Windows Millennium Edition: All About Me The last entry (probably) in the Windows 9x line offers a bit of multimedia razzle-dazzle, cool idiot-proofing, and Internet Explorer 5.5. Should you bite?Scott Spanbauer
Windows Millennium Edition Features:
It’s the end of an era. Microsoft says that Windows Me–its cutesy abbreviation for Millennium Edition–is the last member of the product line that conquered the world’s desktops five years ago with the release of Windows 95. (Yes, Microsoft said the same of Windows 98, but this time they seem serious.)
This final instalment in the Windows 9x family is aimed at device-happy consumers who like multimedia tools and long for a more crash-resistant PC. Businesses using Windows 95 or 98 will also find things to like about Me (see “The Business Side of Me”). In particular, its recovery capabilities could entice systems administrators beset by users who crash machines after installing unauthorised software. But companies that prize stability, networking capabilities, and security features are far better off migrating to Windows 2000 Professional.
Home is where the heart is for Me. An enhanced digital video and audio player, a new digital camera and scanner interface, and a basic video editor make Me the most thoroughly multimedia-enabled Windows yet. In addition, the OS comes with a new Home Networking Wizard, online games, and the long-awaited shipping version of Internet Explorer 5.5 (see “It’s New to Me”).
Two powerful system safety features–which Microsoft has grouped under the general heading of PC Health–are among Me’s best innovations. One is an invisible watchdog that prevents disastrous alterations to system files. Even better is a rollback tool that lets you revert to an earlier system configuration–a godsend to anyone who has ever tried to revive a PC torpedoed by crummy software.
We put the final shipping code of Windows Me to the test, working with its system recovery, file protection, Internet sharing, and digital media doodads. We also gauged Me’s start-up, shutdown, and overall speeds in comparison to the performance speeds of Windows 98 SE.
Our conclusion: The Me-exclusive PC Health features are the best reason to invest in the $109 upgrade. But if you aren’t pining for recovery features, you don’t really need Me. Instead, wait for Microsoft to fix bugs and incompatibilities (we spotted a few), or hold out for the next Windows (see “Beyond Me”). Meanwhile, take advantage of the various new features that you can download independently of the OS.
There’s More of Me (Windows Millennium Edition)
Though Microsoft isn’t touting Windows Me as a performance-boosting upgrade, our tests did corroborate the company’s claim that it boots faster than Windows 98 SE.
Freed from processing autoexec.bat and config.sys and displaying the whole MS-DOS user interface (see “Death Throes of DOS”), Windows Me booted up about 35 percent faster than Windows 98 SE, which took 84 seconds. Shutdown times, already in the 3-second neighbourhood for Win 98 SE, decreased by half.
Overall, Windows Me ran a tad slower than its predecessors on our PC WorldBench 2000 business applications suite–probably due to the housekeeping tasks the PC Health features handle. But the difference is so tiny–less than 5 percent in our tests on a group of 21 desktops and five notebooks–that most users won’t detect a slowdown in typical business applications.
Microsoft says that your PC needs at least a 150-MHz Pentium CPU to run Win Me–and the company means it. Try installing the OS on a slower machine, and you’ll get a polite error message saying, “Sorry, but you need a faster processor–and by the way, click OK to exit Setup.” I overrode the 150-MHz limitation on my ancient Pentium-75 laptop (using the command setup /nm) just to see whether the OS would run at all. The installation dragged on for nearly two hours, but afterwards, windows millennium edition appeared to run just as well as Windows 98–which is to say, extremely slowly. I couldn’t do much with the computer anyway: Windows Me’s default installation gobbled up 657MB of my laptop’s undernourished 774MB drive. I probably could have gained some breathing room by disabling or uninstalling individual features, but I chose to back out of Me instead. Fortunately, the uninstall routine returned me to Windows 98 without mishap.
Even if your PC meets Microsoft’s system requirements (which include 32MB of RAM, 320MB of free disk space, and an Internet connection), you may want to think twice before upgrading. Most of the good stuff is available for downloading into a Win 9x environment. And in jumping to Me, you forfeit some compatibility–mainly with older DOS programs and drivers. A readme file on the installation CD-ROM says Adaptec’s GoBack, NAI’s PGP Desktop Security, and some antivirus utilities may prevent Windows Millennium Edition from installing; you’ll have to disable them first.
Just Shoot Me
Over the years, Microsoft has done a pretty good job of supporting the PC’s development into a multimedia playback device. Windows Me’s new media tools look like a logical step in that evolution–until you look at them closely.
Me’s Camera Wizard lets you view digital photos without moving them to your PC–if your camera supports the new WIA interface.
The Scanner and Camera Wizard lets you view your digital camera’s pictures, copy them to the hard disk, look at the camera’s internal properties (such as flash setting, battery status, and focus mode), and even snap a picture from the keyboard or mouse (something you might want to do in an office where the camera isn’t near the PC). It also allows you to transfer image files directly from the camera to documents or e-mail. To work with the wizard, your scanner or camera must support Microsoft’s newly minted Windows Image Acquisition programming interface. Fortunately, it probably does: Microsoft’s mid-July list of WIA-compatible devices included many older camera models. Microsoft promised that the list would include newer models in time for Windows Me’s September ship date.
But don’t run out and buy Windows Me just because you have a digital camera. Most of them come packaged with software that does everything the Scanner and Camera Wizard does and much more. In my tests with a Kodak DC290, for example, I found that the camera’s included software lets you tweak every single feature–including some that you can’t even adjust on the camera itself. To my consternation, Windows Me automatically disabled Kodak’s software to prevent conflicts with WIA. According to Microsoft, most camera and scanner manufacturers will have WIA-compatible versions of their software available this fall. Nikon and Kodak confirmed that they have program updates in the works, though these might not be available by the time Windows Me ships.
Fortunately, the incompatibility does not extend to third-party tools that access your camera or scanner using the TWAIN interface. Since WIA supports TWAIN, I could import photos into Adobe Photoshop without trouble. But until your camera or scanner maker delivers a WIA-compatible version of its software, you probably shouldn’t upgrade to Windows Me. In the long run, WIA will help camera manufacturers connect their units to Windows more easily, but WIA offers almost no additional capabilities to users of existing cameras.
Make Me Movies
Digital video editing has become the latest rage among people with leisure time, and Microsoft joins the bandwagon with Me’s Windows Movie Maker feature. Still, this particular parade may not be heading where you want to go.
Video editing on a PC involves several tasks: loading clips from a video camera or VCR; putting them into order; adding a soundtrack, special effects, transitions, and titles; and viewing the results on a PC or TV. Windows Movie Maker does a nice job of the first three. So if you just want to assemble a quick summary of Junior’s toddler years from the piles of videotapes in the closet, Movie Maker is grand.
Virtual cutting room: Windows Movie Maker does a good job of assembling home video clips but is otherwise pretty limited.
The program quickly converts raw video from your digital or analogue camera or VCR into an on-screen library of clips. It can even break up long sequences on a single tape into smaller ones by identifying scene changes (see the illustration here). To create a movie, simply drag clips, still images, and audio files from your clip library (or from another location on your PC) to the movie timeline. Record a narration on your PC’s microphone, and reorder scenes by dragging and dropping elements on the timeline.
But if you’re looking for full-powered desktop video production, this isn’t it. You can’t use Windows Movie Maker to add titles or special effects, and you have to choose from just two types of transitions between scenes: straight cuts and dissolves. The program’s biggest limitation: It saves movies only in Microsoft’s ASF file format. ASF reduces image and audio quality to one of three levels–low, medium, and high–which Microsoft says is geared to the modem, ISDN, and cable/DSL Internet transmission speeds, respectively. Movie Maker is essentially a special-purpose tool for creating short, simple clips for distribution via e-mail or the Web. If you want to maintain the quality of your original video source, add special effects, or output your opus to a format other than ASF, don’t waste time with Movie Maker.
But if Movie Maker is exactly what you’ve been looking for, you’re all set. Just be sure to warn Grandma that the clips are coming: Even a relatively short, compact Movie Maker clip fills a megabyte or more, which could tie up a dial-up connection and bamboozle an e-mail system that doesn’t handle large attachments well.
Not all of Windows Millennium Edition bundled utilities are lite versions. Harvesting concepts from rivals such as AOL’s Winamp MP3 player and Real’s RealPlayer, Me’s Windows Media Player 7 is the Swiss Army knife of audio/video playback devices. The app searches your computer for digital audio files (including MP3); audio CD tracks; MPEG, AVI, and ASF video clips; and files in Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio format. A Radio Tuner section offers a vast array of Web audio streams arranged by category, and lets you save multiple lists of station presets. And Media Player lets you browse, download, or stream media files through Microsoft’s Windowsmedia.com site. Though Windowsmedia.com isn’t an all-encompassing music and video portal, you’d have a hard time exhausting its offerings.
And that only scratches the surface of Media Player’s capabilities. If you have a digital audio player such as Creative Labs’ Nomad II, RCA’s Lyra, or Rio’s MP600, Media Player serves as your music upload hub. Besides copying MP3 and WMA files stored on your PC to the player, it can encode your CDs into WMA files for uploading to compatible playback devices. To upload, simply select files in one window, choose the device in another, and click a button.
Unfortunately for people whose MP3 players don’t perform the WMA format, Media Player doesn’t do the MP3 encoding. That doesn’t mean WMA is inferior to MP3 for all uses: 64-kilobit WMA files sound every bit as good as medium-quality (128-kilobit) MP3 files, so you can squeeze twice as much WMA-formatted music onto your portable player. But that won’t matter if your player doesn’t support WMA, and audiophiles who create 192-kilobit or larger MP3s will probably stick with MP3 encoders rather than accept the demotion to medium-fi recording quality (see October’s Internet Tips for a more detailed comparison of WMA and MP3). In any case, you can try Media Player 7 at no cost: It works with Windows 98 and 2000, and it’s available as a free 7MB download.
Keep Me Safe (Windows Millennium Edition)
One problem that has long plagued Windows is the operating system’s lax control over how programs and drivers behave. Windows NT and its successor, Windows 2000 Professional, impose much more stringent standards on program behaviour–but as a result, they are less compatible with the thousands of available Windows 9x applications and devices. Windows Me is just as easygoing as its Windows 9x predecessors, but it adds a couple of PC Health tools to help you avoid and recover from bugs.
The PC World Test Center tested both the System File Protection and System Restore features and found that each delivers exactly what it promises. System File Protection monitors key Windows system files, and it instantly and transparently restores them if a program or user deletes or overwrites them. When we deleted a group of system files or overwrote them with earlier versions, SFP reinstated the originals immediately. SFP also sprang into action when we installed drivers for an older USB scanner (the Logitech PageScan USB) that Windows Me doesn’t support, restoring the Windows Me version of a USB system file after the Logitech installer overwrote it. People who like maximum control over their computers may object to SFP, but it can’t be disabled.
Another common problem is compatibility: You install a driver or application, only to find that it conflicts with something else in your system. But uninstalling the offending software may not correct the situation since uninstallers don’t always remove every trace of a program. System Restore lets you return your computer to the earlier state it was in at a specified moment you choose from a PC-generated list of system checkpoints (the frequency of these system copying operations depends on how much free disk space your PC has and how often you add software). In our tests, System Restore worked as advertised–and quickly, too. Most rollback operations took a minute or less, not including the necessary reboot.
Besides removing shortcuts and Registry entries, System Restore actually removes installed applications. Even better, it lets you undo its alterations if you change your mind about rolling back–or decide to roll back to a different system checkpoint. The utility compresses and stores removed files and settings on the hard disk, and you choose how much disk space to allocate to the compressed files. On one test system with plenty of free space, the setting options ranged from 200MB to 400MB; on an older system with less free space, the range was 25MB to 50MB.
Take Me to the Net
Windows Me’s other enticements are comparatively lightweight. The most appealing of them may be an improved version of Windows 98 SE’s Internet sharing feature, which permitted several networked PCs to share a single Internet connection. Though it worked well, this feature pretty much lacked a user interface. Windows Me’s Home Networking Wizard walks you through the various tasks involved in connecting PCs and setting up a shared connection among them.
The new OS comes with Internet Explorer 5.5. This update includes many bug fixes, as well as support for the latest HTML specs, but only one visible new feature: a welcome Print Preview. Like Windows Media Player 7, IE 5.5 is downloadable for free. You may want to try out one of the several included Web-hosted games, too. But you don’t need Windows Me to play checkers, backgammon, and chess over the Internet: You can find the same games at the MSN Gaming Zone.
To Me or Not to Me?
Windows me joins a crowded OS field this season (see “Choices Abound”). One serious candidate, Windows 2000 Professional, has several strong points. It’s stable; secure; and mostly compatible with newer systems (especially ones that have received BIOS upgrades), peripherals, and applications. But it lacks the easy software compatibility of Windows 98 and Me, and the upgrade from Windows 98 or 95 costs about $110 more. Home users interested in simplicity and unconcerned with security will probably opt for Windows Me. Most businesses will be better off with Windows 2000.
When Windows Me arrives, PC manufacturers will probably let buyers who want a Win 9xseries machine choose between Windows 98 SE and Windows Me. Your decision may come down to whether Windows Me’s suite of digital knickknacks and system utilities means more to you than the relative simplicity and familiarity of Windows 98 SE.
If you’re trying to squeeze the last drops of performance out of an aging Pentium-90, you should avoid Windows Me’s greater system requirements. And digital camera buffs should make sure that a WIA-compatible version of their camera’s software is available before they upgrade. Millennium Edition is the latest version of Windows, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best for you.
Windows Me: Test Report (Chart)Death Throes of DOS: Life After Real Mode
If you are a longtime PC user, you probably remember tweaking config.sys and autoexec.bat files–or even manually launching Windows by booting your PC to the C> prompt and then typing “win.” But as hardware drivers and applications have steadily migrated away from Windows’ 16-bit MS-DOS underpinnings, the need for a DOS prompt at boot-up has gradually diminished.
Starting with Windows 95, the config.sys and autoexec.bat files became optional: You could use them if necessary to configure legacy applications and hardware, or you could delete them and still boot successfully.Windows Millennium Edition takes the final step of ditching them completely (though they won’t be erased if you upgrade), along with the ability to boot your PC to a C> prompt from the hard disk (you can, however, still do this by using the Windows Startup Floppy you created during installation).
Also gone is the complex but occasionally invaluable MS-DOS Mode. If you couldn’t get a DOS application to run properly within Windows, MS-DOS Mode enabled you to exit the Windows graphical interface, boot the computer with MS-DOS alone, launch your application, and then restart Windows when you exited the application.
Windows Me does permit you to launch the familiar command-prompt window from the Program menu. A few DOS commands have been altered slightly or retired, but you can still dir, copy, ping, and so forth to your heart’s content.
Don’t Cry for DOS
What does it all mean? For most of us, not much. You’re unlikely to run into problems with applications and hardware less than five years old. Some DOS games and apps will run correctly as full-screen DOS programs within Windows Me. The first time you try to run an MS-DOS Mode application in Win Me, a dialogue prompt will ask you to approve the change. In my tests with five old DOS games–Doom 1.9, Heretic 1.2, Tomb Raider 1.0, Nascar Racing 95, and Dark Forces 1.0–only Dark Forces refused to run on Me. But I don’t miss it much: Gaming has come a long way since these titles appeared.
Beyond Me: What’s Next for WindowsWindows 2001? The desktop isn’t dramatically different, but folders in a beta sport a new look.
It sounds like a PC user’s nirvana: an operating system with the stability and power of Windows 2000 Professional and the convenience and compatibility of Windows 9x and Me. Fulfilling a long-standing promise, Microsoft next year expects to merge its consumer- and network-oriented OSs into an all-purpose, best-of-both-worlds Windows.
Whistler in the Wind (Windows Millennium Edition)
Code-named Whistler, the new OS will be based on the Windows 2000 (formerly NT) core but will include Me’s multimedia integration and PC Health safeguards, among other features.
But wait, there’s more.
Microsoft believes that its customers want ready access to their data and to software, no matter where they are. In this brave new world of pervasive computing, updates you make in your desktop address book would automatically and transparently appear in your cell phone/PDA hybrid, and your latest Excel spreadsheets would be accessible on any connected desktop or notebook.
In June, Microsoft unveiled its plans for implementing this vision, which it calls the Dot-Net platform. Full-blown functionality remains several years away, but Whistler–due by the end of 2001–will incorporate the first iteration of Windows.net–Microsoft’s moniker for the client-side OS that the Dot-Net platform will require.
Initially, MSN will enable the Dot-Net functionality in Windows.net. The company will integrate the OS with Microsoft Passport for personal identity management, with MSN’s calendaring function, and with MSN’s messaging and notification features.
Eventually, Microsoft hopes to charge you a subscription fee for its Windows-everywhere service, either directly or via a third party (an Internet service provider, for example). How soon this will happen is unclear.
When you take into account the impending merger of the Windows NT and 9x lines, the promise of a long-overdue interface update, and the powerful new Dot-Net features, the next Windows has lots of changes in store. Whether it will be a stairway to computing heaven remains to be seen.
–Yardena ArarIt’s New to Me
- Media Player 7*
- Internet Explorer 5.5*
- Scanner and Camera Wizard
- System Restore
- Windows Movie Maker
- Home Networking Wizard
- System File Protection
- DirectX 7*
*Denotes a feature that can be downloaded separately for use with earlier versions of Windows.
Choices Abound (chart)The Business Side of Me
Microsoft’s marketing message is clear: Windows 2000 Professional is for business PCs, and Windows Me is for the home user. But considering the overlap between their features, you may find the distinction somewhat arbitrary.
Home users who value real log-in security, a superior file system, and rock-solid stability may prefer Windows 2000 if they can live without Me’s easygoing compatibility with older peripherals and with PC games. But will some business users, conversely, opt for Me?
In the Office With Me?
Not if they’ve moved to Windows 2000 or Windows NT already. Many of Windows Me’s Chief enhancements, including Media Player 7, Internet Explorer 5.5, Movie Maker, and the Home Networking Wizard, either don’t have an obvious corporate application or are free to download.
On the other hand, Windows Me’s System File Protection and System Restore could encourage small businesses that currently use Windows 95 or 98 to upgrade. Both tools work as advertised to prevent and recover from system configuration bugs and snafus. Windows 2000 actually safeguards system files in much the same way Windows Me does, and its tighter controls on application and driver interactions head off many potential configuration crashes. But Windows 2000 doesn’t include Me’s valuable rollback feature.
It’s still too soon to tell whether Windows Millennium Edition new digital-imaging tools will appeal to professionals who rely on cameras and scanners. The Windows Image Acquisition interface does allow users of compatible cameras to walk up to any Windows Me computer–in a remote office, conference room, or aeroplane–and immediately start working with images. In contrast, Windows 2000’s spotty support for cameras and scanners is improving only gradually. In any case, however, you won’t be able to use the software that came with your camera until you can upgrade to a WIA-compatible version.