Like Plus! 95 before it, Microsoft's latest version of Plus!--a companion product for Windows 98--is a mixture of useful utilities, games, and other add-ons. What separates Plus! 98 from it's predecessor, however, is that the bundled utilities enhance the operating system in obvious ways: It's no longer necessary to simply skip over Plus! at the local software store. Let's take a quick look at the Plus! 98 setup and what you get with Plus! 98 and then determine whether these components are worth the asking price.

Setting up Plus! 98
Plus! 98 uses a new type of Setup program that Microsoft should adopt for all of its programs, especially the development tools, where multiple installation options are available. Rather than force you to open new dialog boxes to view all of the components you wish to install, the Plus! 98 Setup program utilizes a cascading tree view to expand and contract options. If you want to install all of the Desktop Themes, for example, simply check the box next to that option; if you only want to install certain themes, simply expand the tree view under Desktop Themes and pick and choose as you will. The interface is clean, simple, and works well.

 


Setup Plus! 98 or play a round of golf

 


Hopefully the rest of Microsoft will adopt this type of Setup program

And Plus! 98 is brimming with options: You will be presented with a list of eleven major components in the product if you do a custom install. The sections below detail these components so you can decided which you may want to use should you purchase Plus! 98.

System Utilities
The excellent system utilities in Plus! 98 really make this product worthwhile. The following system utilities are included in Plus! 98:

McAfee VirusScan - McAfee is the premier virus protection software company and Microsoft's decision to include their VirusScan software--along with a 6-month package of free updates--was a boon to purchasers of Plus! 98. VirusScan protects your system with an array of virus scanning features that detect 100% of viruses including floppy disks, Internet downloads, e-mail attachments, and more. Best of all, it runs in the background and doesn't require any user interaction at all beyond Plus! 98 setup.

Compressed Folders - Compressed Folders adds support for the ZIP file format to the Explorer shell, causing ZIP files to appear as folders (with a zipper on them, naturally). Compressed Folders makes working with the popular ZIP format easy, as you don't have to learn how to use a new (and confusing) interface: ZIP folders open like any other folder, letting you view and even execute programs inside of the archive. Best of all, Compressed Folders work along size any other ZIP programs you might use, such as WinZIP or PKUNZIP. Regardless, it doesn't take a lot of time with Compressed Folders to make you realize that this is the way to go. This is almost worth the price of Plus! 98 by itself.

Disk Cleanup enhancements - Plus! 98 adds new capabilities to the Disk Cleanup utility that ships with Windows 98, including the ability to delete non-critical files that are seldom used, such as lost clusters, zero-byte files, or even screen savers or help files, and allow you to quickly delete them.

Maintenance Wizard enhancements - Plus! 98 also adds new capabilities to the Maintenance Wizard. Now, it cleans and organizes your Start menu and schedules regular virus scans.

Games
For the most part, the games in Plus! 98 aren't going to get anyone too excited, but a great Golf game and a surprisingly addictive marbles game may cause a couple of late nights at the keyboard. The following games are bundled with Plus! 98.

Golf 1998 Lite - Microsoft's excellent Golf 1998 just hit stores and you owe it to yourself to check out this 9-hole "lite" version of the game. Based on the stunning Links LS, Golf 1998 is realistic, playable and just fun to look at. I've been a huge fan of computer golf games since the days of LeaderBoard on the Commodore 64, and Golf 1998 is clearly the greatest golf game ever created. Check out the freebie version here and then upgrade to the real deal when you're sick of the same nine holes.

 



Microsoft Golf 1998 Lite is a wonderful addition to this program

Lose Your Marbles - Lose Your Marbles for Plus! 98 is surprisingly fun game from SegaSoft that looks disarmingly lame at first glance. Give it a shot, however, because this basic version of the game, which is limited to one player and one background, is actually pretty addictive. If you find yourself whittling away time with the occasional foray into Minesweeper now, Lose Your Marbles may be just the thing.

Spider Solitaire - Spider Solitaire is a warped version of Solitaire that is played with two decks. While I'm a huge (and frustrated) fan of Solitaire, I just can't get into this game and I've heard that it's virtually unbeatable. Hey, you never know: If you're into card games, you may get a kick out of this, but I ended up uninstalling it myself.

Desktop Themes
Though the proliferation of Desktop Themes is a debatable feature, they're here for anyone who wants them. But Plus! 98 includes more than just new eye candy; there's a new Themes engine that can rotate your Desktop Theme on a monthly basis, using the Windows Task Scheduler. And, some of the themes are "Active", using an animated Active Desktop HTML background rather than the standard plain bitmap image. Plus! 98 includes a wide variety of themes that are sure to please almost anyone, including Architecture, Cathy (the comic strip), Cityscape, Corbis Photography, Doonesbury (the comic strip), Falling Leaves, Fashion, FoxTrot (the comic strip), Garfield (the comic strip), Geometry, Horror Channel, Jazz, Peanuts (the comic strip), PhotoDisc, Rock-n-Roll, Science Fiction, Windows 98, and World Traveler. If you've already installed the Desktop Themes feature in Windows 98, Plus! will just add these to the list.

 


Plus! 98 includes numerous new themes, such as Falling Leaves

Overall, the themes in Plus! are of high quality, especially the high-color ones.

Other utilities
In addition to the system utilities mentioned previously, Plus! 98 also comes with an odd assortment of other utilities that don't fall easily into a concise category. Here are the final components included with Plus! 98:

Picture It! Express - Picture It! Express is an easy-to-use "lite" version of Picture It!, Microsoft's program for converting and manipulating images from scanners and digital cameras. I guess the attraction of this program depends on how you feel about the program you're already using: I happen to use Adobe PhotoDeluxe 2.0 for my scanner and find that it works fine for what I do. To me, the Picture It! interface is confusing and needlessly busy, a problem that pervades much of Microsoft's home software. Still, Picture It! Express does include all the basic tools you'd want. The question is whether you need them or not. I'll take a pass on this one.

 


Picture It! Express makes it easy to modify digital photographs

Screen21: Picture It! Express

Deluxe CD Player - Now, this is a cool program, and it's surprisingly full-featured. Deluxe CD Player resembles an in-dash car stereo, but that's not its coolest feature. First of all, it's almost infinitely configurable, something any audiophile will appreciate. Most importantly, it can transparently download CD information-with complete artist and set-list information--from the Internet and it's surprisingly fast. I have yet to run into this player not recognizing a CD (other than a rare CD single), but if you do run into one that isn't listed in the online database, you can upload the track information for possible inclusion in the database. Now that's cool!

 


The Deluxe CD Player is highly configurable

Organic Art Screensavers - These screensavers originally appeared on the Microsoft Web site about a year ago and they caused quite a sensation in the screensaver crowd (you know who you are!) with their incredibly life-like animations. I'm not much of a screensaver fan myself, so I ended up removing this but there's certainly a large group of people that will get a kick out of this.

Conclusions
Plus! 98 is a worthy add-on to Windows 98 and is definitely worth the asking price, even if you're not taken with frills such as screensavers, themes, and games. It can be argued that the system utilities in Plus! 98 should have been included in Windows 98 itself, but Microsoft has to draw the line somewhere and I personally don't have a problem with this package being a separate product.

Die-hard Microsoft bashers will disagree, but Plus! 98 is a wonderful addition to your new Windows 98 installation. I recommend it for all users.