Living With Windows 98 Microsoft's upgrade of the operating system raised a ruckus in Washington. But should users care? After weeks of testing it out, our computer critic says no.
By Joel Dreyfuss

(FORTUNE Magazine) – If you're not using Microsoft Windows 98, you may feel as if you're driving a ten-year-old car. The buggy gets you there, but you feel you're missing something--your old operating system is definitely not turning heads as you cruise the info highway.

The tech industry has a lot more in common with the auto industry than it would like to admit. They both make you feel that you're missing out if you don't upgrade to the latest and greatest whatever. And the software business can approach quality with all the care of the U.S. auto industry in the 1960s: Put out an unfinished product and let the user pay for the fixes.

Suspecting that Microsoft had done this once again, I decided to spend several weeks checking out Windows 98 on three PCs. At the risk of pushing my auto metaphor too far, Win98 still has a new-car smell, but I've become accustomed to the vehicle and am regularly using the buttons on the dashboard. Win98 delivers a nice drive that's a bit smoother and faster than the old jalopy, Windows 95. But the improvements are so minimal that I wouldn't urge anyone to trade up--unless your goal really is to turn heads. Most of the improvements in Win98 are under the hood. For starters, during installation the software is great at figuring out your PC hardware. None of my three test machines baffled Win98: a Compaq Deskpro attached to my corporate network, a Compaq Armada 4220T notebook with a CD-ROM drive, and a Hewlett-Packard Omnibook 3000. In each case, Windows sniffed out the components and easily installed itself. The Armada, for instance, lacks a floppy drive, so Win98 decided not to create an emergency backup disk, something it did automatically with the other PCs. One minor bug: Rather than using a standard U.S. English keyboard, I use a version that makes it easier to add accent marks when I have to write in French. On all three machines, Win98 set up my keyboard for Portuguese. I fixed the problem with a few clicks in the control panel.

Another nice thing about Win98 is that the folks in Redmond have finally gotten right a concept called Plug and Play. Connecting peripheral gadgets to your PC has never been easier. When I plugged a Vista Imaging Vicam videocamera into a USB port (an innovation that eliminates the need to open the PC and add a multimedia card), Win98 instantly announced that it had found new hardware and asked me to insert a disk with the Vicam's software. Minutes later, I was ready to participate in a videoconference. While Win95 installed generic software for my Sony 200GS monitor, Win98 recognized the brand and model and installed the Sony software. And when I plugged in an Acerview F51 flat-screen monitor to my Deskpro, Win98 quickly installed the proper software.

We tend to take all such intelligence for granted now. But recently I was reminded of how far we've progressed when I tried to get a modem working on an old PC running Windows 3.1. It took hours to figure out that the serial card in the machine had been deactivated--Win98 would have flagged that instantly.

Most of the hype surrounding Windows 98 arose from Microsoft's decision to merge the browser with the operating system. It's ironic that the Justice Department is spending so much time looking into this, because as a feature for users, this merger is less than compelling. Unless you dictate otherwise, Win98 displays your files and folders in the Internet Explorer browser. You move through your files by clicking IE's forward and backward arrows. This feels awkward to me. Luckily, Win98 gives you the option to dump this option and stick with the old Win95 look.

Another feature of this merger is called Active Desktop. I used this to open a window on my desktop that updates my employer's stock price. I also added some "active channels" to my desktop. Now, with a click on the icons of my favorite news organizations, I am connected to their sites. But Active Channels are a mixed bag: Some providers offer useful data, and others offer slim pickings.

All in all, Windows 98 disappoints because it makes no great leap forward. If you like Win95, you can get a bunch of Win98 features free by downloading version 4.0 of Internet Explorer. Win98 is a bit like a new model of an old GM car. The company has added some chrome and new curves, but it's built on the same old chassis.