Nifty upgrade for new PCs
by Jeff Symoens
Microsoft will officially welcome another member of the Windows family into the world this week with the shipment of Windows 98.
Overall, Windows 98 has some good new features, and the product is a fair upgrade to Windows 95. However, most corporate customers will find that the product's benefits aren't worth a corporate-wide rollout, and they should proceed to move forward with Windows NT Workstation.
It's not that Windows 98 is necessarily bad, but most IS managers simply won't be able to build a compelling business case for moving to the new OS company-wide. Windows 98 will most likely find its way onto corporate desktops through new systems acquisitions where the OS is bundled with other products, or where it is required to take advantage of new hardware technologies, such as Universal Serial Bus, IEEE 1394, or digital video disc.
Windows 95 and Windows 98 also remain more suitable for portable computers in the enterprise until Windows NT Workstation gains plug and play and power management in release 5.0. So there will probably be some overlap and coexistence between the two operating systems for some time.
Windows 98 rolls up a number of existing enhancements to Windows 95 and packages them all under the hood of the new OS. Among these are the OEM Service Release-2 upgrades, Internet Explorer 4.01, and Dial-Up Networking 1.2.
Beyond the post-Windows 95 enhancements that have been rolled into the product, Windows 98 yields a number of other enhancements, such as a barrage of bug fixes and infrastructure alterations. In addition, it includes a number of new utilities that serve to make the operating system easier to maintain and manage over time.
As a package the product works well, and I like a lot of the new utilities and features. In particular, I like the new Maintenance Wizard that automates the scheduling of routine maintenance tasks, such as ScanDisk and Disk Defragmenter.
I also like the System Configuration Utility that allows quick point-and-click access to enable or disable lines in the AUTOEXEC.BAT or CONFIG.SYS, or to tweak which programs load from the registry at startup.
By and large, I find the FAT32 file system a nice addition. FAT32 helps to extend the volume-size limits imposed by FAT16 and provides more efficient use of disk space. Using the FAT32 converter, I was able to squeeze an additional 180MB out of a 1GB drive. FAT32 still has its problems, though. It does not enjoy support from other operating systems in a dual-boot scenario, and incompatibility with some disk utilities could cause a problem for some users. In addition, our performance tests with FAT32 did not bear out any perceptible performance gains vs FAT16.
For most corporate end users, moving from Windows 95 to Windows 98 means one of two things: more hardware or slower performance. In general, application performance on Pentium 133 or higher with a minimum of 32MB of RAM remains consistent with Windows 95.
However, the integration of Internet Explorer 4.01 into the operating system shell shows noticeable performance degradation vs Windows 95, particularly on older hardware and with RAM configurations of less than 32MB.
Windows 98 definitely requires more CPU and memory than its predecessor. Microsoft has made a generational leap in minimum processor requirements to an Intel 486/66 processor, and a fourfold increase in the minimum memory requirements to 16MB of RAM. However, based on testing and extensive use of the product on production systems, I recommend a minimum 166MHz Pentium processor with at least 32MB of RAM to get reasonable performance.
Once you get over that hardware hump, Windows 98's performance is fairly good from a user-experience standpoint, and this upgrade looks attractive for its feature benefits.
There are a few areas in which Windows 98 leaves me a little dissatisfied. For example, the Win32 Driver model, supports only a limited subset of hardware driver types.
Support for multiple monitors is another nice addition to the product. But make sure you cross-check the hardware compatibility list before you get going, because older PCI video cards are not supported as secondary display adapters.
Based on some of the things that I have seen even with the final code base, you can still expect a few bumps in the road. Finally, if you do not have the minimum hardware that I have recommended, you may find yourself a little disappointed in the base performance.
The Bottom Line
Windows 98 provides a fair upgrade to Windows 95. However, most IT shops will determine that the product's features set and additional performance requirements don't make a compelling case for an upgrade, especially when you consider Windows NT Workstation as an alternative.
Pros: Rolls all post-Windows 95 enhancements into a single product; adds support for various advances in desktop hardware; new utilities provide improved maintenance and management featuresCons: Clients with older processor and low RAM configurations need not apply; some promised features, such as Win32 Driver Model and Multiple Monitor support, are not fully fleshed outPlatforms: Intel 486/66 processor (or faster), 16MB of RAM, and 120MB to 295MB of free disk spacePrice: $330 ESP; $169 ESP for upgrade versionMicrosoftTel 13 2058 Fax (02) 9870 2441Methods for deploying Windows 98 provide strengthPerhaps the biggest challenge with Windows 98 is deploying it throughout an enterprise. Fortunately, though, there are a few ways to ease this burden and Microsoft has created a couple of new tools to make rapid deployment of Windows 98 a little easier than Windows 95.
Apart from running around from machine to machine with a Windows 98 CD in hand and performing the upgrades manually, there are basically three methods that you might consider to rapidly deploy Windows 98 throughout your organisation.
Firstly, you might consider deploying the operating system as you replace desktop computers. This method is fairly easy because Windows 98 is already installed on the new system.
However, this migration strategy is a long, drawn-out process because even the most aggressive IS shop will not replace all of its desktops in any one year. Also, although the new operating system gets deployed with a new machine, you still have to install the user's applications and migrate any personal data. Both of these tasks can be time consuming, particularly if you do not have an application distribution solution in place to handle the deployment of end-user applications.
The other two methods you might consider for rapidly deploying Windows 98 are unattended installations and image blasting. Unattended installations are achieved by pointing the Windows 98 Setup program to an installation script file, which provides all the information that the setup program needs to install Windows 98 without user input.
Image blasting is a generic term used to describe the process of taking a snapshot of a system's drive image and then pushing that image out to a number of machines simultaneously. Microsoft provides a handful of tools to assist in generating the MSBATCH.INF script files used in unattended installations, but the central tool that you will use is Batch 98.
There are a few different ways that you can use Batch 98 to automate the deployment of Windows 98. For example, you can choose to have users initiate the upgrade, use Windows 95 policies to push the upgrade down to users, or simply use network log-in scripts to initiate the OS upgrade. I chose to use the network log-in script method from a NetWare 4.11 server.
Batch 98 provides a good graphical interface for selecting the components that should be installed with Windows 98. I was able to exercise control over virtually every component of the Windows 98 installation. In addition, I was able to provide the setup with the default licence key and specify a few custom parameters, such as instructing the product to use Novell's Client32 and 32-bit IPX protocol, which was already installed on the machine from Windows 95. However, I was not able to deploy Client32 with the install.
Batch 98 also provides a Multiple-Machine-Name Save option, which allowed me to specify individual machine names and static IP addresses for a number of different machines in a single operation. I found this feature attractive, but it really does not take it far enough. Typically, I would like to be able to supply custom user names and DNS host names, among other things. To achieve this greater granularity, you have to shift to another Microsoft tool called DBSet.
DBSet is a command line that lets administrators customise just about anything in the MSBATCH.INF. To use this tool I had to provide a database file containing the custom settings and corresponding variable names. In addition, I had to edit the MSBATCH.INF template file to include references where each variable would replace a value. DBSet was definitely more effective than Batch 98's Multiple Machine-Name Save option, but it also requires a little more energy on the part of the administrator.
Microsoft also provides a tool called INF Installer, which basically allows administrators to add third-party hardware drivers to the Windows 98 distribution source - for example, if you copy the Windows 98 CD to a network volume.
Overall, I found the unattended install feature pretty useful, but I did find some unsettling problems. For example, Windows 98 does not support Novell's Client32 for DOS/Win 3.x, so I had to migrate back to VLMs to perform my Windows 3.1 upgrade. In addition, the setup program hung at various times during the file copy portion of the install on my Windows 95 upgrade attempt. So there are definitely a few kinks to be attended to.
Batch 98, DBSet and INF Installer are avail-able in Microsoft's Windows 98 Resource Kit. However, Batch 98 can also be found on the Windows 98 distribution CD, as Microsoft provides a sampler of the Resource Kit there.
When considering an operating system upgrade, I personally recommend formatting the drive and starting with a fresh system. You do have to worry about backing up your personal data and reinstalling your crucial applications.
But you also get the opportunity to start with a clean drive, get rid of unwanted applications that never uninstall cleanly, and avoid potential hiccups associated with an upgrade.
Image blasting is a great way to achieve clean deployments of the operating sys-tem and applications, and maintain the benefits of rapid deployment.
There are several image-blasting products on the market, such as Innovative Software's Ghost Multicast, PowerQuest's DriveImage Pro, and Key Labs ImageBlaster Pro.
Typically, these products do a great job of deploying images to machines with identically configured hardware, but they tend to fall short where customisation is necessary.
To help solve this customisation problem, Microsoft will provide a new utility called Image Preparation Tool for Windows 98. This new tool serves to strip out the user and machine-dependent information from an existing system's registry, so that the information can be specified when an imaged machine is initialised.
Microsoft also packages the Windows 98 CAB files with the image distribution, and performs all hardware detection and device enumeration upon initialisation.
This eliminates the need to create custom drive images for different hardware configurations.
Image Preparation Tool only works on OEM and Select distributions of Windows 98 or other Microsoft applications. However, the tool can be used with various applications from other software vendors. Image Preparation Tool does not perform the actual image blasting capability, so you need to use this product in conjunction with a third-party image deployment application. I used Ghost for my tests.
Windows 98 performance little changed
by Jeff Symoens and Andre Kvitka
In evaluating Windows 98, our goal was to test the operating system on a variety of corporate hardware platforms and to focus on a few key areas of operating systems performance. We chose two areas: applications and OS functions.
First, we evaluated basic application performance. In these tests we ran the InfoWorld test centre's application-based benchmark suite, which is based on BAPCo's forthcoming SYSMark 98 suite.
We ran these tests on four platforms: two Compaq Deskpro 4000 P5-200 MMX, one configured with 32MB of RAM and one with 64MB of RAM; one Micron ClientPro Desktop Pentium 133 configured with 32MB of RAM; and one Dell Dimension XPS P166c configured with 32MB of RAM.
On each machine, we ran the application suite in four OS configurations: Windows 95 OSR-2; Windows NT Workstation 4.0 with Service Pack 3; Windows 98 configured with the FAT16 file system; and Windows 98 configured with the FAT32 file system.
In our application performance tests Windows 98 remained on par with Windows 95 on all of the platforms. We saw no significant performance difference between Windows 98 when configured with either FAT16 or FAT32.
Comparing it to the rest
Compared with Windows NT Workstation 4.0, Windows 98 ranged from 0.3 per cent slower to 4 per cent faster than NT Workstation on the machines configured with 32MB of RAM. However, Windows NT Workstation outperformed Windows 98 by roughly 8 per cent when running the suite in 64MB of RAM.
Our second set of tests focused on three fundamental OS performance elements. We tested OS boot time, OS shut-down time, and application load time.
Microsoft has emphasised that these are three areas in which it has made improvements in Windows 98.
Concerning OS boot time, Windows 98 should achieve faster boot times through its support of the FastBoot BIOS specification, which is not yet available on shipping platforms.
That factor aside, we saw considerable degradation in system boot time vs Windows 95's. The falloff ranged from 22 to 47 per cent.
There was no perceptible difference in performance for system shut-down times. Shut-down time was fast on both operating system configurations.
Finally, we made some interesting observations regarding application load time. Generally, these times varied with nothing standing out from a performance standpoint.
However, Microsoft has enhanced its Disk Defragmenter tool in Windows 98 to optimise the disk to load frequently used applications faster.
We ran the tool on our Windows 95 machine just to see if it would affect performance, and as expected we saw no differences. After running the tool in Windows 98, we noticed no perceptible differences either.
After we examined the optimisation log files, we noticed that the applications on the top of the optimisation list were the Microsoft Office toolbar and FastFind tool, along with the other things that load from the startup folder or the registry every time you boot the machine.
So, it looks like the optimisation feature will take a bit of tweaking.
Windows 98 add-ons offer both fun, functionalityby Jeff SymoensComputers can't all be about work, there has to be time for fun and games. At least that's the spirit of Microsoft's Plus 98. Following in the tradition of Microsoft Plus for Windows 95, this new release provides a number of fun and functional enhancements for the Windows 98 OS. You may not want to roll it out to everyone in the company, but you might use it to score a few points with your boss.
Plus 98 includes a copy of Network Associates' VirusScan for Win 98, and six months of upgrades for VirusScan. Also, Plus 98 includes a tool that automatically cleans up shortcuts with broken links from the Windows Start menu. Microsoft also provides a modified version of Windows 98's Maintenance Wizard.
Plus 98 also has a pretty cool feature called Compressed Folders, essentially Zip files that appear as special folders on the desktop or through the Explorer shell. On the lighter side, Plus 98 includes a new set of add-ons for Windows 98.
A number of new desktop themes lend a new look to your Windows 98 desktop, including motifs from the Cathy, Garfield and Doonesbury cartoon strips.
My two favourite components of Plus 98 are the bundled Organic Art Screensaver from Computer Artworks and Microsoft Golf Lite. The Lite version of Microsoft Golf only has nine holes, but it beats Solitaire on a long flight home.
Tools and accessories: Windows 98 Resource KitOnce upon a time, every new product came with a complete set of documentation. If you're looking to move your organisation to Windows 98, you'll definitely want to pick up a copy of Microsoft's Windows 98 Resource Kit.
Weighing in at more than 1700 pages, the Windows 98 Resource Kit is truly the definitive guide to getting inside Win 98. I used the resource kit fairly heavily throughout my testing with Windows 98. It really is an essential reference text for understanding some of the more advanced types of tasks that corporate customers in particular will want to perform with Win 98.
The Windows 98 Resource Kit has in-depth, technical coverage of various areas of the oper-ating system that you won't find in end-user-style "how to" books. For example, there is strong coverage of both rapid deployment using system policies, and the architecture of the OS. There are useful sections on the Win 98 registry, networking options and OS performance tuning.
The Windows 98 Resource Kit also comes with a good assortment of utilities on the accompanying CD. Some of the tools are fairly useful, such as Profile Manager, which lets administrators create Win 98 system policies.
In addition, there are a few executables that provide basic functionality for use with the Windows Scripting Host in Win 98.
I liked that the Boot Manager tool let me quickly configure different elements of the Win 98 boot sequence. The resource kit also includes TweakUI, a popular tool that allows you quick access to key customisation elements of the Win 98 desktop and shell environment.
Microsoft bundles a few additional applications on the resource kit CD that add value to the package. For example, Intergraph's Imagination Engineer LE is a lightweight version of the company's technical diagramming package. In addition, Microsoft includes a couple of its new speech technology applications, but then, I'm not really ready for voice recognition. Or maybe it's not ready for me.