The biggest software story of 1998 is likely to be the release of Windows 98. Millions of PC owners will upgrade to this advanced operating system. The question is, should you?
Microsoft has enhanced Windows 98 in four ways: complete Internet integration, higher quality, a new generation of entertainment functionality and support for the latest accessories.
None of its new features are showstoppers, but Windows 98 has a grab bag of improvements. Of these, integration with the Web is the key. Microsoft has woven Internet Explorer throughout the Windows fabric. Windows 98 lets you customize screens to resemble Web pages, with toolbars that include Back and Forward buttons.
Channels and subscriptions are new Internet features built into Windows 98 to quickly deliver information. When you set up a channel, you're creating a link to a Web site. The site "pushes" information to you across the Net. A typical channel might display a ticker tape of stock prices or a weather map on your desktop.
A subscription lets you visit sites and download information at scheduled times. For example, you can subscribe to your competitors' sites; Windows 98 checks the locations regularly and transfers any new pages.
Windows 98 also helps you establish yourself on the Web. Its Personal Web Server turns your computer into a low-volume Web server and gives you the administrative and security tools so you don't need an ISP.
Another Internet aid is Outlook Express, an integrated e-mail and newsgroup reader. It can retrieve mail automatically from multiple addresses and feed it to multiple folders.
Another area where Windows 98 shines is maintenance. Its Disk Cleanup utility warns you if less than 3 percent of your drive is free and helps you delete unnecessary files. ScanDisk runs automatically if it detects something wrong--for instance, if you shut your PC down haphazardly. Disk Defragmenter optimizes your applications' speed. You can use the Tune-Up Wizard to run these three checkups periodically.
Windows 98 starts up and shuts down faster than Windows 95. It's smart enough to skip operations that may have caused it to fail before. It has a utility to convert your hard drive to FAT32 (a scheme for dividing a large drive into smaller segments) and can save you lots of space.
Windows Update logs you on to Microsoft's maintenance Web site from the Start menu. It downloads the latest drivers and other components to keep you up to date.
All told, Windows 98 is smoother, cleaner and more Net-savvy than Windows 95. True, if you already have Internet Explorer, you won't need many of its features. But for those not yet on the Internet bandwagon, Windows 98 may be your ticket to ride. Upgrades for Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 users retail for about $109. (Warning: Before loading Windows 98, be sure you have at least 200MB of available disk space. This operating system, like its predecessors, is a space hog.)
Robert Schmidt is a computer and business writer in Culver City, California.
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