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ISSUE 566: New Economy- Aug 29 2000

The high-tech office


Windows Me is better than 2000, but not essential

In the world according to Microsoft, there are two kinds of PCs: business computers and home/consumer machines. So it makes sense to have two operating systems: Windows 2000, aimed at the business market; and, as of September 14, Windows Millennium Edition, aka Windows Me, which Microsoft believes every home user wants and needs.

Despite this neat division of the world, many business users will end up trying to get their work done using this so-called consumer system, both at home and on computers running it at work.

At first glance, Me looks like its sibling OS, Windows 2000. It shares that system's 3D icons and its so-called personalized Start Menu, where lesser-used items are tucked away. (Personally, I hate this feature. Luckily, it's easy to disable.)

Inside, though, it's still built with the standard Windows 95/98 technology, rather than the newer NT core used in Windows 2000. This heritage is both bad news and good news. The bad news is that if Windows crashes too much for you, Me won't be much better. The good news is that, unlike Windows 2000, it remains compatible with most (but not all) of the hardware and programs that may be cluttering up your office and hard drive.

Some of its features, such as the latest versions of Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player, can be freely downloaded and added into older operating system versions. A number of features, however, are only available as part of the Me package.

Following in the footsteps of Apple's iMovie, for example, Microsoft includes Windows Movie Maker, an easy-to-use, basic application for editing movie clips (digital camcorder not included). Windows Image Acquisition offers built-in support for a wide range of digital cameras and scanners. Perhaps more important to many small businesses and home offices, a wizard makes it much easier to set up a simple network, along with increased support for USB and phone-line networking. Improvements in TCP/IP software (shared with Windows 2000) promise better Internet performance. Like Microsoft's previous Windows 98 Second Edition, it is easy to set up Internet Connection Sharing, to use a single connection on multiple, networked computers.

Microsoft is promising major enhancements in what the company refers to as "PC health." Like Windows 2000, Me offers System File Protection. This protects core operating system files, keeping them from being overwritten by older, poorly written software installations. (This has been, up to now, an ongoing cause of problems with Windows systems.) In fact, even dragging the protected files to the Recycle Bin fails to delete them.

Another feature, System Restore, lurks in the background, saving copies of the system configuration every 10 hours of computer use. In case of system problems, it is relatively simple to roll back the clock to an earlier, problem-free configuration. If you continue to have problems, the Help system is better organized and includes links to online information. Purchasers are entitled to two free support calls to Microsoft.

The Windows Update feature, introduced in Windows 98, has been made more automated. Again, it runs in the background whenever you're online, checking for bug fixes and the like, and downloads them in the pauses in your Internet activity.

Microsoft is slowly cutting Windows' ties to its DOS roots. Unlike previous versions, it's no longer possible to boot Me to a DOS prompt or in MS-DOS Mode. As a result, programs that relied on this ability will no longer work unless you first boot using a DOS floppy diskette. Similarly, older hardware that relied on DOS drivers will not be usable.

Inevitably, Me is bigger than its predecessors. It refuses to install on anything slower than a Pentium 150 and requires at least 32 Mb of memory and 350 Mb of drive space. Realistically, give it a faster processor and at least 64 Mb of RAM.

Despite several useful features, Me is not a must-have.

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