Seeking speed? Windows 98 disappoints

There may be reasons to upgrade to Windows 98, but performance is not one of them. Microsoft claims that starting your system, launching applications, and shutting down your system are all faster under the new operating system. We've found that only the second claim holds true: Apps can launch in half the time. But your system will probably start slower; and shutting it down can take just as long or longer.

There may be reasons to upgrade to Windows 98, but performance is not one of them. Microsoft claims that starting your system, launching applications, and shutting down your system are all faster under the new operating system. We've found that only the second claim holds true: Apps can launch in half the time. But your system will probably start slower; and shutting it down can take just as long or longer.

How do we know? Until now, our evaluations of the new operating system were based on prerelease beta versions. But we finally got our hands on the shipping code and immediately sent it to our lab for testing. Now the numbers are in.

Windows 98's new Disk Defragmenter utility is the key to faster application launching. It monitors which applications you launch, and how often, then reorganises program files on the disk for maximum launch speed. Because Windows loads applications in bits and pieces, it isn't enough just to organise files contiguously, as past defraggers have done. The new Disk Defragmenter watches to see which pieces of which applications are loaded most often. Then it fragments your program files accordingly, putting the most frequently used pieces in optimum order on the disk's outer edge to minimise time-consuming hard disk seeks.

Though defragging our 2Gb drives took between 30 minutes and 2 hours (Windows 98 can perform the task unattended), the results were well worth the wait. The slowest-launching applications before optimisation -- Adobe Photoshop 4.0, Corel Paradox 8.0, Netscape Navigator 4.04, and Picture Publisher 7--loaded in roughly half the time after defragging. Programs that loaded quickly before the operation -- specifically, two Microsoft Office 97 apps, Word and Excel -- showed more modest gains. One caveat: We're talking seconds here, not minutes. Before optimising, Paradox took 14.49 seconds to load; afterward, it took 6.86.

You should also note that these speedups occurred only when we were using the FAT32 file system. Introduced with Windows 95 OSR2, FAT32 is an optional feature in Windows 98; you have to invoke a special utility to convert your hard drive to it. Our advice: Just use it. On FAT16 drives, optimising improved launch speed negligibly.

Converting to FAT32 has the added benefit of letting you squeeze tens or even hundreds of extra megabytes from your disk. The reason: FAT16 uses 32Kb clusters--meaning every file on your drive, no matter how small, takes up a minimum of 32Kb. On most drives, FAT32 stores files in 4Kb clusters. In our tests, converting a 2Gb partition from FAT16 to FAT32 freed up 266Mb of drive space that was previously occupied.

There's only one time you shouldn't use FAT32: when you've set up your PC to dual-boot with an operating system that can't read FAT32 partitions (meaning any OS but Windows 95 OSR2.x).

The story was different when we turned our attention to start-up and shutdown times. Microsoft has claimed that both processes should be faster under Windows 98 than under Windows 95. Our tests don't bear out those claims.

The problem? In the case of start-up times, Microsoft's claims apply only to systems using something called a FastBoot BIOS. Developed jointly by Microsoft, Toshiba, and Intel, the FastBoot BIOS spec should (as its name implies) help PCs start up faster. But at press time, no FastBoot systems -- not even preproduction units -- were available for testing. And there's no telling when such systems will arrive. Until they do, you may see the initial BIOS boot portion of your start-up process drop a second or two. But those gains will be more than offset by the extra time it takes to load Windows 98 itself -- the new OS simply has more stuff to load than its predecessor does; hence it takes longer to boot.

Microsoft also claims that Windows 98 shuts down faster, especially on networked systems. But we saw no such gains. On stand-alone systems, Windows 95 and Windows 98 shutdown times were virtually identical. On networked systems we found either no improvements or, in some cases, slowdowns.

Though Microsoft has improved Windows 98's performance in launching applications, you won't notice any difference in running those apps: When we compared PC WorldBench 98 tests on Windows 98 and Windows 95 systems, the results were virtually the same.

To be fair, no existing performance test, PC WorldBench 98 included, will demonstrate Win 98's most significant performance enhancement: MapCache promises to use the disk cache and system memory more efficiently, thereby reducing the need for virtual memory and its time-consuming reads from the swap file on your hard drive. This should be particularly helpful when you're multitasking or otherwise taxing memory.

For MapCache to work, however, your executable files (those that run when you launch an application or Windows itself) must first be internally reorganised into 4Kb segments. Unfortunately, no applications -- including those used in PC WorldBench 98 -- have yet been rewritten to work with MapCache. Only after developers start compiling their software with the 4Kb boundary requirement in mind (and you upgrade your software) will you see any benefit from MapCache.

One more finding we recorded in the course of our performance testing: Thanks to all its new utilities, doodads like WebTV, and the integration of the Internet Explorer 4.0 Web browser, this new operating system chews up plenty of disk space. When installed on an empty hard disk, Windows 98 takes up about as much space on your drive -- roughly 160Mb -- as Windows 95 OSR2.5 does. But you're more likely to install Windows 98 over Windows 95, and that's when the megabytes really start adding up. Depending on your installation options, you could be talking 300Mb.

You also have to consider how much free space Win 98 requires during installation, when it creates all sorts of temporary files and (optionally) backs up your old Win 95 installation. Our tests suggest that you'll need from 120Mb to 200Mb of free space. That might be okay for those of us with multigigabyte drives. But if you've got an old 500M-byte drive, Win 98 could be a good reason for replacing it.

As we've said in earlier reviews, Windows 98's advanced features -- Universal Serial Bus support, browser-style file management, a customisable taskbar, Outlook Express -- make it a worthwhile upgrade for many users. But beyond speedier application launching, don't expect it to solve your performance problems.

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