Windows 98 arrived in June 1998 and quickly became Microsoft's operating system volume leader, surpassing the sales of Windows 95 during a similar timeframe in its life-cycle. Though Windows 98 wasn't a major upgrade to Windows 95, it fixed virtually every problem with its predecessor while adding a host of new features that made it a compelling upgrade for almost any Windows user. I covered Windows 98 in an extensive review over a year ago, so I won't be going over any of the features that carried over in this review: Please refer to my Windows 98 review before continuing.  


Windows 98 Second Edition (SE) picks up where Windows 98 left off, with new Internet related features--such as the bundling of Internet Explorer 5.0 and Internet Connection Sharing--while providing a host of bug fixes and support for new types of hardware. So Windows 98 SE isn't dramatically different from Windows 98, but then that's the point: This is a minor upgrade, not a major new release (indeed, the version number is still 4.10 as it was in Windows 98, though the build number has increased from 1998 to 2222. Get it?). Anyone who is familiar with Windows 98 will feel right at home in Windows 98. From the Setup (Figure 1) to the boot-up (Figure 2), to the desktop (Figure 3), everything looks familiar.

Let's take a look at the new features.

Internet Explorer 5.0 technologies
Windows 98 ships with Internet Explorer 5.0 in the box, meaning that you won't have to perform a separate installation of the product. IE 5.0 replaces IE 4.01 in Windows 98, and there's no way to install Windows 98 SE without getting IE 5.0. However, many of the IE 5.0 components--such as Outlook Express--are options during install, though they are spread out all over the place.

I've reviewed IE 5.0 previously, so please check out my IE 5.0 review for details on this new browser suite. In short, IE 5.0 is a stunning upgrade and a worthy addition to Windows 98 SE (Figure 4). However, there are a couple of new programs in Windows 98 SE that don't ship with IE 5.0, including a new media player, Windows Media Player 6.1, which adds support for MP3 files. Windows Media Player 6.1 now plays virtually any audio or video format you can find on the Internet, including WAV, MIDI, MPG, ASF/ASX and QuickTime MOV formats (Figure 5). MP3 mavens will want to stick with WinAMP, naturally, but the bundled Media Player is a welcome addition nonetheless.

Perhaps the biggest IE-related change in Windows 98 SE is the inclusion of NetMeeting 3, a stunning improvement over earlier versions (Figure 6). NetMeeting 3.0 includes a stunning new interface that takes up far less screen real estate, and performance enhancements that reduce bandwidth requirements by up to half that of NetMeeting 2.1. And developers can embed a new NetMeeting ActiveX control into Web pages, allowing their sites to offer unparalled two-way communications capabilities. If you're into Internet-based communications, especially via video, you need to check out NetMeeting 3, it's a winner.

With the exception of NetMeeting 3.0, you can download all of the Internet Explorer-related technologies from the Web now, and NetMeeting should be available for free download sometime this summer. On the other hand, IE 5.0 is a gigantic download: If you want to use IE 5.0, it's worth getting Windows 98 SE to avoid the download.


Enhanced Hardware Support
One of the biggest enhancements to Windows 98 SE comes under the hood, with enhanced hardware support that surpasses even that of the original Windows 98. Only a year after the release of Windows 98, hardware has evolved enough that a wide new range of device support needed to be added to Windows 98 SE, including enhancements to USB and IEEE 1394, power management, and other types of hardware.

On the USB front, Windows 98 now works with devices on a per-device, rather than per-port basis, for better performance (Figure 7). And new USB modems are supported through the addition of new WDM modem drivers which will work in Windows 98 or Windows 2000. IEEE 1394 ("FireWire" to you Apple license holders) support has been enhanced with drivers for new devices such as digital cameras and camcorders (Figure 8). Power Management has been optimized for newer hardware with enhancements to Windows 98's ACPI abilities. Windows 98 has been optimized for the latest motherboards and microprocessors, including the Pentium III. And Device Bay support for the next generation of slot-less computing is available, allowing Windows 98 to run on the PCs of the future.

In short, the hardware advancements in Windows 98 are likely to most compelling to those users with the latest hardware. And, of course, if you're buying a new PC, you'll be getting the latest version of Windows 98 anyway.


Internet Connection Sharing
One of the most compelling new features in Windows 98 SE is Internet Connection Sharing (ICS), which allows you to share a single Internet connection--be it dial-up or high speed, such as cable modem or DSL--with multiple computers (Figure 9). For this to work, you will need to have Windows 98 SE installed on the "gateway" machine (that is, the machine that will connect to the Internet), and the necessary networking hardware (such as a network interface card, or NIC, for each machine, the necessary network cabling, and perhaps a hub, which allows you to network more than two machines). Once you've installed Internet Connection Sharing and connected to the Internet, your other machines can transparently use that same connection, regardless of the type of computer they are (Windows, Macintosh, Linux, whatever).

The configuration of ICS is straightforward and well documented. I was able to share a cable modem between three computers in under fifteen minutes (though to be fair, I've configured this sort of thing before in Windows 2000 and understand the underlying technologies). Beginners will benefit from a booklet describing this feature that is included with Windows 98 SE, and the online help is also quite good.


Other improvements
In addition to the big changes, Windows 98 SE also includes a host of other improvements that are worth mentioning. WebTV for Windows updated has been updated with support for a wider range of TV tuner cards (Figure 10), and it now supports the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (AVTEF) standard for HTML-based programming guides. DirectX has been upgrade to version 6.1 with support for better audio and video performance. And all of the bug fixes from Windows 98 Service Pack 1 (SP1), including Year 2000 updates, have been integrated into Windows 98 SE (Windows 98 users will be able to download SP1 this summer).


How to get Windows 98 SE
The biggest question with Windows 98 SE is how to get it: Windows 98 SE will replace  Windows 98 at retail sometime this summer, and will cost the same (generally $89 for the upgrade version) as the previous edition. New computer buyers will also get Windows 98 SE, beginning sometime in June.

And existing Windows 98 users haven't been forgotten either: If you're already running Windows 98 and you'd like to upgrade to the latest version, you can purchase the Windows 98 Updates CD-ROM from the Microsoft Web site for $19.95, beginning sometime in June. This CD (formerly known as "StepUp") includes a book called "Windows 98 and the Internet," which details the new features in SE, including Internet Connection Sharing.

The truly thrifty can download many of the features in Windows 98 from the Microsoft Web site. Internet Explorer 5.0, NetMeeting 3.0, Windows Media Player 6.1, DirectX 6.1, and Windows 98 SP1 are all available now (or soon will be) for free download. However, some of these components--especially IE 5.0--are quite large. If you don't have a high-speed connection and can't live without Windows 98 SE, then I recommend the Windows 98 Updates CD to existing Windows 98 users. Windows 95 users, however, will need to purchase the Windows 98 SE Upgrade CD for $89, just as they would have for the previous version of Windows 98.


Conclusions
Windows 98 isn't a major upgrade such as Windows 2000, but it is an important milestone in the Windows family. While most of the media attention has been focused on Windows 2000 lately, the truth of the matter is that Windows 98 is here today and it works great. And unlike Windows 2000, Windows 98 will work with every piece of hardware and software you own. Consumers, game players, home users, and the like can't go wrong with Windows 98 Second Edition.

I think it's telling that Microsoft didn't need to make any major changes to Windows 98 for this release. The Windows 98 base is stable and offers high performance on any Pentium PC or better. It is also the king when it comes to hardware and software compatibility, a title it will not relinquish when Windows 2000 ships this fall. Unless you're a software developer, graphics artist, business users, or anyone else with demanding needs, I strongly recommend Windows 98 SE over Windows 2000 Professional.