Win 98: Always on My Mind

By Jim Rapoza  |  Posted 2005-11-13

Win 98: Always on My Mind

I know they say you shouldnt do it, but for the last few weeks Ive been living in the past. And I have to say that, for the most part, Ive enjoyed it.

Its been a lot of fun reading through old issues of PC Week and eWEEK, working with former mentors and colleagues, and, just in general, reminiscing about old reviews and the work that went into them.

But another part of living in the past was not so much fun. To grab some of the screen shots for this issue, Ive been installing and running a bunch of old Windows systems—including PCs running Windows 3.1, Windows for Workgroups and Windows NT.

My overwhelming thought while once again enduring these operating systems was, "How in the world did I ever get anything done using these total pieces of garbage?"

Like people who somehow forget painful past experiences, I had almost completely put out of my mind the idiocy and agony of dealing with things such as autoexec.bat, config.sys and, especially, win.ini and sys.ini.

Oh, yeah, and having to reboot any time I wanted to change anything was lots of fun (not that I dont still have to do that sometimes with current Windows systems).

And did I mention how lousy the operating system interfaces were? Or the applications that ran on those systems? How hard it was to set up hardware? Or pretty much how bad everything was before Windows 95?

And Windows 95, that massive update of the Microsoft OS, wasnt much of an improvement. Sure, it was the beginning of the modern Windows user interface, but it still had a lot of problems, including lousy hardware setup and the need for a reboot if you changed your screen resolution.

Read eWEEKs wish list for future versions of Windows here.

Like any good company pitching a new version of a product, Microsoft always harps on how much better the new version is compared with the rotten old version, but Microsoft really meant it back then.

And then came Windows 98. When we reviewed it, we werent that impressed. Seemed OK—nothing groundbreaking. Basically, it was a placeholder until the next version of Windows (called, at different times, Cairo, Windows NT 5.0 and Windows 2000), which would change the underlying structure of the OS.

But a funny thing happened with Windows 98—in many ways, it has become the most successful version of Windows ever. Its certainly had the longest life span so far for a Windows version. Amazingly, you can still use Windows 98 and get by quite nicely, seven years after its release.

In fact, I still use Windows 98 often. The main system that sits in my home office still runs Windows 98 SE. My wife uses it for Web browsing and her daily office chores, and I use it for the Web and gaming.

Click here to read why columnist Peter Coffee was glad to say farewell to Windows 98.

Part of the reason I stuck with Windows 98 was my love of older games that run on it. But Ive bought plenty of newer games, and I still havent picked up one that cant run on Windows 98 (although I know theyre out there).

The same is true of most desktop applications. Probably more than 90 percent of the desktop products I come across run fine on Windows 98. And I have to say that Windows 98 is quite peppy on my gaming-level system.

Im not recommending that everyone rip out newer Windows systems and go back to Windows 98. Its inferior in most ways to Windows XP and 2000, and its poor USB support means that I have to load a special driver for most of my USB devices. Ive also had to put more effort into keeping my Windows 98 system secure than I would have to if it was running Windows XP SP2.

Next Page: Timeless software or dated hardware?

Timeless Software or Dated


Nevertheless, I think its pretty impressive that I can still run Windows 98—and do so relatively painlessly.

To put it in perspective, doing the equivalent when Windows 98 came out—that is, using a 7-year-old version of Windows—would have meant running Windows 3.x.

And I didnt know anyone in 1998 who was still running Windows 3.0—or Version 3.1, for that matter.

But the big question is, Does Windows 98 owe its longevity to superior coding, or is it that improvements and innovation in the PC industry have slowed greatly? I think Im going to have to go with the latter.

From 1990 to 1998, depending on how you count, Microsoft released eight to 10 versions of the Windows operating system (desktop and server). And the differences between Windows 3.0 and Windows 98 were massive.

In the seven years since Windows 98 was released, Microsoft has released Windows ME, Windows 2000 Pro and Windows 2000 Server, Windows XP, and Windows Server 2003.

Thats five new versions, if were being kind, or three if we accept that ME is just a shell add-on for 98 and that there are only minor differences between 2000 Pro and 2000 Server.

And while Windows XP is better than and very different from 98, XP isnt a slam-dunk upgrade.

It isnt just Microsofts fault. Hardware hasnt changed enough to force Windows 98 out. Almost nothing requires that a user move to a new operating system. The same goes for most modern applications. Outside of some games and high-end statistical and modeling tools, are there any must-have applications that require Windows systems newer than Windows 98?

So heres to Windows 98, the spry old man of the Windows operating system world. If you had told me seven years ago that Id still be using it on some of my systems, I wouldnt have believed you. I just hope technology improves enough so that I wont still be using it seven years from now.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at

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