W2K Week: Making the Big Decision, Part 2

Seymour explores the specific advantages and disadvantages of existing versions of Windows.
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If you've been through the checklist of "predecision" questions I offered

earlier today for those considering upgrading their Windows-based PC to

Microsoft's

(MSFT) - Get Report

new

Windows 2000

(a.k.a. "W2K" or "Win2K"), which debuts today, let's dig into the specific advantages and disadvantages of existing versions of Windows.

Which is better for you: staying with

Windows 98

or moving to Windows 2000?

In general, Windows 98 is smaller, simpler, cheaper ($89) and more compatible than Windows 2000. It will run a much larger variety of software applications and hardware add-ons, and in many cases it will run them about as fast as will Win2K. Win98 is easy to network, whether by adding it to an existing, corporate Windows NT server-based network, or by creating a smaller, cheaper "peer network" of all Win98 machines, without a dedicated server. Win98's appetite for hardware resources is smaller, so it will run on many more, and often much less expensive, PCs than will Win2K.

Win98 is a better product for consumers -- that is, for people who set up, use and maintain their own PCs, whether at home or in business -- than Windows 2000, both in terms of ease of use and compatibility with the vast range of Windows software available today.

In general, Windows 2000 is much larger, more complex, more expensive ($289), more robust and far more crash-proof than Windows 98. It will run many, but by no means all, current Windows software packages, and those which run well on Win2K will probably run faster. Win2K was born to network, as a server or client, and while it takes substantial expertise to put together a comprehensive Win2K network, the result is a solid, flexible, industrial-strength network suitable for the largest businesses.

Win2K is not a consumer product, and is much more at home in a corporate setting on PCs set up and supported by a full-time tech-support department. It is also effectively the future of Windows computing; over time, Microsoft expects to migrate all users of Windows PCs to some form of Windows 2000.

So . . . What to Do?

My suggestion: If you're using Windows 98 on a notebook or desktop PC, don't upgrade. As I said this morning, you really don't want to upgrade a given Win98 PC, but instead buy a new replacement machine with Win2K already installed at the factory. "Write-over" upgrades with Win2K are problematic.

Moreover, I don't think you're going to get much for your time, trouble and money in an upgrade. You'll go through a lot of hassle finding Win2K-compatible drivers, and you may have to abandon old-favorite software applications, as well as find and buy replacements -- if they're available.

You won't see much performance improvement if you define "performance" as "speed." And you'll gobble up a lot of your existing system resources -- RAM memory, hard-disk space -- with the Win2K upgrade, for modest returns, indeed.

However

. If you're buying a new PC, consider seriously buying one with Windows 2000 preinstalled. This eliminates the potential installation glitches, plus you get the added performance, features, reliability and longevity of a new machine.

And you'll love the stability and reliability of Windows 2000.

Win2K certainly isn't crashproof -- I can crash just about any Windows machine, often with very little effort -- but in general you won't see system hang-ups very often. Windows 2000 machines can run for weeks or months without a system glitch. And if, like me, you believe in rebooting a Windows 98 PC every day or so, to reclaim "leaked" memory and clean up the memory map in general, you'll quickly lose that habit.

You'll probably see some modest speed improvements, and since a new Windows 2000 machine will probably come with a lot more memory than your present machine, you'll also benefit, in performance terms, from the generalized advantages of a big slug of RAM.

If you're a notebook user, you'll also get longer battery life on a new notebook with factory-installed Windows 2000, both because of the more advanced power-management circuitry built into the machine, and because of the superior power-management resources of Win2K. For now, the improvement will be small, but your new machine will be upgradeable with subsequent "service-pack" releases of Win2K patches and better-tuned BIOS upgrades downloadable from the PC manufacturer, which will deliver greater improvements.

What if you're still using Windows 95? Then run, do not walk, to the nearest computer store, get a copy of Windows 98, Second Edition and install it. Don't even think about Windows 2000 until you've used Win98-2 for awhile. It's a useful improvement, and well worth the cash and installation time.

In the Wings

If you decide to procrastinate for awhile, as I think most

TSC

subscribers should (and probably will), what's down the road?

In a few months you'll be able to buy

Windows 98 Millennium Edition

, which is probably the last upgrade in the Windows 9x line. It will bring more stability, wider device compatibility and other features to Win9x users, and will be a worthwhile upgrade, I think, for those not moving now or later this year to some flavor of Windows 2000.

And also later this year, probably in early fall, look for the first service-pack -- that's Microsoft-speak for "modest upgrade and bug-fix package" -- for Windows 2000. It will probably be free, and if past experience holds, it will be important for all Windows 2000 users.

If the foregoing sounds like I don't like Windows 2000, that's wrong: I do, a lot. I crave the stability of Win2K. I like its internal design, and I think it forms a strong platform for Microsoft's future operating system products.

But Windows 2000 is the biggest, most complex, most complicated Windows upgrade version ever. Inevitably, early adopters will take some arrows. If you don't really need what Win2K offers -- and if you aren't willing to spend time wrestling with it -- then why bother?

Computers are supposed to make our lives ... umm ...

easier

, aren't they?

Jim Seymour is president of Seymour Group, an information-strategies consulting firm working with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and a longtime columnist for PC Magazine. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. At time of publication, neither Seymour nor Seymour Group held positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Seymour does not write about companies that are current or recent consulting clients of Seymour Group. While Seymour cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites your feedback at

jseymour@thestreet.com.