgrade from earlier NT version)
NT Server: $1008 with 5 client license; $1399 with 10 client license; (upgrades from earlier versions are about half those prices); $45 per additional client

>11. How good is the OS gaming system?

Only a small percentage of games are 'guaranteed' to work on NT... NT supports dual-booting to DOS as its method of allowing users to run DOS games, which tend to want to access the hardware in ways that is forbidden by NT's security model. Even Windows 95 games may not always work, depending on what subset of DirectDraw features are used in the game-- NT currently supports only some of the DirectDraw programming interface.

As well, NT users will find that many popular non-Sound Blaster cards are poorly supported.

>12. Support - are updated drivers easily/frequently available? Is there a lot
>of info out there (either in books and magazines) about your system?

The number of books available on NT 4.0 workstation has been steadily growing- since its release last Fall... I now count about a dozen aimed at a 'general' audience. Windows Magazine and Windows Sources magazine include the best ongoing information about NT 4.0.

Updated drivers are available from www.microsoft.com, where 2 service packs and several general updates have also been posted.

>13. Interface - what does it look like? graphic? List the good and bad
>features. (note: we may actually picture the screens so you don't have to go
>into great detail)

The NT 4.0 interface is virtually identical with Win 95's-- and shares the good and bad features with that interface. As with Win95, perhaps the best feature is the TaskBar-- no more 'losing' applications when one window covers up another.

>14. How do  you navigate (mouse, keyboard, both) on the OS and how easy is it?

As with Win95, mouse and keyboard are both supported for most actions. Right-mouse button support is now (finally!) built into the user interface, which is powerful and convenient but confusing for users switching over from Macintosh (single-button) or Win 3.1 (left-button only).

>15. Does your system have plug and play features for adding peripherals and
>hardware? Which ones?

NT 4.0 supports some amount of plug and play at initial installation time-- it is much more difficult to access than W95's, however. This is a major focus for the next version (NT 5.0).

>16. Can devices be 'hot swapped'?

No. Again, this feature has been promised for the next version.

>17. Does your system have complete power management for notebook computers?

No. (Again, this has been promised for NT 5.0) Some individual notebook manufacturers are selling customized versions of NT, with power management support for their individual models.

>18. What sort of security is available for the OS?

NT is designed with a great-deal of security built-in. Users must log in when starting up. The optional NTFS file system provides security down to the individual file level, as well as excellent disaster-recovery features.

>19. What steps are required for installation? Rate level of difficulty on
>scale of 1 to 5.

If hardware meets the NT compatibility list, installation is straightforward. (Note: installation of NT Server is, inevitably, much more complex). If no networking is involved, it is quite simple; if networking is involved, users need to be able to answer some technical questions related to their network.

Note however, that while NT can be installed over an existing Windows 3.1 installation, and will properly migrate application settings, if installed over an existing Windows 95 setup, applications will need to be reinstalled.

(I'm not sure how to rate it on a 1 to 5 scale... which end is good? How about some comparison ratings?)

>20. How much aggravation is involved in maintenance (eg. defragmentation, file
>repair etc.)?

I'm not sure what is meant by this question!

Because NT is very stable, there's not much problem w. system crashes. Users of NTFS file system, in particular, have a very stable system, and find less file fragmentation than with standard DOS and Windows systems.

Note that no defragmentation utility is included with the operating system... but a free utility is available called Diskeeper Lite, from Executive Software.

>21. What level of user (beginner, expert, average) is this OS appropriate for?

NT systems probably need to be initially setup by a moderately-expert person; afterwards, with the Win95 interface, a beginner can quickly become a productive user.

Windows NT was developed in the early 1990s as Microsoft's effort at a 'New Technology' operating system to replace DOS + Windows 3, following the end of Microsoft and IBM's joint effort to replace DOS with OS/2.

The NT development team was led by Dave Cutler, a well-known operating system developer from Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). The first version, released as NT 3.1, resembled the popular Windows 3.1 user interface, but replaced that system's reliance on DOS with a more powerful base, providing powerful security and multitasking, along with long file names, and an optional NTFS file system.

NT 3.1 was criticized for high hardware demands, slow performance, and for a scarcity of native applications. It was improved with version 3.5 and 3.51, which retained the Windows 3.1-style interface. On the other hand, even from the initial version, it was designed to support multiple processors, and to run on a range of processor models. The current version can be installed on Intel 486, Pentium, and Pentium-Pros as well as high-performance RISC CPUs such as DEC Alphas, MIPS processors, and Power-PCs (though not on current Power-Macs).

NT 4.0, quietly released in the Fall of 1997, replaces that now old-fashioned interface with a virtual clone of Windows 95, while retaining NT's traditional power, stability, and security. It is a much more robust multitasker than Windows 95 (try working in an application while formatting a floppy diskette under both operating systems).

Most software written for Windows 95 will also run as native Windows NT software, greatly increasing the number of applications that will run at peak performance on this operating system. NT supports fewer hardware peripherals (modems, printers, video and sound cards, scanners, etc.) than Windows 95 however-users thinking of upgrading should carefully check Microsoft's on-line NT Hardware Compatibility List.

NT is sold in separate Server and Workstation packages.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan