One day in the summer of 1995, I sat down in front of a perfectly good PC and stuck a brand new Microsoft Windows 95 CD in the drive. Then I swallowed hard and clicked on Setup.
To my utter amazement, the new operating system installed without a hitch -- a feat that's analogous to changing the engine in a car and having it start up the first time without so much as a hiccup.
The honeymoon didn't last long. Over the last 2 1/2 years, I've fought more than a few skirmishes with Windows 95, and often wound up on the losing side. The latest episode occurred two weeks ago, when my son's computer crashed for reasons unknown, and I spent eight miserable hours trying to get it running again. Eventually I had to reinstall Windows 95 -- twice -- along with half the application programs that were running before the operating system tanked.
Now don't get me wrong. I like Windows 95 when it works, which is most of the time. Overall, Windows 95 is easier to use and more reliable than its predecessor. But the system is so complex that when something does go wrong -- which still happens more frequently than it should -- Windows 95 can ruin your day, your week, or maybe even your month. It certainly wastes enough of my time.
Given this experience, you might expect me to be skeptical about the upcoming release of Windows 98. And normally, I would be. While I enjoy new technology, I don't like being a pioneer. I depend on my computer and want to spend my time using the PC to do what I want to do -- not discovering the bugs in other people's software.
That's why I don't review "Beta" programs. These are test versions that publishers try out on their friends and business associates -- or in the case of Microsoft, anyone willing to pay 20 bucks to get a potentially buggy Beta of Windows 98 that will quit running in a couple of months unless they're willing to pay another $75 or so for the real thing.
But I am looking forward to Windows 98 when it ships. That's because it promises to make Windows 95 work the way it should have worked in the first place. Microsoft itself describes Windows 98 as an "incremental" update that contains more than 3,000 "enhancements." In the doublespeak world of software publishers, an "enhancement" is a euphemism for a bug fix.
While there will be a lot of Windows 98 hype about a Web browser that's integrated with your desktop, support for TV tuners and other glitzy features, most of the really important changes involve things you'll never see -- if you're lucky.
Windows 98 will maintain itself better and recover from crashes and other software conflicts with far less effort on your part, or no effort at all. Most of these fixes are the direct result of calls to Microsoft's technical support line, and if they work, both sides will win. Users will have a more reliable operating system, and Microsoft will cut down on its astronomical technical support expenses.
Does this mean you should buy Microsoft's line and spend your money upgrading to Windows 98? If you're satisfied with Windows 95 (as many people are), there's no reason to rush. This time around, there won't be an onslaught of new programs that will run only on the new version, and your existing programs should run without a hitch. Underneath, the two releases are essentially the same.
If you're still running Windows 3.1 -- and there are still millions of folks out there who never bothered to switch to Windows 95 the first time around -- this is probably the right time. All but a handful of publishers have stopped writing new software for Windows 3.1, and with the new safety features built into Windows 98, you're likely to have a much easier time upgrading. Plus, you'll get the benefit of Microsoft's attempts to eliminate problems that Windows 95 users have suffered.
You'll also have to decide whether your hardware can handle Windows 98. Each new version of Windows has required more computing horsepower than the previous one, and the new features that Microsoft developed to integrate the Web browser and desktop will soak up your processor's time.
While Windows 95 can theoretically run on a computer with an 80486 processor and as little as 8 megabytes of internal memory, Windows 98 will be a real drag on anything less than a Pentium machine. Moreover, Microsoft now requires 16 megabytes of memory.
In reality, you should have at least 32 megabytes of RAM to run Windows 98, and 64 megabytes is even better. That's what most new computers designed for serious home or small-business use are sold with today.
In fact, more memory will make any version of Windows run better. If you're operating Windows 95 on 16 megabytes of RAM right now and you're on a tight budget, spend your money on another 16 megs of memory instead of the Windows 98 upgrade. Your computer will run much faster and crash less often. You can always upgrade to Windows 98 later.