Many musicians are still debating whether to upgrade to Windows 98. Martin Walker reports back on a year of using Microsoft's latest operating system for consumers.
It's now been a year since Microsoft released Windows 98, and initially many people were seriously underwhelmed by it, consisting as it does of a combination of Windows 95 bug‑fixes and enough bells and whistles to seriously slow down any machine. For musicians already used to tweaking their PCs to run more hard disk audio tracks and real‑time effects, the potential slowdown was particularly worrying.
As always, the problem for musicians is that they require a completely different set of optimisations to most other people, the key requirement being sustained throughput. Hard disk audio recording requires a steady flow of data to and from the drive, and the smoother this delivery can be, the more audio tracks you are likely to achieve. Most other computer users, by contrast, benefit from optimisations that take advantage of temporary lulls in user activity. Simply put, any time you stop typing or moving the mouse, Windows is likely to nip off and carry out a few tasks in the background so that it appears to be more responsive to user input. It also tends to store up activities like saves to the disk drive until you stop typing. This is great for most consumer applications, but not for music. The last thing we want is for the PC to suddenly decide to do a little housekeeping because we haven't touched the mouse or keyboard for a few seconds. The worst of it is that you often can't predict when the PC will decide to purge its 'do list'.
Obviously Microsoft developed Windows 98 to take this process further, which does make sense for the majority of its mainstream users. However, they went too far for many people when it came to the Active Desktop. The idea of this is that Internet users with free local call access can leave their PC desktops permanently connected to the web, enabling information like news and weather reports to appear immediately an update is available. In the real world, not only did it turn out that many people do not have free Internet access, but attempting to run day‑to‑day applications on most computers was like wading through treacle.
For anyone with the older versions of Windows 95, the only way to officially get USB support, in order to take advantage of the latest MIDI and Audio USB products, is to upgrade to Windows 98.
However, apart from the new Active Desktop (which it seems many people deactivate after a few minutes of tinkering), there were plenty of other more practical features, including some that should benefit musicians as well — see my original Windows 98 feature in SOS November '98. These include the removal of the infamous 11‑device MIDI limit , the addition of multi‑monitor support, and full USB support. Although USB support was added to the final release of Windows 95, few suitable devices were around at the time to take advantage of it, and a lot more work has been put into the Windows 98 version to ensure that it is reliable with many more devices.
In fact, those still running the original releases of Windows 95 (95.0 or 95.0a) still have no support for USB, AGP graphic cards, or the newer FAT32 disk formatting option (see Easy Access in SOS December '98 for more details on the last of these). These three features arrived in Windows 95.0b, and although many new PCs were subsequently sold with this newer OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) version, it was never released to the general public. You can check which version you have either by looking at the CD‑ROM you received with your PC (the later OEM version will read 'Microsoft Windows 95 with USB support'), or by opening the System applet of Control Panel and looking on the opening page (labelled General). The original Windows 95 will display 'Windows 95 4.00.950', while those of you who upgraded with the free Service Pack 1 should see 'Windows 95 4.00.950a' (this pack appeared on dozens of cover‑mounted PC magazine CD‑ROMs for some time).
If you bought your PC with the later OEM version of Windows 95 installed it will say 'Windows 4.00.95.0b', although there were a couple of versions of this as well. The first of these (the lower case 'b' version) had support for FAT32, but not for USB, while the second (which reads 'Windows 4.00.95.0B') does have USB support. It is possible to download the USBSUPP.EXE file from several sites on the Web (although not officially from Microsoft itself), which will give 'b' owners basic USB support, but you still cannot use this file to update the two older versions.
So, for anyone with the older versions of Windows 95, the only way to officially get USB support, in order to take advantage of the latest MIDI and Audio USB products, is to upgrade to Windows 98. This OS originally shipped as version 'Windows 98 4.10.1998'. Now, a year on, Microsoft have released the updated Windows 98 SE (Second Edition — see my July '99 PC Notes column for more details), which will display 'Windows 98 4.10.222A'. Since many sceptical (or perhaps more sensible) people wait until the arrival of the second version of any major new release to ensure that any initial bugs get ironed out, this makes it a suitable time to look once again at the features, advantages, benefits, and repercussions of Windows 98 for the PC musician. This is made even more important by the fact that some music developers are starting to ignore Windows 95 completely.
The biggest problem when Windows 98 first came out was making sure that you had compatible drivers for all your hardware. Despite warnings to the contrary, many people assumed that Windows 95 drivers would also work fine with Windows 98. Sadly, this wasn't true in a few cases, and some hardware crashed badly. It's also fair to say that although Windows 98 can normally run Windows 95 drivers, the performance won't always be as good. If you're still contemplating the upgrade then things are a lot easier now, since nearly all manufacturers have since released newer versions of their software drivers that are compatible with both Windows 95 and 98.
However, not all developers have done this with software applications: I still occasionally come across products that claim they are designed for Windows 95, but with no mention of Windows 98. In general, attempting to run them under Windows 98 won't cause any problems, but there are no guarantees. Some developers haven't released any updates fr their software in several years, but if the software is still generally available then it seems fair to expect Windows 98 compatibility whether or not this is specifically stated.
There are a few exceptions where using Windows 95 applications might be dangerous on Windows 98, mainly involving utilities that operate at a low system level, such as hard drive defragmenters and Registry editors. If you are at all unsure, check with the individual developer, as these might otherwise cause considerable damage to your system — in general you can download a Windows 98 update for this sort of utility and install it before upgrading the operating system.
The only fly in the ointment is that some older hardware and software is no longer being actively sold and supported, and if you still use an elderly soundcard or MIDI interface, or a software application that is more than several years old, you may have an insurmountable problem if you find a conflict after upgrading. One brought to my attention recently is the Opcode 8Port/SE MIDI interface (which is now discontinued). Sadly its Patchbay utility has some problems running in Windows 98; although Opcode do suggest a workaround, the fact remains that in cases like these there is little likelihood of Windows 98 versions of discontinued software ever being written. This could be an important consideration that is worth checking before installing Windows 98 — after all, the last thing you want is to have to spend yet more money replacing other PC hardware and software.
The opposite side of the coin is that some products are now being released which require Windows 98 and make no mention of Windows 95. Once again, this shouldn't cause any problems for Windows 95 users in most cases, but there are no guarantees, and if you are considering the purchase of a product that requires Windows 98 (with no mention of Windows 95), it would be as well to check the situation before handing over your money. For instance, the new RME DIGI 9652 Hammerfall soundcard (see review starting on page 122) offers excellent performance in Windows 98, but will not run reliably in Windows 95.
Since I installed Windows 98 in August 1998 for my original SOS review, I've worked extensively with it (alongside a separate Windows 95 installation on another hard drive in the same PC). For me, one of the big improvements of Windows 98 over Windows 95 is its more advanced hardware device installation. I've now installed quite a few new soundcards (and other hardware) under both operating systems. Most have caused me no p roblems, but occasionally I've had new hardware not recognised by Windows 95, or conflicts that have required some manual manipulation of system resources, either from the BIOS or in Control Panel. However, whenever I have come across such conflicts, it has always proved far quicker to switch to my Windows 98 partition and install the review soundcard again. Despite the combination of hardware being exactly the same in each case, Windows 98 has never yet failed to recognise and install it correctly first time — it really is a lot cleverer than 95 at avoiding hardware conflicts.
Although Windows 98 may be a little slower in some areas, for me this is made up for by the fact that it is generally more stable, more foolproof when installing additional hardware, overcomes problems with Windows 95 like the 11‑device MIDI limit, and has a much more comprehensive and thorough selection of maintenance tools.
Keeping your PC running smoothly and with tip‑top performance is also something that all of us should take seriously, and once again Windows 98 is a lot better than its predecessor in this respect, since it provides a whole raft of utilities. Many of the utilities can be launched from System Information (normally found in the System Tools section of Accessories from the Start Menu), and I described these in some detail in my original review of Windows 98. However, one of the most important happens automatically — the Registry Checker maintains a set of five registry backups, creating a new one whenever you first switch on your PC. It then checks the current registry for corruption, and tries to repair any found, and if this isn't possible it will ask for confirmation to use a backup instead. Sadly it isn't all that intelligent, but having any automatic backup facility is still a huge improvement over Windows 95, and a life‑saver if you ever get any problems in this area.
As always, the PC musician tends to prefer a leaner, faster interface, stripped of all the frills, and rather than being i mpressed by the new features, many musicians are more concerned with the speed of Windows 98 relative to Windows 95. Microsoft's goal with the new design was certainly to reduce the time people wait for things to happen, but for general office use this tends to cover system boot‑up time, system shut‑down time, and time taken to launch new applications.
All of these aspects have been improved, but relative speeds when actually running applications seem to depend on whether or not you had Internet Explorer 4 installed with Windows 95. Windows 98, within which IE4 or 5 is very tightly integrated, may well run up to 10 percent faster than Windows 95 plus integrated IE4, but could be up to 8 percent slower than using Windows 95 alone. Sustained hard drive read and write speeds are what determine the maximum number of simultaneous audio tracks you are likely to achieve, and these seem largely unaffected by the operating system, so you shouldn't find too much difference between Windows 95 and Windows 98 for audio. The option to format your drives using FAT32 can have an impact on performance, although judging by my tests (see 'Easy Access' in SOS December '99) it isn't all that significant.
As with Windows 95, a host of tweaks can be made to Windows 98 to streamline it, but nearly all of the optimisations recommended for musicians using Windows 95 still apply, including specifying your own virtual memory settings, and setting minimum and maximum virtual cache settings to the same value. As you might expect, there are web sites devoted to the various possible tweaks; one of the best that I've found is 'Windows 98 Annoyances' (www.annoyances.org/win98/), which contains a host of themed topics such as 'Reducing Clutter & Other Annoyances' and 'Performance and Troubleshooting'. They also offer a small utility named ie‑off.exe that automtes the removal of web integration with Internet Explorer 4, which essentially carries out the many individual changes that you can make by using TweakUI, the Control Panel, and Explorer itself, to banish the Active Desktop from your PC. It is only 113Kb in size, and when run displays an On and Off button, so that you can disable and restore integration whenever you like.
The general robustness found when installing new hardware also seems to extend to the rest of Windows 98: many Cubase VST users, for instance, claim improved stability compared with Windows 95.
If you have decided to upgrade to Window 98, and have checked that your hardware and software is compatible, there are various things to consider beyond placing the new CD‑ROM in your driver and running its Setup program. As always, the easiest and safest way to install any new operating system is on a clean machine, starting with a freshly formatted hard drive. You should still be able to do this with the upgrade version of Windows 98 rather than having to buy the more expensive full version, although it will ask you to insert your previous Windows 3.1 or 95 disks or CD‑ROM during the install. Using a blank hard drive ensures that there will be no conflicts between old and new.
Attempting to upgrade over the top of an existing installation of Windows 95 will also work very well in most cases, but the vast majority of initial problems with Windows 98 happened with upgrades rather than clean installations, with some Windows 95 driver files crashing quite spectacularly in the new regime. The solution (if you are upgrading over the top of an existing installation) is to systematically install the latest Windows 98‑compatible drivers for your hardware before attempting the update, so that there are no clashes. It is also vital to back up as much of your existing data as you can — in the admittedly unlikely event of a major crash during the install you may need to reformat your hard drive and start again. For the same reason, make sure that you have all the original versions of your software, along with any update files.
Another sensible precaution before you start is to run any Registry optimisers that you have (Microsoft provide RegClean, and there are several others available in utility suites like Norton Utilities). Although Windows 98 builds a new Registry during the install, it can't cope with corrupted entries from the old one.
I decided to upgrade my PC at the same time as moving to Windows 98, so that I had my old Pentium 166MMX running Windows 95 to carry on in case of disaster, and a fresh new Pentium II 300MHz machine with a blank hard drive on which to install a clean version of Windows 98. Since this initial installation in August 1998, I haven't once had to re‑install it, unlike Windows 95, which over the years I've used it has been re‑installed on various occasions to resolve a seemingly insurmountable problem or conflict — once again, the stability of Windows 98 seems to be considerably better.
Installing Windows 95 onto a blank hard drive could also be a very frustrating experience, largely because in order to use your CD‑ROM drive you had to first create a special floppy disk containing the appropriate DOS drivers (I described this process in the September '97 issue). However, the Windows 98 startup floppy disk now automates support for CD‑ROM drives — it first searches for an EIDE drive, and if none is found it looks for a SCSI one. Either way, you don't need any device‑specific drivers to hand. In fact, a floppy startup disk created using Windows 98 can also be used with a Windows 95 installation in a similar way.
Although Windows 98 may be a little slower in some areas, for me this is made up for by the fact that it is generally more stable, more foolproof when installing additional hardware, overcomes problems with Windows 95 like the 11‑device MIDI limit, and has a much more comprehensive and thorough selection of maintenance tools. In addition, it is now the preferred testing platform for much software testing and compatibility, and slower but surely products are appearing that will only run with Windows 98 but not Windows 95.
I think that most musicians, as long as they have a Pentium 200MHz machine or faster (see Spec Check box), will now benefit from the upgrade. This is especially true for those of you running Windows 95 version 95.0 or 95.0a, since upgrading will be the only way to have the option of using one of the new USB audio and MIDI interfaces. On the other hand, if you have the OEM version of Windows 95 (95.0b or higher) then you can download many of the new features as individual downloads, and Windows 98 may not be such an essential purchase, though you are still likely to benefit overall.
However, before you decide, make sure that your current expansion cards all have Windows 98 drivers available for them. You can either do this by visiting the manufacturer's web site, or in the case of those of you without Internet access, by telephoning the main distributors for your area. Then check all your main software applications for compatibility in the same way. Finally, don't judge the performance of Windows 98 until you are sufficiently familiar with it to customise it to your way of working, and have disabled questionable improvements such as the Active Desktop and multiple graphic animations. Once you've done this, I think most of you will be pleasantly surprised at the many improvements, and will hopefully experience far fewer system problems in the future. Fingers crossed!
As I stated in my original review, Microsoft's official minimum spec to run Windows 98 is a 486DX2‑66 and 16Mb of RAM, and even with the release of the latest SE version this minimum hardware spec is unchanged. However, most industry experts agree that this is woefully underpowered. If you have a machine of this vintage then you should leave well alone unless you are so desperate for the new Windows 98 features that you are happy to suffer sluggish performance. A more realistic spec is any Pentium processor and 32Mb of RAM, but given that you will notice a distinct slowing down compared to Windows 95 with any processor less than about a 200MHz Pentium. This is probably the minimum spec, and for musicians 64Mb of RAM is advisable. A minimum of 120Mb of hard disk space is needed, and for those of you backing up your old Windows 95 files, an additional 75Mb will be required.
So, what exactly is the difference between the first release of Windows 98 and the new SE version? Many of the new features are, unsurprisingly, totally irrelevant for music‑making, although they may still be generally useful to some users. These include Internet Connection Sharing (a way to let multiple users running a network access the Internet at the same time), Windows NetMeeting 3 (Internet conferencing software), Internet Explorer 5 (which can also be freely downloaded as a stand‑alone item), WDM modem support, and WebTV for Windows updates. Other more general improvements include processor and motherboard optimisations and ACPI (Advanced Configuration Power Interface) enhancements. Windows 98 SE also includes the Service pack containing a variety of bug‑fixes, although once again these won't necessarily give your PC any performance boost.
A few items are rather more relevant to the PC musician. As I reported in my review of the Opcode DATport in July's SOS, USB Audio support in Windows 98 still had some outstanding problems. USB improvements in SE include the ability to work with individual USB devices, rather than only having access to the USB port. However, along with enhanced IEEE 1394 support for more devices, the new files will also be available from the relevant hardware manufacturers. Opcode tell me that SE has reduced some customers' problems with digital dropouts, and also that it includes many revised drivers for PCI video accelerator cards that reduce the amount of PCI bandwidth they use. Since USB is a part of the PCI structure, this has the knock‑on effect of providing more bandwidth for USB. In fact, this aspect should benefit all audio applications, although this is difficult to confirm.
SE also includes DirectX 6.1 (for which better audio and video synchronisation are claimed), but again this can be downloaded as stand‑alone file — see June's PC Notes. Finally, the latest version 6.2 of the Windows Media player is also included. Again, this is useful but not essential to musicians. In fact, the only item not available by other means is Internet Connection Sharing, so I think we can safely say that SE is not a required purchase for existing Windows 98 users. However, if you want to upgrade to Windows 98 from 95, the SE version is now the one in the shops.
And for those who are still wondering if you can use the SE upgrade CD‑ROM over the top of last year's Windows 98 release, the answer is yes. It took 44 minutes to install on my PC, and I haven't yet found any conflicts other than Adaptec's DirectCD, which SE identified as incompatible in its present version before even attempting to run it. Clever stuff!
Here's an intriguing proposition. How about retaining all the desirable new features of Windows 98, but with a considerably faster interface? This is exactly the claim made by Shane Brooks for his 98lite, and what's more, it's totally free! He created it after Windows 98 ran extremely slowly on his Pentium 133MHz PC: essentially, it removes the new Internet Explorer and replaces it with the older one used by Windows 95.
There are copious details on his web site on how it works, and for those of a nervous disposition, he has even automated the procedure — all you need to do is run one of two INF files that carry out the conversion. There are three options. 98lite is a custom installer used when installing Windows 98 for the first time, and does away with the Internet Explorer browser and desktop integration. IE‑Remove deletes Internet Explorer from an already installed Windows 98 system, and ShellSwap swaps the Windows 98 Explorer for the faster Windows 95 version, while keeping the new Internet Explorer intact for use on the web.
The main benefit is when working with Explorer and your hard drive. Anyone who has noticed a distinct sluggishness when updating the screen display, and when opening and closing windows, may well notice a distinct improvement after that change, though of course you do lose some of the improved features of Windows 98. If you're interested then take a look at www.98lite.net‑‑ but, of course, this has to be at your own risk.