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Tom's Hardware Guide
- 3 -
- 3.1. Understanding Operating Systems
3.2. Current State of the Market
3.3. Evaluating OSs
3.4. Tom's Pick
3.1 Understanding Operating Systems
Bill Gates knew it all along. Without software, even the fastest, coolest, most
advanced hardware isn't worth much. It's a lesson that fans of the Amiga are certainly
familiar with--that once promising gaming and multimedia platform was steamrolled
by the Windows market. And to this day, the Macintosh platform struggles for market
share in a world where software developers flock to the enormous installed base of
Windows PCs. In fact, many businesses have switched from Macs specifically because
key business applications are simply not available anywhere else but on Windows-based
But what really makes or breaks a hardware platform is the operating system. This
software is the interface between your PCs hardware and your applications, and it
sets all the rules when it comes to establishing performance, feature sets, and behaviors.
From disk accesses to icon design, the operating system has the first and last say
in how things look and act. Because the OS is so important both in the success and
everyday operation of the hardware, a discussion of high-performance hardware is
hardly complete without a look at the code it runs under.
In a word, everything. The operating system runs directly on top of the computer
hardware, providing the crucial, operational layer between your applications and
the hardware they run on. The OS manages file access, printing tasks, screen updates,
and myriad other tasks as they are requested by your applications.
The advent of advanced operating systems has raised the ante considerably over
the years, however. Where in the past OSs such as Microsoft's DOS provided basic
services and left much of the interface work to individual applications, today's
OSs tend to be beefy, one-stop shops that integrate a host of talents. From integrated
disk and system monitoring utilities, to built-in Internet browsers and applets,
the effective reach of OSs has never been longer. This growing reach has been accompanied
by growing code bases. Windows 98 and NT 4.0, for example, both consume well in excess
of 150MB of disk space apiece.
More important, the OS determines how applications must be written to interact
with the OS and the underlying hardware. The OS sets the rules of play for all applications
and their developers, determining exactly how programs must behave to access resources,
as well as defining what is allowed and what is not. Where one OS may allow your
application to directly access graphics RAM, another OS will strictly require you
to make such calls through it. Here are some other critical issues:
- Access to system resources
The operating system plays a big role in system performance--bigger even than
many individual hardware components. That's because most commands and data must pass
through logical OS structures before they can achieve their desired result. Graphics
calls may take much longer in a secure, mission-critical OS such as Windows NT 4.0,
whereas DOS's hands-off attitude allows applications to cut out all the fat by taking
such actions directly to the hardware.
Unfortunately, trying to precisely benchmark OS differences can prove a very challenging
task. For one thing, the tools used to drive benchmarks often create different levels
of overhead in different OSs--provided, of course, they support more than one or
two. This overhead difference makes it very difficult to tell whether or not you're
looking at performance differences or simply variations in the testing software's
What's more, the availability of identical applications in multiple OSs may be
limited. Also, if the same product is available, it may vary significantly in its
actual code base, file formats, or version. Finally, some OSs run only on different
hardware platforms--such as MacOS and Windows 98--making it all but impossible to
identify performance differences in the OS itself.
With that said, you can draw some conclusions about operating systems that run
on a common hardware platform. The x86 platform is clearly the most fertile
OS ground, despite Microsoft's staggering dominance in this sector. You'll find a
wide variety of OSs that will run on top of Intel and Intel-compatible CPUs, including
- Microsoft Windows 95/98
- Microsoft Windows NT 3.51 and 4.0
- Microsoft Windows 3.x
- IBM OS/2
- Microsoft DOS
- DOS compatibles from IBM and Digital
Of these, DOS remains the fastest, yet most feature-limited, of them all. It's
utter lack of hardware interface standards in many areas allows games and software
to directly access the graphics frame buffer, system RAM, and other resources to
maximize performance. However, the stripped-down hot rod doesn't come with rearview
mirrors, airbags, or antilock brakes--all very useful for preventing and surviving
crashes. What's more, this 16-bit operating system requires tricky extenders to allow
efficient access to large amounts of memory.
Among modern operating systems, Microsoft's Windows 98 leads the performance pack,
thanks largely to enhancements from the company's DirectX API set. DirectX essentially
instituted a series of shortcuts and acceleration opportunities into a variety of
multimedia operations, including graphics handling, video playback, 3D graphics display,
audio playback and multichannel audio handling. Enabling some of these features is
Windows 95/98's less-than-strenuous security, which allows Ring 0 access to avoid
overhead involved in OS oversight.
Windows NT is a terrific server-side OS, but it's strict security and reliability
features generally make it slower than its lightweight, 32-bit counterpart. With
that said, NT-optimized CPUs such as Intel's P6-cored Pentium II largely eliminate
this disadvantage. The true 32-bit code lends itself to the out-of-order execution
these processors support, providing a big jump on the execution of NT code over Windows
What's more, NT is gaining more and more of the swift DirectX talents of its little
brother. Microsoft has tailored DirectDraw, for example, to allow conditional Ring
0 access. The change eliminates sapping processor mode-switching overhead, and Microsoft
has tailored the access to prevent any breech of NT's strict security structure.
Application code still must hand off to the operating system when accessing system
resource, thus preventing reckless consumption of system resources.
3.2 Current State of the Market
As detailed earlier, the x86-compatible OS market remains a thriving segment,
despite Microsoft's enormous success in squelching its competitors. More to the point,
much of the OS activity is, in fact, coming directly from Microsoft. No less than
four Microsoft operating systems continue to run on the PC--five if you count NT
Workstation and NT Server as separate entities--though both DOS and Windows 3.x
have since been dropped from the company's active development plans. Rounding out
the x86 OS scene is IBM's OS/2, which continues to hang in there despite plummeting
market share, and the Open Systems Forum's freeware version of Unix, called Linux.
Believe it or not, the age of the 16-bit OS on the x86 desktop is not yet
over. Despite outstanding 32-bit operating system offerings in the form of IBM's
OS/2 Warp and Microsoft's Windows NT 4.0, the preeminent x86 OSs remain encrusted
with 16-bit code. Windows 95/98, the fastest selling and rapidly growing desktop
OS, is rife with 16-bit internal code in order to ensure compatibility with the dwindling
universe of DOS-based software and games.
Windows 3.x, meanwhile, continues to enjoy substantial market share in
the corporate arena, where reliability-obsessed IS managers cannot afford to undertake
a risky and expensive transition to a true 32-bit OS without total compatibility
assurance. In other words, 16-bit drivers for new products will have to cease being
available in order to move this conservative market segment, or Microsoft needs to
deliver a killer OS to make the move truly worthwhile.
That bright day is already coming. Windows NT 4.0 started breaking up the corporate
bottleneck, providing a common interface with Windows 95, as well as DirectX and
other similar internal structures. However, NT still lacks Plug and Play, power management,
and broad driver support for many devices. Also, technologies such as USB and FireWire,
which are natively supported under Windows 98, are not accounted for in NT 4.0. However,
with NT 5.0 due around the end of 1998, these missing elements should be addressed.
Add the common Windows driver model (WDM) that allows hardware vendors to use a single
driver for all Windows OSs, and companies may well push off the Windows 3.x
dime (that is, if Year 2000 concerns don't freeze all IS purchases and transitions
entirely until the end of the millennium).
No, Windows 95/98 is not a true 32-bit operating system, and no, Windows 95/98
does not do away with DOS. In fact, DOS 7.0 is right there for anyone to see simply
by booting up to the DOS prompt. Microsoft's early DOS-is-dead assertions were tipped
over by some keen investigative work by Andrew Schulman, then of O'Reilly Associates,
who proved that both DOS and 16-bit code were alive and kicking in Microsoft's most-heralded
The bait and switch aside, Windows 95 has done a terrific job of moving a recalcitrant
developer and hardware vendor market to the 32-bit world. Although internal Win95
structures do contain 16-bit code, the application programming interfaces (APIs),
device driver interfaces (DDIs), and other developer resources are all 32-bit architectures.
The design is perhaps the most critical element of Windows 9x--it introduced
protected, 32-bit memory accesses to the desktop PC market. The new scheme ensures
that OS code and resources are quarantined from program code and resources, thus
reducing many of the stability problems under Windows 3.x.
More than anything, Windows 95's protected mode capability introduced 32-bit computing
to the mainstream software market. For over three years, the broad industry of software
and hardware development has been focused on 32-bit development, something that a
more aggressive--if pure--32-bit OS simply could not have managed. Compatibility
was a big reason the OS did as well as it did.
Windows 95 delivered a lot of key improvements over Windows 3.x. Here are
- Protected 32-bit memory access
- Plug and Play
- Preemptive multitasking of 32-bit applications
- Dynamic device driver loading and unloading
- Integrated peer networking
- Improved interface
- Multimedia acceleration and performance optimizations
Although the 32-bit transition was critical for application and hardware developers,
it was Plug and Play (PnP) that really grabbed the end users. Sound cards that once
confounded all but the brightest or luckiest of users now found their resource niche
in the system. Gone were cryptic config.sys and autoexec.bat scripts,
replaced by graphical and orderly Device Manager menus and rosters.
But PnP was not easy. The operating system must work with PnP-enhanced devices
and BIOS to be able to detect and enable hardware. The vast base of non-PnP devices
meant that Microsoft had to include a large database of so-called legacy devices,
which allowed the OS to make reasonable guesses about where these aging device should
Another crowd-pleaser was the spiffed up interface. The ubiquitous Start button,
customizable desktop, and Mac-like folders all served to fine-tune the interface
and ease usage. System setup and troubleshooting was aided by the System Control
Panel, which allowed one-stop access to various hardware devices. Most important,
the Device Manager facility made it much easier to ascertain information about installed
devices and their status. Underlying the interface was the Windows 95 Registry, a
single database of user, hardware, and software information that told Windows everything
it needed to operate. Although the Registry has a rudimentary interface--in the form
of REGEDIT.EXE--the Device Manager is the most used portal for hardware
On the performance side, preemptive multitasking enabled 32-bit applications to
actively request and gain system attention for time-critical tasks. The cooperative
multitasking of Windows 3.x did little more than switch between competing
programs at set intervals, often starting critical tasks for much less important
ones. However, older 16-bit apps still only operate under cooperative multitasking.
DirectX multimedia extensions added to the performance picture over the years following
its release, boosting graphics, video, audio, and networking operation.
Windows 95 claimed to be much more stable than Windows 3.x, and it delivered
on that. Its 32-bit operation is much more stable because Windows 95 carves out a
dedicated space in memory for the application, preventing other apps from corrupting
its session. In addition, the OS itself exists outside the application space, generally
preventing bad applications from overwriting system memory and knocking over the
With that said, Windows 95 is hardly bulletproof. In order to allow compatibility
with 16-bit Win 3.x drivers and DOS programs, Windows 95 had to provide an
open playing field where this code likes to play--the bottom 1MB of memory space.
Problems arise because this memory space is also used to access key system resources,
essentially opening a soft underbelly to the operating system. What's more, DOS applications
in the 1MB space are not segmented from each other, making it easy for them to stomp
on each other and cause crashes.
And there's more than just the lower memory problem to deal with. Chronic memory
leakage and limited user and GDI heap resources mean that cumulative multitasking
can and will rattle Windows 95/98 right down to its colorful bones. As a result,
Windows 95/98 is not a terrific choice for business users who need "always on"
reliability, or those who want to have a system they can reliably dial into from
the road. Over time, stability will likely degrade, forcing reboots or application
One key advantage of Windows 9x is its advanced power management. Notebooks
running Windows 95 or 98 enjoy sophisticated power-saving features for PC card devices,
as well as the capability to shut down specific subsystems. As a result, Windows
NT is unlikely to play in the notebook market until version 5.0 delivers power-specific
Windows NT (Workstation and Server)
Despite the familiar name and a similar look, Windows NT has little in common
with Windows 95/98 in terms of its core structure. In fact, NT was designed from
the ground up as a wholly new OS, with a kernel adapted from the Unix-like Mach OS
developed at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. On the outside, however, NT
comes equipped with the familiar Windows-family interface, providing an instant impact
in terms of end user perception.
NT provides many of the same features of its 32-bit little brother, including
preemptive multithreading, protected 32-bit memory access, and integrated networking.
However, NT both adds and omits a variety of other features, making it a somewhat
confusing companion to Windows 9x. With that said, the company has transitioned
NT over the years to more closely match the Windows 9x feature set, with an
eye to eventually making NT its sole OS platform sometime after 2000. One prime example:
Windows NT 4.0 adopted the successful Windows 95 interface, making it a virtual look-alike.
So what is NT missing compared to Windows 95? For one, it still lacks the Plug
and Play technology that was so critical to Windows 95's initial marketing success.
Although users interact with the same Device Manager and individual Control Panel
device facilities found in Windows 95, they won't find intelligent device detection
and arbitration behind the scenes. It also lacks critical compatibility for older
devices, DOS software, and the latest multimedia titles. Unlike Windows 9x,
NT presents no friendly 1MB space for 16-bit device drivers and old DOS programs
to do their thing. Such a structure--as Windows 9x has proved--is entirely
too unstable and subject to compromise to be allowed in a mission-critical OS such
as Windows NT. That means older DOS applications and many games won't work at all,
although NT DOS includes a DOS emulation mode. Hardware vendors must provide NT-specific
device drivers in order to work with the OS.
On the multimedia front, NT lags behind Windows 9x in terms of DirectX
technology, the suite of components and APIs that allow for accelerated graphics,
game play, audio, and other capabilities. Although Microsoft has been porting its
DirectX technology over to NT, the DirectX version generally lags by a version or
two behind Windows 9x--a critical shortfall since games support advanced features
such as AGP memory texturing, advanced 3D graphics, and DirectMusic MIDI streaming.
However, there is good news on the NT front. With DirectX 6.0, Microsoft intends
to draw Windows NT 5.0 into parity with the latest Windows 9x release--Windows
98. Microsoft has had to noodle with the underlying operating system a bit--specifically,
a special form of Ring 0 access to the processor had to be provided without undermining
NT's critical security features.
However, NT comes well-equipped for the suit-and-tie crowd. Its uncompromising
structure may scare off 16-bit software and device drivers, but it ensures that bad
code can't get into NT's kitchen and mess up the cooking. Furthermore, DOS emulation
is set up to prevent any resource conflicts--though at the expense of overall compatibility.
DOS programs run in a so-called DOS virtual machine, causing the 16-bit applications
to think they reside on their own 16-bit system, blissfully unaware of the NT OS
surrounding them. This structure ensures that DOS code never shares space or resources
with other applications or drivers. Run two DOS programs, for example, and NT will
set up a pair of virtual machines for them, maintaining code quarantines.
Where Windows 9x users complain that they must reboot two or more times
a day, NT runs literally for months without incident. The stability comes from NT's
strenuous segmenting of resources. Each application resides in its own resource space
and is never given direct access to system hardware or the OS kernel. In fact, all
program calls are handled in relay fashion, with the call being handed over to NT
by the application, where it's then translated into NT's internal call structure
and passed on by the OS.
This gatekeeping prevents system resource conflicts and gradual destabilization,
but it certainly comes at a cost. For one thing, the handoff process takes time,
forcing NT to switch from one mode to another for literally every transaction, both
inbound and outbound. The result has been significantly slower overall performance
than found under Windows 9x. Second, whereas NT shares the Win32 API with
Windows 9x, allowing developers to create one code base for both OSs, the
development of DirectX and other peripheral technologies have been impeded by the
OS structure. Often, Microsoft has had to take long months of development time to
port important Win 9x technologies over to NT.
NT does add a raft of key capabilities to the corporate crowd beyond just stability.
For example, the NT File System (NTFS) offers useful file monitoring and management
capabilities, which are useful for IS managers needing to track down problems. You'll
also find more advanced system-monitoring tools bundled with NT than you will with
Windows 9x, allowing you to track network performance and other critical operational
areas. Perhaps most important are the advanced network configuration facilities of
NT. Administrators are able to set up user groups, accounts, passwords, and access
privileges from a single control panel.
Finally, unlike Windows 9x, NT provides multiprocessor support for taking
advantage of systems with two or more CPUs. With its two-way symmetric multiprocessing
(SMP) in the Workstation version, up to two CPUs can be used to execute program code.
NT Server adds to that capability, recognizing eight CPUs.
IBM's OS/2 could go down as the saddest success story in personal computing history.
After all, OS/2 was first to market with a true 32-bit operating system, leading
Windows NT by nearly five years. IBM did a terrific job providing a powerful, attractive,
object-oriented interface that delivered both flexibility and usability to the user
For years, OS/2 was actually a contender. The OS, which was originally developed
as a joint Microsoft-IBM effort to succeed DOS, emerged after the two camps split.
Microsoft went on to pursue its fledgling Windows project, whereas IBM pursued OS/2,
with a handful of Windows licenses in hand. As the two OSs were developed, an increasingly
bitter rivalry developed.
IBM and OS/2 fans (not to mention Microsoft antagonists) will tell you that Windows
was a sham and that OS/2 was killed by a conspiracy among the trade press and general
media. That's a bit extreme, but the fact is, Microsoft did a vastly superior job
of marketing its Windows environment to the user, developer, and media communities.
In fact, IBM routinely made things very difficult for press and programmers alike--a
critical shortcoming in a market where the most popular product gains a critical
and enduring advantage.
However, what really killed OS/2 was timing and development. IBM imbued OS/2 with
an aggressive feature set requiring hardware resources that were extreme for the
time. With most PCs still using 286 CPUs and RAM being parsed out in 4MB quantities,
high system cost limited OS/2's appeal to servers, higher-end workstations, and other
What's more, OS/2 was decidedly difficult to develop for. IBM's API structure
and documentation proved a challenge to even committed OS/2 developers, whereas programming
tools such as REXX were much less numerous than those available for DOS, and soon,
Windows. The result was a double-whammy--a small prospective market and a limited
The sad thing is, OS/2 was doing what Windows NT only managed to deliver five
years later. It has always been a true 32-bit operating system--unlike the Windows
3.x DOS-based environment and even Windows 95's internal structure. What's
more, it has been successfully deployed in mission-critical applications such as
banking and transaction services, running smoothly for years on end without shutting
down or freezing up. Also, OS/2's object-oriented user interface--complete with nesting
folders, customizable icons and graphics, and useful file links--remains technically
superior to Windows 95 to this day. Finally, versions of OS/2 were offering SMP capabilities
years before Microsoft could deliver it in NT 4.0.
Today, OS/2 soldiers on but is essentially limited to vertical markets. At the
end of 1997, for example, NetWare held about 51 percent of the server market, whereas
Windows NT had grabbed nearly 33 percent. OS/2? Its share was a paltry 3.2 percent,
one-tenth that of its Microsoft rival. Today, in an effort to find living space in
the market, IBM is repositioning its upcoming IBM OS/2 Warp OS--code named Aurora--for
smaller, entry-level networks. A focus on Java and thin client computing, IBM hopes,
will allow it to shoulder into an emerging market not already overrun by its competitors.
This freeware version of Unix--developed by Finnish student Linus Torvalds--features
all the classical strengths of the long-fractured Unix platform. Designed from the
ground up for a networked, multiuser mission, Linux is well-suited as a Web server
platform and as a network server. Fully SMP-capable and armed with the latest directory
services technology, Linux scales very well, providing a reach that NT 4.0 still
Linux is the little OS that could. Launched by a student, and later taken up and
improved by an open group of developers, Linux costs nothing and is owned by no one.
Its low cost ($0) makes it a terrific platform for hobbyists and home users who want
to set up their own Internet server, for example, as well as for academics, scientists,
and others needing Unix-type power under a budget.
However, Linux's biggest advantage is also its major shortfall. Without a corporate
sponsor, if you will, the OS lacks a service and support network to ensure that installations
will be maintained. For this reason, corporate networks and Web sites typically shy
away from the freeware Unix-variant, opting instead for Microsoft Windows NT, SCO
Unix, or other Unix variants. Linux also lacks a graphical user interface--though
freeware GUIs of varying effectiveness are available--meaning that administration
and OS operations are all handled at the command line.
Although hardware device support is a thorny issue, particularly among older hardware
models, Linux benefits from a fairly broad offering of applications and utilities.
The OS includes a Java runtime engine, for example, and runs major Web server applications
such as Apache. It also supports all the Unix protocols, including TCP/IP, NFS, and
HTTP. However, client applications such as spreadsheets and word processors are simply
not as numerous as they are for Windows 9x and NT platforms.
Unlike the other OSs mentioned here, NetWare is different in that it's a dedicated
network operating system (NOS). There is no "Novell NetWare client" the
way there is with Windows NT and OS/2. Nor will you find desktop workstations running
this OS, the way you might with Linux. With that said, NetWare is the grand dame
of network operating systems, holding over 50 percent of the market at the end of
NetWare's proven track record, outstanding print and directory services, and well-supported
installed base make it a real option for anyone looking to set up a client-server
network. Although Microsoft has made swift and significant gains in market share
with Windows NT Server over the past three years, many companies are simply unwilling
to tip over the platform on which all their server and client PCs rely. Despite furious
development in Redmond, NetWare continues to be the best platform for managing a
broad range of distributed devices, user accounts, and email address lists over a
LAN or WAN.
Not to say that all is rosy at Novell, either. Windows NT is gaining ground fast,
in equal parts because of improved technology, relentless marketing, and perceived
compatibility with all those Windows-based clients. Just as important, NetWare continues
to be a relatively difficult beast to work with.
There's a new OS contender in town, and its name is Be. The BeOS is the brainchild
of Jean-Louis Gasse, former head of R&D at Apple Computer. Originally designed
as an alternative to Apple's MacOS, the BeOS is a modern, compact, multiprocessing
operating system that's now available for the x86 architecture. It features
a fully preemptive kernel and an elegant graphical interface. With networking built
in and good Internet integration, the BeOS is well equipped for today's connected
applications. Unfortunately, device driver support on Intel-based systems is limited,
meaning that your hardware might not be recognized on systems running the BeOS.
The operating system shines in the area of multimedia authoring, and a few applications
are actually beginning to emerge. Although Be probably missed its best window of
opportunity several years ago--when Gasse tried to sell the technology to Apple at
a stiff price--it's not unlikely that elements of this intriguing technology will
end up in mainstream applications and OSs. Whether it will ever be a major factor
is open to question, but it's an interesting OS in its own right.
3.3 Evaluating OSs
A lot of factors go into choosing an OS, beginning with the question "Will
it run on my hardware?" x86 PC owners won't be thinking about installing
the MacOS on their desktops anytime soon. With that said, there are a lot of OSs
out there to choose from, each tailored to a different mission, and each boasting
a varying set of features, support, and reliability.
The catch phrase is easy to remember: "The OS with the most applications
wins." And the winner here is Windows 95/98 by a long shot. Although NT is well-endowed
with the entire range of Win32-developed applications, it's lack of broad DOS compatibility
and lagging DirectX facilities make it inappropriate for most home users. Hardware
support is also more limited, and you'll find a more active Win95 utility market
Although NT is generally well supported among active developers, game and multimedia
title vendors simply cannot make a living under NT's strict security protocols, which
sap performance. Microsoft is addressing this flank with NT 5.0; however, the lack
of advanced DirectX features under NT means that for the time being the best games
and titles will only run well under Windows 95/98.
If you don't care about the latest version of Quake or Incoming, however, NT 4.0
and its successors are well supported and make a terrific platform for business computing.
The application selection through the range of productivity, utility, development,
and networking applications is simply vast, in large part because NT shares the Win32
API with Windows 95/98.
Once you get past Microsoft's offerings, the field slims considerably. Linux does
well in the Web server, network server, and scientific application spaces, but you
may often have to find and personally compile freeware applications yourself. OS/2
features its own office application in the form of Lotus SmartSuite and is well served
again in the vertical network markets. However, its compatibility with Windows applications
only goes as far as Windows 3.x, and developer support for end-user applications
has withered markedly.
Once again, Windows 95/98 excels in its support for the broadest range of hardware
devices. The OS's capability to work with both 32- and 16-bit drivers means that
even peripherals from the hoary old days of DOS will generally work--though performance
and reliability are both likely to take a hit. In addition to the built-in compatibility,
hardware vendors generally target the Windows 9x market first, because of
its large and growing user base and the vast number of new systems shipping with
Extending the hardware advantage is the DirectX technologies, which are developed
most aggressively for the Windows 9x platform. 3D graphics cards, TV tuners,
DVD media decoders, and force feedback joysticks all depend on the presence of DirectX
5 or 6 to operate. Although Microsoft is tailoring its DirectX tools to NT and is
slowly making progress in extending its features sets to this corporate OS, the lagging
pace and different user base has made this area less compelling.
In addition, Windows 9x has been first to market with key technology support
such as USB, FireWire, DVD, and AGP. As a result, these emergent product sectors
have all been focused squarely on the Windows 9x market (most specifically,
Windows 98). In fact, in this area, Windows 98 enjoys a distinct advantage over Windows
95, because it fully integrates USB and DVD features into the OS, whereas Windows
95 requires extra driver development work from hardware vendors.
Other operating systems can't even approach the level of support of NT. IBM OS/2
has simply fallen off the development map for many companies, though support continues
for the continuing market of OS/2-based servers. Although some areas, such as printers
and network devices, enjoy reasonable coverage, support in areas such as DVD, 3D
graphics, advanced audio, and other applications is very slim. Linux enjoys a vibrant
grass routes driver development effort, but its progress is limited and many older
devices simply are not supported at all.
Don't look to Windows 9x here. Microsoft made its compromises when it decided
that Windows 95 must be compatible with existing DOS code and 16-bit drivers. It
has paid the price in the form of the OS's reliability. Windows 95 and 98 are prone
to crashing when subject to moderate to heavy multitasking, in part due to the lack
of control in the 1MB lower memory space and the effects of memory leakage and resource
For reliability, you can look to any of the advanced 32-bit operating systems,
but your best bet is with Linux and OS/2. Both systems can run for months without
a hiccup, resisting even attempts by poorly behaved applications to bring them down.
However, Linux is a tough choice here--if things go bad, there's no coherent, corporate
service presence to call on. At least with OS/2, you can tell your boss that the
service techs are on the way to look into the problem.
Windows NT 4.0, while a significant advancement over Windows 9x, still
lags in overall reliability compared to Unix and OS/2. Crashes can occur on occasion--and
we're talking about weeks or months between events here--making it important for
NT administrators to ensure that proper redundancy is in place. Although Microsoft
assures us that their twiddling with Ring 0 access in the DirectX for NT set won't
imperil the kernel's security, it may be worth taking a wait-and-see approach before
installing the latest multimedia extensions.
Of course, NT has also suffered from some well-publicized security lapses, in
both its network server and Web server iterations. ActiveX components, for example,
have proved to be a problem that needed addressing, as has integration of IE4 into
the package. In virtually all cases, however, Microsoft has been swift and effective
in plugging these holes when they came to attention.
3.4 Tom's Pick
So what software should you run? Well, when it comes to OSs, for most of us, the
decision is about compromises. Yes, OS/2 and Linux provide better scalability and
reliability. And, yes, Windows 9x has proved to be nearly as buggy and crash
prone--particularly in its Active Desktop iteration--as the much-despised Windows
3.x. However, you won't find a broader and more attractive selection of software
and hardware than you will with Microsoft's Windows 9x and Windows NT.
Whether you run a small office and network or use a PC for playing online games
and viewing reference titles, the choice is clear. Microsoft Windows enjoys such
a commanding advantage in terms of application and device support that no other OS
can come close. From force feedback joysticks and USB scanners to red-hot 3D games
and graphics software, Windows 9x and NT can run them. Yes, you'll have to
live with crashes, compromises, and the fact that you've helped fill Bill Gates's
pockets. But today, no other OS--or even the combination of them all put together--can
deliver as much value to your PC as either Windows 9x or NT can.
With that said, Windows 9x is poor enough that I can't live with it alone.
For that reason, I dual-boot my current Pentium II-300 system with Windows 98 and
NT 4.0 Workstation. Windows 98 allows me to play the latest games and titles, whereas
NT gives me rock-solid crash protection, Internet Information Server Web serving
software, and advanced network administration features. The two OSs live comfortably
side by side, accessing common application code from a FAT 16 partition.
Will Windows NT 5.0 knock Windows 98 off my desktop? I certainly hope so, but
I'm not expecting it. Although Microsoft has high hopes and big promises for this
next version, we'll have to wait and see. The common driver model, for example, may
not effectively extend to critical devices such as 3D graphics cards, though NT will
make big gains with DirectX 6.0, which should bring NT's multimedia talents in synch
with Windows 98. The addition of ACPI-compliant Plug and Play will be welcome, as
will be the much-improved suite of directory services.