Windows ME – What A Stinker!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014 at 7:52 pm

wmeThough the Windows Me upgrade itself costs as little as $49, there’s another price to consider: Dozens of utilities and other apps designed for earlier versions of Windows won’t work with the OS (see “Using Windows Me–the Hidden Costs of Upgrading,” page 52, for a list of the most prominent). If you plan to keep using one or more such programs under Windows Me, you’ll need to expand your upgrade budget to pay for new versions–or at least allocate time for lengthy downloads.

And those aren’t the only difficulties. By mid-December, a search of Microsoft’s knowledge base (search.support.microsoft.com/kb) for the text Microsoft has confirmed this to be a problem’ retrieved 200 incompatibilities, “issues,” and other difficulties that the company blames on Windows Me. Searching for the same text for Windows 98 yielded the same number–which probably indicates that 200 is the upper limit on records returned by the site’s search engine.

But the same search directed at Windows 98 SE identified only 184 items. And although this data provides only the roughest of measures (we don’t know how many problems have been found for Windows Me and Windows 98 in total, for starters), we can say that Windows Me has generated more problem reports in less than three months than Windows 98 SE has in more than a year.

Most of the 200 problems that our search uncovered don’t afflict previous versions of Windows. They range from the silly (a pointer problem in Hasbro’s Tonka Search and Rescue) to the stupefying (system freezes when you switch between an MS-DOS window and Me’s Full Screen mode).

Several upgraders reported an incompatibility between Me and the Point-to-Point-Protocol-over-Ethernet (PPPoE) DSL software commonly used by DSL providers. At least two major services, Verizon and BellSouth, were working on Windows Me updates as of mid-December.

Microsoft has long touted the Windows 9x family as the OSs most compatible with both new and aging consumer hardware and software. So why the compatibility issues in this swan-song edition?

Microsoft consumer Windows product manager Tom Laemmel attributes the absence of some drivers to a combination of factors. More-exacting compatibility testing washed some older drivers out, and a number of manufacturers simply didn’t submit new drivers to Microsoft in time for inclusion with the upgrade.

You can still pull out your device’s installation CD and reinstall those older drivers after Windows Me is up and running. But if you own a digital camera or scanner, you will almost certainly run into another difficulty: The new Windows Me Imaging (WIA) subsystem is incompatible with manufacturers’ Win 98 software. You can reinstall the older software, but you can’t use the features of WIA.

STABLE, BUT INCOMPATIBLE

SIMILAR incompatibilities cause other “no-run” situations. Windows Me’s System File Protection feature makes the OS more stable by monitoring key system files in real time to ensure that no one– and no program-changes them. Several applications that want to change those files therefore can’t run under Windows Me. The vendors of most such apps have released Windows Me-compatible upgrades, but typically you must pay for the new versions.

Finally, some readers report that Windows Me failed to identify and install drivers for several of Microsoft’s own mice and keyboards. This problem extends to the company’s software, too. For example, although he was satisfied overall with Windows Me, reader Troy Clarke reports that his keyboard began to malfunction after he installed Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 5.5 Service Pack 1.

HEALING THE HURT

CLARKE WAS undaunted by the update snafu with Internet Explorer 5.5 however. In previous versions of Windows, attempting to remove an Internet Explorer version upgrade or service pack didn’t always succeed–the bugs checked in, but they didn’t check out. This time around, instead of uninstalling Service Pack 1, Clarke simply rolled the system back to its pre-[SP.sub.1] state, using Windows Me’s new System Restore feature. Dozens of readers lauded System Restore’s ability to undo buggy software installations.

“System Restore alone is worth the price of the upgrade,” writes Douglas Emerick of Langhorne, Pennsylvania. When an application that he installed somehow disabled his computer’s USB ports, Emerick says, System Restore saved him hours of troubleshooting.

But not everyone in our informal survey had a good experience with System Restore. “It didn’t work,” reports Gene Adamski of St. Augustine, Florida, adding that a dialog box simply announced that the system could not be restored, providing no further explanation. Other users say that they had to disable System Restore because it demanded too much space on their hard disk.

In addition, many of the readers grouse about Windows Media Player 7, calling it a slow, crash-prone memory hog that has proved to be no match for such leaner, meaner players as MusicMatch Jukebox, RealPlayer, and Winamp –or even for previous versions of Media Player itself.

Likewise, readers report little interest in the limited Movie Maker video-editing software, with many objecting to the fact that the operating system installs it by default. Others grumbled about how it saves video only in a proprietary Microsoft file format.

As if software incompatibilities and lackluster extras were not enough, Windows Me’s reduced MS-DOS support angers other readers. Many of them express confusion over the details: You can still run DOS programs, open a DOS prompt Window, and issue certain commands, but you cannot boot the computer directly to a DOS prompt (except from a start-up floppy disk that you can make from within Me), and you cannot reboot in MS-DOS Mode.

DOESN’T DO DOS

WINDOWS EXPERTS who were accustomed to using DOS text commands for backing up, editing, and restoring the Windows Registry in previous versions can do so no more. And those are not the only command-line tools that won’t work in a DOS box under Windows. Many of the existing antivirus, disk-maintenance, and hardware-configuration utilities won’t function with Windows Me either.

UPGRADE RESISTANT

FOR SOME READERS, such fundamental changes are reason enough not to upgrade. Donald Matschull, business manager for a church in Plano, Texas, says he’s not interested in Me because it means training people to use and support a new OS.

Matschull says he’ll resist replacing his aging Windows 95- and 98-based machines as long as new computers are available only with Windows Me or Windows 2000 preinstalled. He resents the way the industry abandons old OSs when new ones come along. “I question the efficiency of new technology that forces workers to relearn procedures they already know,” he comments.

With readers reporting such a broad range of experiences, it’s hard to offer definitive advice to prospective upgraders. At the very minimum, you should take a careful look at Microsoft’s step-by-step upgrade guide at wwwmicrosoft.com/windowsme/upgrade/checklist.asp before you buy Windows Me. In particular, visit the hardware compatibility guide (www.microsoft. com/window sme/upgrade/compat). In addition, be sure to download and install the latest Windows Me–compatible drivers for your hardware, if they are available.

CAUTION: DON’T BURN YOUR BRIDGES

IF YOU DO decide to perform the upgrade, be careful not to skip the steps that enable you to return to your current version. More than one respondent to the PC World survey lived to regret their failure to back up the old configuration and drivers before performing a clean install.

Categories: Platforms

Choosing An OS For Your Older Machine

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 at 9:53 pm

closPERHAPS THE SINGLE MOST important factor in your productivity is your computer’s operating system (OS). It determines how you store and retrieve files; how you connect to the Internet and to your home network; how you use devices like PDAs and peripherals like printers and CD-RW or DVD drives. Most important, your OS governs your interface or interaction with all your other software–and indeed, dictates which programs you can use.

Not surprisingly, the first thing to do when choosing an OS is to assess your workstyle. Just what do you want your computer to do? What software will perform the tasks you require? What operating system runs that software? For example, if you’re a graphics or publishing professional, the Mac OS is the right fit–the best software for you exists on that platform. If you want the broadest choice of business programs or hardware add-ons, you want Windows.

This month, we take a look at five popular operating systems, four for Intel- or AMD-powered PCs and one for Macs. Three–Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional, Corel Linux OS Second Edition, and Red Hat Linux 6.2–can serve as network operating systems as well, meaning that they can handle more than one user request at a time. The others, Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition (or Me) and Apple’s Mac OS 9, are designed primarily for a single user at a single desktop or laptop, though both can easily set up a simple network for a few systems to share files and a printer or Internet connection.

We used a total of four machines, each with 128MB of memory, to test the five operating systems. Hopping from one OS to another left us cognitively confused, but we found the essential elements of each interface to be the same–clicking and double-clicking were the basic maneuvers we had to perform, and hopefully the only things you’ll need to master before getting to work.

Apple Mac OS 9

Users either idolize the Mac OS or shrug it off as too far outside today’s business standard. Nevertheless, Mac OS 9 provides a worthy alternative to Windows for home-based workers, especially those who create graphics, video, or audio content.

In this version, attention has been paid to convenient access to applications and files. Rather than promoting Layered menus, users are encouraged to use desktop icons and the Control Strip, a toolbar that can reside near the bottom of your screen or be tucked away. Mac OS 9 is billed as an “Internet operating system,” with Web tools always within easy reach via hotkey, icon, or toolbar. What used to be simply “Find Files” is now a search engine called Sherlock that integrates Internet searches with Local hard disk hunts. Unfortunately, this also puts considerable memory and performance overhead on what used to be a streamlined task.

One new feature we enjoyed was “speakable commands.” By pressing the Escape key and speaking to our machine, we could give a Large number of common commands to most of our applications. Mac OS 9 also shines at switching among multiple users’ settings or preferences and managing their various Internet passwords.

Though relatively speedy and stable, Apple’s OS has long Lacked the multitasking muscle of its rivals. That should change in early 2001 with the release of Mac OS X, which combines a nearly crash-proof Unix core with a more colorful new interface for new applications. Apple promises most OS 9 programs will run under OS X, though they won’t look any different, and that the new operating system will run on all G3 and G4 Macs.

For now, we feel that Mac OS g, while not truly innovative, continues to be a solid and stylish alternative platform.

Apple Mac OS 9 Rating: 8

A Cassy, powerful, crashes are rare

B Fewer apps for the Mac

Corel Linux OS Second Edition

* ($25 Standard, $80 Deluxe with phone support; 800-772-6735, www.corel.com)

Linux has been the province of computer pros and serious hobbyists. Corel’s version goes quite a way to change that, but not far enough to reach the home office mainstream.

We found installation to be easy. Corel Linux even offered to repartition our PC’s hard disk so we could switch between Windows and Linux; this is an excellent option for business owners who want to give Linux a proper tryout but may need to fall back on familiar applications.

There are two hurdles for the average user to overcome when it comes to Linux: adjusting to a new interface, and determining whether the software available for the platform will meet your needs. Corel sets you up with KDE, a Windows-like graphical interface that makes the OS easier to navigate. As for software, Corel bundles WordPerfect Office, Sun’s StarOffice, and some powerful freeware. Linux applications remain scarcer than Windows or Mac programs.

There’s also a daunting learning curve to climb. While it’s easy to get advice and technical support from Linux Web sites, it’s a good idea to have at Least one person in your office with an information technology (IT) background.

Today, Linux is for intrepid technophiles only. But as the platform evolves, Corel Linux will be seen as a friendly OS.

Corel Linux OS Second Edition Rating: 6

A Everything you need is in the box

B … everything but an IT department

Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition

* ($109 upgrade, $209 full version; 800-426-9400, www.microsoft.com)

Think of Windows Me as Windows 95 Sixth Edition, with a variety of multimedia and system enhancements that formerly had been the domain of third-party vendors.

For home-based workers, the most valuable new features are the under-the-hood utilities, including System Restore, which takes periodic snapshots of your Registry and Program Files folders to rewind your system to a previous state after a crash. Also, what was Sleep is now Hibernate, allowing you to shut down your PC with files open and return to your work in progress at restart. A System File Protection feature attempts to ensure that third-party program installation routines won’t trash existing programs by replanting important resources.

We found the interface a bit cleaner than earlier versions, with frequently used menus easily accessible. Behind the scenes, Windows Me boots up and runs slightly faster than its predecessors.

Installation was faster than previous versions, as well, and Win Me checks for incompatibilities, which it’s likely to find since many Windows 95/98 communications and Internet-related programs require upgrading.

Even so, Windows Me has far more software available to it than any of its competitors, and comes preinstalled on far more new PCs. In short, it’s likely to be the new home office standard–and although still more crash-prone than the other platforms here, it proved stable enough to be a worthwhile upgrade.

Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition Rating: 8

A The future home office standard

B Still more crash-prone than others

Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional

* ($219 upgrade, $319 full version; 800-426-9400, www.microsoft.com)

This successor to Windows NT 4.0 is not as friendly to individual PC users as Windows 98/Me; it doesn’t work with as many popular software packages; and it’s not as universally supported by hardware add-ons and home networks (other than Ethernet).

Win 2000% one big plus is that it proved much more stable, though not noticeably faster, than other Windows variants we tested. It’s greatest power Lies in corporate network environments; as such, it made good use of other Microsoft applications on our Ethernet LAN. However, its Learning curve and demand for network manager/administrator aptitude call for a setting with on-site tech support–not common in home offices and small businesses.

Like Red Hat Linux, Windows 2000 is much better suited to the enterprise than the home office environment at this stage of the game. While wonderfully stable and powerful, Microsoft’s flagship OS just isn’t ready for a small office that values productivity and compatibility above all else.

Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional Rating: 6

A Excellent network support

B Not the best choice for the home

Red Hat Linux 6.2

* ($30 Standard, $80 Deluxe with phone support; 888-REDHAT1, www.redhat.com)

Of all the OSes we Looked at, Red Hat Linux was the most stable, most flexible, and most awkward to use–we had to get our hands dirty several times during the configuration process.

On the positive side, Red Hat’s Deluxe distribution includes one of the best available Linux software bundles, plus excellent support. Once you have everything set up, there’s little you need to worry about. Red Hat gives you a choice of both the KDE and GNOME graphical desktop environments, and offers great flexibility for customizing your interface.

However, most of the caveats we gave for Windows 2000 apply here as well. Linux is not for the faint of heart, and Red Hat’s version is targeted more toward the IT expert than the casual user. We had to reinstall and tweak the OS a few times before we were able to achieve the configuration we wanted, and that’s not something a home business owner will want to spend time doing. As such, we can’t recommend Red Hat unless you’re a Linux enthusiast ready to take advantage of its power and Low cost.

Red Hat Linux 6.2 Rating: 5

A Today’s most stable and flexible OS

B … is the hardest to learn and use

RATINGS

HOME OFFICE COMPUTING rates products on a scale of 1 to 10–with few 9′s or 10′s–based on value, performance, innovation (medals go to rare standouts in these areas), ease of use, and suitability for home offices. The A and B symbols indicate pros and cons.

LINUX GLOSSARY

Enterprise A large business organization and the computer and network systems it uses.

GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment) A graphical user interface (GUI) for the Linux OS, designed to make both using the OS and developing software for the OS easier.

KDE (K Desktop Environment) The most popular graphical user interface used with the Linux operating system.

Linux An open-source version of Unix that runs on several popular platforms. The basic source code, or kernel, is developed into distributions by vendors including Caldera, Corel, and Red Hat.

Open Source Software that is distributed for free, with the source code available to anyone who wants to develop it.

Categories: Platforms

Ah Microsoft – Your Licensing Is Evil!

Monday, April 28, 2014 at 9:55 pm

amylI have spent the past couple of weeks looking into the new Microsoft licensing policies, and while I don’t understand everything that is going on, I have a better handle on it. A good part of what I’ve learned is off the record, but I have this on the record from Simon Hughes, program manager in Microsoft Business Licensing: “We do not see reimaging licensing policy as a source of revenue.”

Now what that means depends in part on your attitude toward Microsoft. If you simply don’t believe Microsoft you may come to one conclusion. For my part, after more than 20 years in this field, I have yet to have Microsoft tell me a direct untruth on the record. Like all companies, it will refuse to answer certain questions, or answer in a misleading way; but I have never had any suspicion that any Microsoft official, from Bill Gates down, has ever looked me in the eye and lied to me.

Thus, I believe what it said. The re-licensing policies are not a revenue grab, and Microsoft isn’t trying to soak people by making them pay twice for an operating system license.

So what is it trying to do?

The issue came up because there are new reimaging technologies available, particularly to large enterprise customers, and these customers asked to have things clarified. In these days of lawsuits, disgruntled employees who claim to be (and may be) whistle blowers, racketeering suits, class-action suits, triple damages, and the rest of the baggage that comes along with a litigious society, large companies simply cannot stand the notion of legal ambiguities. They want to know that what they are doing is legal and sanctioned and within licensing policy. Microsoft issued a policy statement to that effect.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the matter. The statement covered a particular group of licensees who happen to be really big companies. Now, the next size down said “Wait a minute! Does that mean that what we are doing is illegal?” Microsoft thought about that, and came out with another policy statement applying to all enterprise customers.

And that leaves the rest of us in limbo, because strictly speaking what many of us do is not precisely legal. An example helps.

Suppose you are the outside MIS for a small outfit. It wants 15 PCs. You go buy them from Compaq or Gateway or Dell. Each has Windows installed. The company also buys 15 copies of, say, Office 2000 at a discount. Now, you configure one machine the way you want it and install Office 2000. When everything is the way you and your client want it, you use Ghost or some other reimaging program to clone that machine 14 times. Now, all 15 machines have identical operating systems and identical copies of Office. Are you legal? I put this to the Microsoft executives.

Strictly speaking, no, unless you have certain group licenses from Microsoft, and you probably don’t.

Does Microsoft care? Will it pursue you for this? Clearly not. The spirit of the licensing agreements is carried out: each copy of both OS and applications in use has been paid for.

That is a clear case. I can come up with less clear scenarios, and did, but so can Microsoft. Suppose you are not merely cloning the new system but in doing so are upgrading older ones? Suppose you don’t have as many applications licenses as you do machines, but you are also certain that all those machines will never be in use at the same time? How do we word a policy so that it conforms to common sense, and at the same time can survive legal twisters? I don’t know, and neither does Microsoft.

The bottom line is this: given the world of piracy Microsoft is very careful about licensing policy statements and their wording, and as I write it has not come up with an acceptable policy statement for individual customers. It will, and when it does, despite all the accusations and speculations in some publications, it will not be trying to use this as a means of revenue enhancement.

The whole issue turns out to be a tempest in a teapot.

System DisksA more disturbing trend has been distribution of computers without operating system CD-ROMs. The system comes with Windows installed, and a “recovery” disk, but the installation CD isn’t there. The CAB (compressed files that expand to become the actual operating system files; search for *.cab to see where yours are) may or may not all be present, and if they are they may be well hidden. In most cases you can get an installation CD for a few dollars, but you have to know to do that, and it can take considerable effort.

I haven’t been able to find out just what is going on here. Microsoft says this is up to the manufacturer. OEMs blame Microsoft. I have asked Microsoft for an official statement on this, but I don’t have it yet. It’s not clear to me who’s doing what because I am not much affected: I tend either to build my own systems or work with professional equipment, and of course I have installation CD’s for all operating systems I use.

Indeed, every one of the Compaq professional workstations and laptops I have had over the years has come with a sealed package containing the Windows installation CD and a certificate of authenticity, so did the AMD Athlon. Microsoft clearly didn’t forbid that. My other systems have been built out of parts. I keep spare copies of Windows available to install on those: as one system is retired, the OS license goes to another. If one gets out of my labs to someone else I send along the OS certificate as well.

I understand, though, that many consumer-level computers are delivered without installation CDs. My advice in those cases is to take whatever effort you must to get your installation CD. You may never need it, but if you do, you’ll need it bad and in a hurry. Alternatively, when you see a big sale on the latest Windows OS at a ridiculously low price, grab it. It’s cheap insurance and, unlike the procedures for getting an installation CD, takes none of your time.

If you don’t do that, you may be subject to the system’s “critical-need detector,” which kicks in to disable the machine and clobber the operating system precisely when you most need it to work. Of course, there are people to whom it doesn’t matter if their computer is down for a few days. I just don’t know any of them. (Except Harlan Ellison, but then he doesn’t have a computer.)

(For information on where and how to get Windows OS disks from Microsoft — at hopefully the least-worst price — See “Getting Windows CDs From Microsoft: It Can Be Done!” in Byte.com executive editor Daniel Dern’s August 14, 2000 “Letter From The Editor.”)

Windows ME/Voodoo 5 Loses Text For a writer, the cardinal sin of any system is losing original text. In reality, it may not have been very good text, but it will not take long for a writer to convince himself that the computer has just erased the best thing he has ever done, words to shame Shakespeare by.

I’ve just lost text.

The system is Galacticus, an Intel 933 system on an Intel D815EEA “Easton” motherboard with a 3dfx Voodoo 5 video board. When I first began writing with computers I got in the habit of saving fairly often, so I lost no more than a couple of paragraphs, but it’s annoying. I was working on this column when the system just froze up. No mouse, no keyboard. Control-alt-delete did nothing. The system was entirely frozen, and worse, the last things I had done to the column were not visible on the screen.

After about a minute the system reset itself. When it came back all seemed normal. Invoking Word, I got a “recovered” document, but I was still missing a couple of paragraphs. It’s no big deal, but it is annoying.

I suspected the Voodoo drivers, so I went to the 3dfx website and downloaded an 8-Mbyte program dated September 20 or so. That took about 15 minutes. Installation was simple. It’s a self-executing file. We will now see just what that does for me, but I am still a bit distressed. I have not actually lost a whole paragraph of text on a computer in quite a while. With luck and the new drivers it will never happen again. If it does, out goes that Voodoo board, and I’ll rely on the built-in video from the Intel Easton board, but I suspect it was a driver problem.

Categories: Platforms

J2EE – A Real Beauty

Tuesday, April 8, 2014 at 7:37 pm

j2eeIndustrywide support has made J2EE the de facto standard for building and deploying enterprise-scale Java applications.

“I don’t think any advancements [in the past year] can be viewed as positively as J2EE,” Rich Green, vice president of Java Software at Sun, said at the event. “Once again, we’ve raised the bar for how [Java] can work [in an open-standards environment].”

Eight of the nine vendors with fully compatible J2EE products were present at the event, lending support to Green’s comment.

“[J2EE means] customers have platform confidence,” says Jonathan Weedon, chief architect at Borland. “The standards are of high quality, but before J2EE, there hasn’t been a metric to measure [that quality]. That’s why compatibility tests are important-[they instill] confidence in the platform.”

Due to be released sometime this year, the next version of J2EE, J2EE 1.3, is a result of work done within the Java Community Process (JCP), a panel of vendors and licensees that gives partners more power to develop Java specs.

Some of the improvements solution providers can expect to see in J2EE 1.3 surround the new spec for Enterprise Java Beans (EJBs)-the Java technology that encapsulates business logic and processes in applications-and XML support.

EJB 2.0 will have tighter integration with Java Messaging Service, says Keith Wescourt, Sun’s J2EE Web market manager. Developers can encode incoming messages as EJBs, which will now better facilitate the sending and receiving of messages to make systems integration easier.

J2EE 1.3 also will include two Sun Java APIs for XML, which will enable solution providers using J2EE-compatible platforms to use XML with Java without writing all the code by hand, says Wescourt.

Mark Hapner, senior staff engineer at Sun, says that with these and other enhancements, J2EE is part of Sun’s strategy to enable solution providers to build Web services.

“Vendors have compatible products for J2EE 1.2 in the marketplace, and you can build Web services with [them],” says Hapner.

Scott Walter, principal consultant at Chicago-based integrator One, says EJB 2.0 and XML support will strengthen J2EE-compatible platforms and make it easier for solution providers to use them to integrate systems for customers.

But Walter says what his clients would really like to see is better documentation for some of the technologies in the J2EE specification.

“Sun keeps on coming out with new APIs, and I run into clients that get frustrated that there’s so much out there, [but] the documentation is very little,” he says.

The mood surrounding J2EE hasn’t always been supportive.

When Sun unveiled J2EE 1.2 in June 1999, it required Java-based platform vendors to pay steep licensing fees just to receive compatibility testing kits, which contained thousands of tests each vendor’s application server had to pass before reaching compatibility. The J2EE price tag spurred renewed industry criticism of Sun’s proprietary hold on Java.

To further complicate matters, Mountain View, Calif.-based iPlanet-a Sun-Netscape alliance-became the first app-server vendor to pass the test “with what basically is a C++-based server,” says John Capobianco, executive vice president of strategic planning at Bluestone, which recently became HP’s middleware division. This spurred cries of nepotism among other J2EE licensees.

In the middle of the furor, Sun and other vendors with a vested interest in Java formed the JCP.

Kim Sheffield, vice president and general manager of SilverStream Software’s Application Server and ePortal divisions, says because of the JCP’s efforts, implementing J2EE 1.3 will be easier for J2EE licensees.

“The first [J2EE process] wasn’t democratic, [and] we were surprised at the last moment [about some aspects of the spec],” says Sheffield. “This time around it’s been a much more open process-there was more time to handle it correctly.”

Categories: Platforms

Notes From The 90s

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 at 9:44 pm

muI’m writing this in early January, and it will be in editorial offices from Istanbul to Tokyo by the 8th. The first part of this column will be online in the United States before the end of the month. That’s progress. It gets the awards information out faster. More importantly, I don’t have to guess each month what’s going to be interesting three months later.

The User’s Choice Awards are subjective and my own, and generally follow from what I have found useful here. I can’t pretend to have looked at everything, so when I use phrases like “Best of the Year” please understand there are some restrictions here, and perhaps I ought to say “Best I have looked at and used.” That’s truthful, but overly restrictive. I hear about a lot of stuff from readers, from associates, from Byte.Com’s excellent editorial staff, and even from press releases, particularly if they come from press people I know and respect.

Incidentally, there are a lot of respectable public relations people in this business: people who will put the best face on their products, but won’t lie about them, and don’t try to waste my time getting me to look at something that would be, well, a waste of time for me. My thanks to all of them. And once I decide I will probably like something, it’s not all that hard for me to get it. So, while I haven’t seen everything, I do see and use a lot of the best hardware and software around. It’s nice work if you can get it.

The User’s Choice Systems AwardsWe have Wintel PC Systems, Macs, and Linux boxes. Of those, the most useful systems to me are:

The Compaq SP 750 Dual Pentium III Professional Workstation running Windows 2000 Professional. This machine does all my Net cruising, e-mail, accounting and books, expense reports, most artwork, and generally everything except creative writing. It would do that, too, but I generally employ a different “main machine” for writing, because I like to have a workstation nailed online to get e-mail and such like, and it can be distracting when important mail comes in. It’s simpler to have two machines. Regina, the Compaq SP 750, gets the User’s Choice Award as most useful workstation for the year.

The best all-around system I have found is an Intel D815EEAL motherboard and an Intel Pentium III of 800 MHz or greater. I’m fond of the new 1-GHz chips, but they cost significantly more than the 933 for no great performance improvement. Put in at least 128 megs of either Kingston or Crucial memory, add a Seagate Barracuda ATA III 40 gigabyte hard drive and a BTC 8x DVD drive as the CD drive, put it into a PC Power and Cooling Personal Mid-Tower case, and the result will be a splendid all-purpose machine, with video and sound good enough for office work and most games. It assembles easily and without problems from Intel’s Good Enough documentation. This combination gets my User’s Choice Award for Best All Around System for the year 2000.

The D815EEAL just got better. Analog Devices and Intel have got together, and the drivers will be available to make use of all the features of SoundMAX that are built into the board. You need the SoundMAX 2.0 drivers, which you can get from Analog Devices. Big orchids to both Intel and Analog Devices. You can now have excellent sound built onto your motherboard.

If you want to turn that D815EEAL with 1-GHz P III into a screaming games machine, add an Nvidia GeForce2 AGP board (which will displace the AGP video built onto the motherboard). Those come in several flavors, and they’re all good. The Ultra is the fastest, but quite expensive. The GeForce2 MX is a lot of bang for the buck. The GeForce2 GTS is a good compromise.

Whichever flavor you get, you will now have as good a game machine as anyone you’re likely to know, and that combination gets my User’s Choice Award for Games Machine, and the Nvidia GeForce2 series of video cards are hands down the winner of the User’s Choice Award for Best Graphics Board. The Hercules version of the Nvidia has a slight edge over the Elsa version, but they are both excellent. One thing, whichever implementation of the board you buy, check the Nvidia website for drivers. You’ll be glad you did. Incidentally, this system with Nvidia video board will also make a crackerjack video-editing system, although for serious video work you’ll want more and larger hard drives.

I built my own copies of the above systems without problems. It’s of course possible to buy off-the-shelf systems with those components.

Finally, a medium orchid to Compaq for the iPac “legacy free” workstation (see December 18, 2000 column). This is designed to run Windows 2000 Professional, and has a drive bay with components identical to those in the Armada series of portables. There are no slots. Sound, video, and Ethernet are built in and are good enough. If you want other peripherals, add them with USB. All told, it’s hard to beat these for simple, cost-effective off-the-shelf workstations, so long as you are satisfied with the built-in graphics.

Operating Systems The Users Choice Award for operating systems goes to Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional, which is to say, Workstation. This is the OS to use for most SOHO applications, either for stand-alone ops or as workstations to a network or, in my case, both.

I not only have Windows 2000 Professional on my laptop, but I routinely disconnect an Intel Pentium III Windows 2000 Professional system from the network, stuff it into the Explorer, and carry it down to the beach house to use for communications and writing. It works very well for both.

I have used Windows 2000 Professional as stand-alone, in peer-to-peer networks, in a Windows NT 4 Domain, and now in a Windows 2000 Server domain environment. It has worked well in all those cases. With a minor exception I can run all my legacy software other than games. The exception has to do with certain DOS programs I wrote in compiled BASIC in 1986. I find I have to keep a Windows 98 system to use that because, for reasons not entirely clear, I can’t make it print properly under 2000, although it does under Windows 98. I can live with that.

People heavily into older games will not want Windows 2000 Professional. Very few of the old DOS full-screen games will run properly (if at all), and some early Windows games don’t work either. On the other hand, most modern Windows games run just fine, and so do a few older WIN-G games that won’t run under 98.

If there’s a game or some other DOS legacy program you just have to have, you might want to test it on someone else’s Windows 2000 Professional system before making the change. Otherwise, go with 2000 Pro. It’s more stable than Windows 98, it’s FAR more stable than Windows Me, and it’s just a great deal easier to work with than Windows NT Workstation. Windows 2000 Professional is plug and play with most hardware you’re likely to have. Once again, if you have some special legacy hardware you can’t live without you’d better test before you commit. And installation of new hardware is infinitely easier than it was with NT 4.

While we are on operating systems, Microsoft gets a tiny orchid and a very large onion for Windows Me. The orchid is for fixing some legacy problems. Most of those legacy games that would not work with Windows 98 work just fine with Windows Me.

The onion is for the general instability and kludginess of Windows Me, which was rushed out before it was ready. Microsoft clearly hoped to come up with a single operating system based on NT technology, with a “home” and a “professional” flavor. It didn’t achieve that in time, and Me was a stopgap, designed to capture a new revenue stream and fill the gap for those who just had to have something new. It is not compatible with all modern games, including Microsoft’s own Crimson Skies. It is prone to odd failures for inexplicable reasons. It does have the virtue of running a number of older DOS programs — mostly games — that Windows 98 won’t run, but it also breaks some older DOS programs (including my accounting program that will run under Windows 98, runs but won’t print under Windows 2000 Professional, and won’t run at all under Windows Me). I don’t think of many reasons to “upgrade” to Windows Me from Windows 98, and I know of a number of reasons not to. Stay with 98 or go to 2000 Professional and give Windows Me a miss.

CD-R And CD-RW A Chaos Manor User’s Choice Award to Plextor’s PlexWriter, which reliably burns CD-R and CD-RW disks without problems or concerns. These come in different speeds, and they all work. Mine is the 12-10-32A. Plextor also gets a big orchid for building “Burn-Proof” into the hardware. This long-needed technology turns off the laser if, due to underflow, there’s nothing to write. It’s astonishing that it took so long for someone to think of doing that, but I’m sure glad Plextor did.

A second User’s Choice Award goes to Ahead Software’s Nero Burning ROM, a program that, in combination with a PlexWriter, has been 100 percent effective in making CDs rather than coasters. Everyone needs the capability to burn CDs. In my case, I periodically make a copy of every word I ever wrote, along with all the editors required to read the files. I store copies of this “Full Monty” in various places, including at Niven’s house so even if Chaos Manor burns to the ground I’ll have all my creative work.

Another use is file transfer. The other day, Roland wanted to reconfigure our Linux boxes. He needed a number of files available only online. Chaos Manor still has only a 56K modem connection (with luck that will change soon), while Roland has a T-1 connection at home. It was a great deal faster to have him take home a Backpack CD-Rewriter, download the files, burn them onto CDs, and bring them back here. The Backpack CD-Rewriter isn’t anything as fast as an internal Plextor PlexWriter, but it’s external, portable, and works off either the parallel or the USB port. It’s worth taking one along in checked luggage if you are on assignment where backup is important. The User’s Choice Award for portable CD-R, CD-RW drives goes to the Backpack.

A rather grudging Chaos Manor orchid to Roxio DirectCD. As I said last month, this is the latest edition of what was one of the most hated programs around, Adaptec’s DirectCD. The latest version, though, actually works with all flavors of Windows including 2000 and Me, and works invisibly and well. It took Adaptec six years and having to spin the product off to another company to do it, but once done, they did it well. If you have Nero Burning ROM, you don’t absolutely have to have Direct CD, but if you use your CD-RW for incremental backups and as a file safe, you’ll want it. With DirectCD, your system sees a CD-RW drive as just another drive and you can read, write, and rewrite files the same as you would to any other drive. That’s very convenient, and Roxio gets an orchid.

DVD-RAM An orchid to the Hitachi/Panasonic-led coalition that is bringing out DVD-RAM. I don’t have an award for a system yet because I don’t have one of the new versions with double (4.7 GB/side) capacity; I expect I will be giving a User’s Choice next year. DVD-RAM will eventually replace DVD, Magneto-Optical, CD-R, and CD-RW drives as the removable read and storage device of choice. CD-ROM drives may stay around in about the same way that 3.5 inch floppies have survived, but since you can read an ordinary CD-ROM in a DVD-RAM drive, they’ll slowly vanish as will DVD-ROM (read only) drives as DVD-RAM prices fall.

DVD-RAM is permanent read/write storage, and while the cartridges are expensive now, their prices will fall as more drives are installed and demand rises. At 4.7 gigabytes a side on those cartridges, DVD-RAM can do many backup jobs now done by tape. They’re faster and far more convenient than tape, more permanent, and more reliable. You may still want tape to do enormous comprehensive backups, but for small establishments doing a weekly incremental update, DVD-RAM will be good enough and more convenient. I think this will be the year DVD-RAM begins to take off.

Categories: Platforms