A Tale of Two Operating Systems

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Vancouver Computes, October 1999

Last month, this column offered ?A Tale of Two Product Launches?, contrasting the introduction of Apple?s iBook and Creative?s PC Blaster. This month?s installment offers another take on the Dicken?s classic, this time, ?A Tale of Two Operating Systems??though as we?ll see, it might be better compared to ?The Three Faces of Eve?.

As you probably know, your computer?s system software makes up a layer between the hardware and your applications programs?controlling how the computer looks and feels, and offering services to the applications to open, save, and print files, display text and graphics on screen, and so forth. An operating system came with our hardware, letting us take it for granted, but changing the operating system can change its personality dramatically.

When I got a new-to-me notebook recently, I decided to add a pair of new operating systems to the out-of-the box Windows 98, giving me a choice of three personalities. The additions were Microsoft?s Windows 2000 and Caldera?s Open Linux 2.2.

Windows 2000 is not yet released, but Microsoft has made copies readily available to anyone willing to trust their computer to a pre-release operating system. I first installed Beta 3 and later the so-called Release Candidate 1 of Windows 2000 Professional.

Despite the similarity of names to the earlier Windows 95 and 98 releases, Windows 2000 (which I?ll be henceforth calling ?W2K?) is actually the successor to Microsoft?s Windows NT?aimed more at corporate computers than home or small business users. W2K Professional replaces NT 4.0 Desktop?there are also three server versions of W2K.

W2K installed relatively easily on the computer, a relatively new NEC Ready notebook, with a Pentium 300 processor. It correctly recognized all the built-in hardware, along with the PC Card modem and Ethernet card. I installed it into a different folder from the existing Windows 98 setup, which meant it automatically set itself to offer a choice of the two systems at bootup. That choice, however, meant that I had to reinstall most applications so they would work with W2K. The installation took about 500 megs of drive space?about the same as the Win98 installation on the same machine.

Once it was up and running, it looked and felt a lot like Windows 98. There are new icons for the standard desktop items?My Computer, the Recycle Bin, and so forth. Some new subtle touches like a shadow under the arrow cursor. The big improvement over NT 4.0 is in the area of Plug and Play?to a large extent it works. Power management, however, didn?t work as advertised, at least not on my laptop. (Maybe the release version will have this fixed).

Most of the applications I tried worked just fine. I didn?t test many games, but unlike NT, W2K includes Direct X 6.1, and should work with newer, Windows-based games. Older DOS games, I suspect, could be problematic. Ironically, Microsoft?s own Encarta 98 complained that ?This program does not run correctly on this version of Windows?, but did appear to run without problem if I ignored the startup error message.
Users used to customizing their Win 9x setup may find W2K a little confusing?some items are hidden in different places than in the earlier systems. And because it is designed as a networked system with provisions for multiple users, the Start Menu includes common items, and items for an individual user?to edit the Start Menu, you may need to check in two or three different places to find an icon. Unlike NT 4.0, it can be easily set up without a log-on if you?re sure that there will only be a single user. And overall, there should be a relatively short learning curve for anyone comfortable with Windows 9x.

The good news is that if you have a reasonably modern computer (the lowest recommended processor is a Pentium 166) with plenty of RAM (the lowest recommended amount is 32 megs, but I?d suggest at least 64), and standard hardware peripherals, W2K should work just fine?as long as you?re not expecting to play any DOS games. (Oh yeah?be prepared to throw out any utility programs designed for Windows 9x). It seems more stable than Windows 9x, and requires far fewer reboots when installing software and hardware. It even does a reasonable job of catching software installations that try to overwrite system DLL files.

But should you care?

For most home and small business users, there simply isn?t enough here to justify the cost and time of upgrading. Users in large corporate settings may find W2K Pro a more vital upgrade?particularly if their organization expects to use W2K as their networking software?in that case, they can take advantage of the Active Desktop and Roaming Profiles features on the server version.

Last year, Windows NT Desktop accounted for 11% of desktop OS sales. Windows 98 got 17.2%, and despite its obsolete-sounding name, Windows 95 earned 57% of sales. With its improved Plug and Play and ease of use features, W2K should boost NT?s share?but for most users, it?s not a Windows 9x-killer.

Next month, we?ll take a look at the notebook?s Open Linux personality.

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