Web Informant #236, 6 February 2001:
Upgrading Windows


Has Windows become an unworkable operating system? I have begun to wonder, given my own painful experiences over the past week.

While part of my day is spent writing and testing products, what I really do is install operating systems for a living. And reinstall them. In order to test products on various different machines, I need to get these PCs setup properly. Over the years I have assembled a motley collection of machines in my lab: some slow 486s, some fast Pentiums, clones and name brands. (I claim this mirrors the typical corporate environment, a nice justification.) Every so often I have to clean house, wipe the disks off, and start from scratch. This has been one of those weeks, in between various projects. Yes, I use various imaging software tools to help. But sometimes you just have to do it the way civilians do it, and that can be painful.

After dissing Windows Millennium last week, I have to bring my apologies here: I actually like the new Windows Me. It is far easier to install on a blank machine than any other version of Windows. Those of you who do this for a living can sympathize: you first install the basic OS, then the browser updates, then the various other Microsoft application updates, then the service packs, and hope that everything took and nothing stepped on anything else. What is nice about WinMe is that all the updates are on one CD, for the time being.

On two of my machines after I got most of Windows 98 installed, the CD drive would suddenly disappear, and nothing I did could bring it back. WinMe not only avoided that small problem, but it automatically recognized the various sound card, network adapter, and other odds and ends without asking me to hunt down those pesky driver disks that seem to migrate to the dark corners of my office. You could say that Plug and Play is finally fully realized, only six years since it was invented.

But WinMe has one dark side: Internet Explorer is part and parcel of the operating system. Unlike 95, 98, NT, and 2000, when you bring up the Control Panel | Add New Programs, it isn't even on the list. You can't uninstall it, unless you want dig deep into the operating system. So much for the judgment of that small legal case by the government last year.

Actually, make that two dark sides: some applications don't have WinMe drivers yet, and you don't really know whether the 98 driver will work until you try it out. My USB-based HP printer worked fine for about a day, and then it was nowhere to be found. Maybe it went to the same place that my CD drives went on my Win98 machines. Go figure.

No matter what version of Windows you are using, you also have to consider the other issue with your operating system, and that is the Microsoft applications that you are running on it. I have found that making changes to Microsoft applications is really a back door means of updating your operating system, so I have learned to shy away from these updates. This includes bringing Office to the SR-1 release, which supposedly is more secure. Still, I was getting nervous about running the older version, especially after all the press over email "wiretaps" this week.

So I took the plunge on my production machine and installed the upgrade. It was a real downer: I no sooner would open an Office document than the application would unceremoniously shut down. Very odd. Maybe this is Microsoft's interpretation of security here: since you can't create any work product, you can't catch any viruses or distribute any rogue Javascript code.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm glad that Microsoft has all sorts of ways to update my operating system and applications over the Internet, to give me the latest features and the best protection against the visual Basic and Java script kiddies that roam the planet looking for the next hard drive to trash and email viruses to spread. But there are too many things that can go wrong with these updates, and that is a problem, especially if you are in charge of your corporation's entire fleet of computers.

On top of these issues, Microsoft wants WinMe for the home user, and the corporate types to install Win2000. But I've found that unless you have a reasonably fast (above 500 MHz) Pentium with oodles of RAM (over 96 Mb is a good start for Pro, and the server editions should really be loaded), you are probably better off with WinMe than Win2000.

So where does this leave you, the average user just trying to use his or her Windows PC to get your work done? Here are a few suggestions:

Resist the temptation to upgrade your machine, even though you have a nice high-speed Internet connection. Be the last on your block, or in your cubicle neighborhood, to do the download: let everyone else figure out what breaks first. Treat all Microsoft applications, including Office applications, as part of the overall operating system. After, if the government says so, who are we to argue?

Now, I would ignore this advice under a few circumstances: first, if you are running an older operating system and something is seriously wrong with your computer, then it is time to upgrade to something newer, say WinMe, if you can be reasonably sure your critical applications will continue to work. If you can't afford a test machine to try everything out, get a disk imaging program (I like PowerQuest's Drive Image, but it doesn't work with Windows NT or 2000 server versions) and make an image copy of your machine before you begin to mess with it's configuration.

Second, do upgrade if you are trying to keep everyone in your department on the same operating system to reduce your support headaches, and if you have relatively recent hardware to do so (say, under two years' old).

And if you are tired of all these Windows issues, maybe it is time to consider switching to Mac or Linux. While you'll trade these for other issues, at least they are new ones. Meanwhile, I have to go finish that Windows install and try to find the disk with my sound card drivers.

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David Strom
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