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Fri 4 Aug 2000 04:00 AM

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Microsoft Windows Millennium First Looks

Windows ME (Millennium Edition) has arrived, but it's going to take us a few weeks to work out whether we're talking about a revolution or a marketing trip.

Windows ME (Millennium Edition) has arrived, but it's going to take us a few weeks to work out whether we're talking about a revolution or a marketing trip.

First impressions are that we have something in-between and (just) on the better side of good. Of course, Windows ME was never supposed to happen at all.

Basically, ME is not a new operating system but rather Windows 98 Part III. Remember, what is now Windows 2000 and Windows ME were supposed to be the one and the same.

Instead, we have a continuation of the old Windows 95/98 consumer multimedia operating system versus the business stability of Windows 2000.

The combined operating system we have been (endlessly) expecting is now going to be staggered over two releases. Whistler, the first, will be available by September 2001 and combine Windows 2000 with further integration of Explorer and Gates .net strategy.

The second, somewhat tantalizingly code-named Blackcomb, will be available in the following year and is rumored to offer complete Explorer integration with a system operable entirely by speech rather than a mouse.

So where does ME fit in? It depends who you talk to. Cynics say Microsoft got confused, messed it up, then confused everyone else by making them think Windows 2000 was for business and the consumer.

For the Consumer

Windows ME, in this story, is a way of making clear that Windows 2000 is for business and Windows ME for the consumer - and ultimately about generating a considerable amount of revenue for producing what is basically the same system as Windows '98.

This argument is helped by some pretty considerable errors by Microsoft in its launch of Windows 2000 earlier this year when it invited consumers (noticeably children) and packed them off with goody bags. The cynics also point to the fact that Microsoft has already made some of the "new" features of Windows ME available to Windows 98 users from its website.

Microsoft supporters say that Windows ME represents, at the least, a move towards a true Internet multimedia operating system and the fact that MS makes much of the new features available is a sign of it being democratic and fair to its existing users.

So what's our verdict? These are early days, but here's our first judgments. Let's get the negatives out of the way. First, don't expect any changes in the Graphical User Interface (GUI). It looks like Windows '98 bar a few tweaks to the start bar and icons borrowed from Windows 2000.

Second, it's inexplicably slower that Windows '98 by an average of 3.1% using our Bapco SYSmark2000 real world benchtests (

). These replicate the demands of a range of standard applications ranging from Adobe Photoshop 5.5 to Microsoft Word 2000.

Third, if you like DOS, forget it. ME almost entirely disinfects Windows of DOS (in the shape of Real Mode), the reason for the split between NT and 95 in the first place.

Fourth, Media Player 7.0 and Internet Explorer are available for download, lessening the attractiveness of the $100 upgrade.

Fifth, we found very marginal differences in boot-up time (under one second on a clean install). To get a fast-boot you need a new motherboard with Windows ME support.

Increased Stability

On the plus side, we are promised increased stability. Given that as standard practice we completely re-install Windows once every two months here in the Labs, a nightmare that seems to be shared by our readers, this is excellent news.

Testing stability is difficult. We have designed a less-than-foolproof system of giving two journalists identical machines running the two operating systems and timing which machine suffers the usual dll/protection fault meltdown first. After three days it hasn't happened to either - we'll keep you posted.

Microsoft claims to have achieved this stability on two fronts. At the system level the new System File Protection (SFP) tool immediately restores a set number of fundamental system files if they are overwritten. This is, no question, brilliant. It's not perfect, however, because it won't protect you from conflicts or files (particularly related to the registry) that are designed to change.

The removal of Real Mode DOS support also helps considerably. Protecting DOS compatibility, although fundamental to a core number of vertical market solutions, is bluntly why Apple never found itself in the mess we have today.

Less complexity must logically result in more stability. On the operating level, Microsoft have bundled much-needed tools designed to repair systems, rather than face the trauma of re-installation. Whether System Restore will measure up to the competition from stand-alone restore programs.

As for Windows Media Player 7.0 - it's brilliant. Its flaws, that it will not rip MP3's, or play Real Audio, Is a disaster. Then again, every true Real Audio player we have used has been completely unstable. We're yet to be convinced by this format, which seems only liked by record companies because of its in-built limitations on copying music.

If Microsoft had configured the player to rip MP3s as standard, it would stand-out as a star application in its own right. The fact is that you cannot buy (yet?) any WMA players - and being only able to rip to an MS proprietary format seems something of a backward step. Perhaps MS will relent.

From its skins to its Creative LAVA-like psychedelic visualisations, however, Media Player is a truly great piece of kit. We're not so convinced by the strength of the upgrade to IE5.5 (Netscape 6.0 has the edge), but this is overshadowed by much simplified networking, simplified tools for setting up a digital imaging, built in zip file support (at last) and future support for Universal Plug and Play (to control fridges and microwaves over the Net…) and FireWire.


Our summary is that Windows has more to commend it than we had anticipated. In places it’s pretty wonderful and and we hope that Microsoft Middle East, on September the 14th, gives it the kind of explosive consumer launch it deserves.

This is the consumer, network-ready, multimedia operating system we have been anticipating for almost two years. We are expecting no less than fireworks.

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