N E W Y O R K, Sept. 15, 2000 -- 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 theoperating system of a new computer, upgrading an existing computeris risky and may not be worth the benefits: faster boot-ups andsome improved multimedia capabilities.
Windows Me, or Millennium Edition, is an update ofconsumer-oriented Windows 98. Tellingly, it is cheaper than anyother 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 cleanhard disk and a well-used Dell running Windows 98. But a thirdcomputer, a home-built system running Windows 98, would actuallyshut itself down trying to boot up with Me.
Reversing the process after this failed installation took more thanthree hours. A second installation attempt, with a hardwaremodification turned off, was successful.
This does not necessarily reveal a major flaw in Me: thehardware tweak, called overclocking, is something neither hardwarenor software makers officially support.
But it does confirm that upgrading the operating system is thecomputer equivalent of major surgery and should be attempted onlyif the benefits are worth potential complications.
Microsoft warns that some older antivirus and Internet softwarewill not work with Me. In our test, the program that connects oneof our test computers to a digital subscriber line, a high-speedInternet connection, failed after the upgrade. A free fix availableon a German programmer’s Web site solved that problem.
On another computer, a poorly written shareware program forInternet downloads also stopped working after the upgrade — abearable loss.
Windows Me contains a number of improvements, but most arerather modest. Perhaps the most appealing is that it boots fasterthan Windows 98, by 30 to 45 seconds in our tests. That may notsound like much, but boot-ups are one of those occasions when timeseems to drag.
Microsoft’s inclusion of an Internet browser with Windows 95 isone of the linchpins of the Justice Department’s antitrust suit.But that didn’t stop the company from bundling Windows with moresoftware 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 cancopy music from CDs to the hard drive, organize playlists, andchange its look. Instead of a regular window, the player can takethe shape of an an abstract painting, or a green head withloudspeakers in its ears.
However, there’s no need to buy Me for the Media Player, or forthe new Internet Explorer 5.5 browser. Both are available for freeon Microsoft’s Web site.
That’s not the case with Movie Maker, a simple editor fordigital movies also included. It works well for basic editing andcan compress movies to make them small enough to be posted on theWeb.
But don’t think that you can edit your own home videos justbecause the computer has software: first you have to get thefootage on to the hard drive. That requires hardware most PCs don’tcome with — a tuner card for regular video or an IEEE-1394 port fordigital video. When Apple started including movie-making softwarewith its high-end iMacs, it was a more natural fit, since they havedigital video ports.
Microsoft has also tried to extend multimedia capabilities bydesigning Media Player to connect to portable MP3 players. This isa bit strange, since any MP3 player will come with its own softwarethat is guaranteed to work. In our test, Media Player could connectto 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 harddrive and distinct operating system, could not be accessed at all.
An effort to make Windows connect to digital still cameras issimilarly mysterious — like MP3 players, cameras differsubstantially from one another and come with customized software.Windows could not connect in a meaningful way to the Intel PocketPC camera we tried.
Windows 98 Plus Bells and Whistles
In short, Me is Windows 98 plus bells and whistles. The code isstill based on Microsoft’s MS-DOS from 1981. The only attempt atimproving the reliability of this sadly aged system is a PC Healthfeature that can repair or prevent accidental erasing of systemfiles.
For its Windows 2000 business operating system, Microsoft threwout MS-DOS and wrote new code from scratch, resulting in a faster,less crash-prone system. However, Windows 2000 is not an idealchoice for home users, since many programs and accessories won’twork with it.
The good news is Microsoft is working on a new consumeroperating system based on Windows 2000 code. It is expected latenext year and should be a much better upgrade than Me.