A Windows 98 Story

I recently upgraded two of our PCs to Windows 98. Much of the marketing around Windows 98 touts its integration with Internet Explorer, channel bars, windows that now look like an Internet browser, and support for multimedia devices such as TV tuners.

Instead of the flashy graphics, I like the reliability and performance enhancements, especially the new System Information Tool and disk defragmenter. The System Information Tool is a nice step forward. It includes several utilities to verify and preserve the integrity of a Windows 98 PC. I especially like the registry checker, because I’ve complained about NT’s lack of a registry checker for a long time. Select this item, and it claims to check the registry and then prompts to create a backup copy. According to the online help, Windows 98 runs the registry checker at boot time. If it detects a registry problem, it restores the backup copy. I would like to see a provision for multiple backup copies -- perhaps a rotation of the most recent "n" versions, with "n" settable as a parameter someplace.

Although disk defragmenters have been around for several years, the Windows 98 defragmenter is convenient, is easy to use and appears to work. I noticed a nice performance improvement after I defragmented one system’s C drive.

I first upgraded an HP Vectra VL5/120 with 40 MB of RAM, a sound card, a CD-ROM, a 1-GB C drive chronically short of space, and a 2.5-GB hard drive carved into a bunch of partitions over the past couple of years.

The upgrade itself went smoothly enough. It preserved all my old settings, but autodetecting the peripheral hardware devices took a couple of reboots. Hardware detection is always a major hassle, and I’ll bet Microsoft’s development teams would sleep lots better if hardware vendors could agree on a coherent set of standards.

The new file system, FAT32, is really nice. Windows 95 OSR 2 quietly introduced it a few years ago. The nice part about FAT32 is a File Allocation Table that allows for lots more clusters than before.

The traditional FAT file system, now renamed FAT16, is a relic from the early DOS days when PC hard drives were optional. It divides disk partitions into logical allocation units called clusters. The FAT is a data structure that maps which clusters belong to which files. It contains 16-bit entries, which means a partition can have at most about 65,000 clusters. This means that for a 2.1-GB partition, each cluster gobbles roughly 32,000 bytes. Since every file on a FAT-formatted disk occupies at least one cluster, even a 1-byte file still gobbles 32,000 bytes. Since most PC files are small, this means the FAT16 file system is incredibly wasteful with modern hard drives.

FAT32 uses 32-bit entries, which allows for lots more smaller-sized clusters. I converted my 1-GB hard drive to FAT32, and free space went from just over 100 MB to more than 300 MB. This means I can put off buying that bigger hard drive for a few more months.

The downside to FAT32 is that Windows NT 4.0 has no clue how to deal with it. So a PC with a FAT32 C drive cannot dual-boot between NT and Windows 98. Microsoft plans to fix this with NT 5.0.

My second PC upgrade was an IBM ThinkPad 380D laptop with a port replicator. This unit has 32 MB of memory, a nice-sized hard drive, and a Megahertz combo 33.6 modem and network PCMCIA card. This $200 combo card is proving more trouble than it’s worth.

The upgrade went smoothly, but the laptop hung when it detected the Megahertz card in the port replicator PCMCIA slot. After gobs of phone calls to IBM, Megahertz and Cardsoft, whose real-mode PCMCIA software was bundled with the laptop, rounds of ThinkPad firmware updates from IBM, and software updates from the Cardsoft folks, it finally worked most of the time from both places.

So far, I like Windows 98 better than Windows 95, but -- except for power management and plug-and-play support -- not as much as Windows NT. The best news is that now that we’ve had a taste of what looks like genuine reliability enhancements, we can hopefully look forward to even better stuff when NT 5.0 hits the streets.

Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is president of Scott Consulting Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@scottconsulting.com.