Review: Windows Me Not a Must

Microsoft’s latest upgrade to Windows went on sale, but the launch was low-key, as befits a modest improvement.

While Windows Me should be fine as the operating system of a new computer, upgrading an existing computer is risky and may not be worth the benefits: faster boot-ups and some improved multimedia capabilities.

Windows Me, or Millennium Edition, is an update of consumer-oriented Windows 98. Tellingly, it is cheaper than any other Windows upgrade so far, with suggested retail price of $59.99. Some stores are reportedly selling it for $49.99.

Putting It to the Test

We installed Me with little trouble on a computer with a clean hard disk and a well-used Dell running Windows 98. But a third computer, a home-built system running Windows 98, would actually shut itself down trying to boot up with Me.

Reversing the process after this failed installation took more than three hours. A second installation attempt, with a hardware modification turned off, was successful.

This does not necessarily reveal a major flaw in Me: the hardware tweak, called overclocking, is something neither hardware nor software makers officially support.

But it does confirm that upgrading the operating system is the computer equivalent of major surgery and should be attempted only if the benefits are worth potential complications.

Microsoft warns that some older antivirus and Internet software will not work with Me. In our test, the program that connects one of our test computers to a digital subscriber line, a high-speed Internet connection, failed after the upgrade. A free fix available on a German programmer’s Web site solved that problem.

On another computer, a poorly written shareware program for Internet downloads also stopped working after the upgrade — a bearable loss.

Some Pluses

Windows Me contains a number of improvements, but most are rather modest. Perhaps the most appealing is that it boots faster than Windows 98, by 30 to 45 seconds in our tests. That may not sound like much, but boot-ups are one of those occasions when time seems to drag.

Microsoft’s inclusion of an Internet browser with Windows 95 is one of the linchpins of the Justice Department’s antitrust suit. But that didn’t stop the company from bundling Windows with more software than ever in its Me incarnation.

The upgraded Windows Media Player is particularly attractive.

In addition to being a solid player for music and video, it can copy music from CDs to the hard drive, organize playlists, and change its look. Instead of a regular window, the player can take the shape of an an abstract painting, or a green head with loudspeakers in its ears.

Some Minuses

However, there’s no need to buy Me for the Media Player, or for the new Internet Explorer 5.5 browser. Both are available for free on Microsoft’s Web site.

That’s not the case with Movie Maker, a simple editor for digital movies also included. It works well for basic editing and can compress movies to make them small enough to be posted on the Web.

But don’t think that you can edit your own home videos just because the computer has software: first you have to get the footage on to the hard drive. That requires hardware most PCs don’t come with — a tuner card for regular video or an IEEE-1394 port for digital video. When Apple started including movie-making software with its high-end iMacs, it was a more natural fit, since they have digital video ports.

Microsoft has also tried to extend multimedia capabilities by designing Media Player to connect to portable MP3 players. This is a bit strange, since any MP3 player will come with its own software that is guaranteed to work. In our test, Media Player could connect to a Compaq IPaq PA-1 player but could only access half its memory. A Creative Jukebox, an unusual player in that it has its own hard drive and distinct operating system, could not be accessed at all.

An effort to make Windows connect to digital still cameras is similarly mysterious — like MP3 players, cameras differ substantially from one another and come with customized software. Windows could not connect in a meaningful way to the Intel Pocket PC camera we tried.

Windows 98 Plus Bells and Whistles

In short, Me is Windows 98 plus bells and whistles. The code is still based on Microsoft’s MS-DOS from 1981. The only attempt at improving the reliability of this sadly aged system is a PC Health feature that can repair or prevent accidental erasing of system files.

For its Windows 2000 business operating system, Microsoft threw out MS-DOS and wrote new code from scratch, resulting in a faster, less crash-prone system. However, Windows 2000 is not an ideal choice for home users, since many programs and accessories won’t work with it.

The good news is Microsoft is working on a new consumer operating system based on Windows 2000 code. It is expected late next year and should be a much better upgrade than Me.