It is, quite possibly, the most under-hyped version of Windows ever created. But for home users confused by the incompatibilities, cost, and system requirements of Windows 2000, Microsoft's last hurrah in the Windows 9x product line offers a ray of hope.Windows Millennium Edition--or Windows Me (as in the dreadful, "get to know Me" tagline)--is a lame duck technologically, but it offers enough reliability improvements and new features for me to recommend it heartily to most Windows 9x users (Figure). And for those people that eagerly turned to Windows 2000, only to get burned, Windows Me might be just what the doctor ordered.

I've been covering Windows Me for over a year now and have written more about this operating system than anybody outside of Microsoft. So before you proceed with this review, you may want to take a look at some of my many other articles about Windows Me, which explain Microsoft's positioning of the product and the ways in which Windows Me lives up to the company's goals. In late 1999, I wrote up an introduction and review of Windows Millennium Edition Beta 2. And in April 2000, I wrote up an introduction and review of Windows Me Beta 3, which was very close to the final version in terms of feature-set. And I've written a number of Technology Showcases that apply to Windows Me, including an Activity Centers Preview, an overview of the Windows Me "Out of Box Experience", and a look at the contents of the final Windows Me CD-ROM. <% ' Added so can inventory as Connected Home articles. kw = "CH" %>

But now Windows Me is completed. And while it's easy to dismiss yet another Windows 9x-based product, its important to understand that Microsoft actually made some very important strides with this release. And because the Windows 2000 team was essentially given an extra year to fine-tune the next consumer Windows (the Windows 2000-based Windows.NET 1.0, code-named "Whistler"), Windows Me will offer a straightforward transition to that OS when it becomes available in Q2 2000. So far from being a dead-end, Windows Me is really just another step in the path toward the future of Windows. On the other hand, Windows Me was somewhat constrained by its rapid release cycle. So there was no time to add features that would have taxed the compatibility of a kernel that is due for retirement within 12 months. For example, the Windows Me team was unable to provide some of the fading icon, mouse cursor, and menu effects from Windows 2000. And Windows Me won't be able to take advantage of dual processors, as Windows 2000 Professional can.

But Windows Me does some things quite well. It offers far greater hardware and software compatibility than Windows 2000, for example, giving consumers the straightforward and transparent upgrade they desire. Windows Me requires far fewer resources than Windows 2000, so it will run on less powerful machines with less RAM. Windows Me starts up and shuts down much more quickly than Windows 2000 on the same hardware. And, oddly enough, Windows Me comes out of hibernation and standby (two power management modes) much more quickly than Windows 2000. On single processor machines, Windows Me is much more responsive than Windows 2000.

So rather than take you through a boring Microsoft-like overview of Windows Me's feature-set, I'll show you why Windows Me is must-have upgrade for most Windows users. And then I'll explain why some people might want to hold off and wait for Whistler. In the end, the decision is up to you. But Windows Me is appropriate for a far wider audience than Windows 2000, so if you're not sure which OS to choose, please read on.

Job 1: Reliability
It may not look that exciting on a bullet list of new Windows Me features, but this OS offers some compelling reliability improvements that make it a must-have upgrade for Windows 98 users. First of all, Windows Me has gotten rid of "Real Mode DOS," a legacy environment that older MS-DOS programs ran in. Instead, Windows Me supports only the more elegant "Protect Mode" of the Intel processors it runs on, which provides the OS with full access to the power of the underlying hardware. The removal of Real Mode DOS has several implications, most of them positive. Windows Me boots up more quickly and more reliably because a Real Mode boot loader is no longer required. And once the OS is up and running, it is more stable because of the removal of Real Mode DOS, which was a major cause of reliability problems in Windows 95 and Windows 98. The downside to this omission, however, is that some older DOS apps and, curiously, some Windows apps won't run under Windows Me. This is because Windows Me no longer supports options to boot or reboot into DOS mode, which requires real mode. DOS games and applications will still run fine from within Windows, however, and the familiar MS-DOS prompt is still available. Some Windows applications, such as Partition Magic, which reboot the system into DOS mode or interact in some way with Real Mode features, will need to be modified to work with Windows Me. But most people have no need for this mode, of course, and the decision to remove it was a good one.

Like Windows 2000, Windows Me offers a feature called System File Protection (SFP) that prevents applications from overwriting key system files. SFP works silently in the background, ensuring that these system files are not deleted or overwritten: If any application setup procedure, for example, does overwrite one of these files with its own copy, SFP will simply put back the correct version. SFP is a wonderful idea that attacks one of the most common causes of instability in Windows. Microsoft is to be commended for adding this feature to Windows Me, and I see no downside to SFP, which has proven to work effectively on Windows 2000.

System Restore is a feature that's unique to Windows Me (Figure), and it largely replaces the Microsoft Backup program that came with Windows 95 and 98 (MS Backup is still available on the Windows Me CD-ROM for those that can't stand to be without it). System Restore automatically backs up key files when new applications are installed so that the user can "roll back" the system to a previously known good state should anything go wrong. And System Restore can be manually enabled if desired, so users can create their own "restore points" (Figure). As Microsoft says, System Restore is a safety net for Windows Me users, and it's a good feature. On the other hand, System Restore can suck up a lot of free hard drive space, which is sure to confuse the average users that Microsoft is targeting with Windows Me. And System Restore doesn't directly replace MS Backup as it doesn't backup every single changed file on your system while it's creating a restore point. Instead, System Restore only backs up those files need to get your system up and running. So if you're looking for a full backup program, head on over to the Windows Me CD-ROM and grab the full MS Backup.

Windows Me also takes the concept of Windows Update to the next level with a new feature called Auto Update (Figure). Windows Update, which debuted in Windows 98 SE, is pretty limited in that it requires the user to manually launch the site to check for updates. As an interim step, Microsoft created the optional "critical update" component, which will notify the user when an important bug fix is available for their system. But Auto Update goes all the way: If you allow it to do so, Auto Update will quietly monitor the Windows Update Web site for updates that are applicable to your specific system. And if updates are available, Auto Update will download and install them. People who fear Big Brother need not apply, of course, but I think that Auto Update is a tremendous feature and an obvious upgrade to Windows Update. If you're online 24/7 with a broadband (cable modem) connection, then all the better (Figure).

There are smaller reliability improvements in Windows Me as well. Microsoft has introduced a new HTML-based activity center called Help and Support that aggregates Microsoft's local help files with online updates from the company and other third parties (Figure). Thus, all of the help files on a system can be accessed from a single place, one that has an attractive user interface to boot. Help and Support includes an automated support option that enables users to ask for help through the Internet, which is a nice improvement, as anyone that's waited on hold for Product Support can tell you. First-time Windows Me users will be treated to a new Windows Welcome application that gets them up to speed on all the new features. And Windows Me includes some of the more questionable improvements from Windows 2000, such as the Personalized Smart menu and Favorites menu in Internet Explorer. To keep the computer-challenged from putzing around the system too much, Microsoft has also added a number of "soft barriers" in Explorer to protect key locations such as Program Files and the Windows folder from prying eyes (Figure). And the messages you see in dialog boxes have all been rewritten to be more clear and helpful. Ah, progress.

Overall, Windows Me is far more reliable than its predecessors (Windows 95 and Windows 98), though it can't, of course, approach the reliability of Windows 2000.

Integrated digital media and gaming features
As a consumer operating system, Windows Me embraces a number of features that aren't as elegantly exposed in Windows 2000. Microsoft examined the ways in which home users actually use their systems and determined that digital media--the ability to manipulate pictures, photos, video, and music--is a huge growth area, along with the ever-popular need to turn a $2000 PC into a $200 gaming system. So the company worked to ensure that Windows Me was the ultimate digital media and gaming OS around. All in all, they were largely successful.

To make it easier to work with photographs and other pictures, Microsoft has added a new version of Windows Image Acquisition (WIA) to Windows Me. WIA is a set of technologies that makes it possible to acquire images from scanners and digital cameras using a straightforward and integrated user interface. So Windows Me can automatically detect when a WIA device is attached to the system (Figure) and launch the Scanner and Camera Wizard (Figure) to help users manage and import their photos and pictures (Figure). I haven't been able to test this feature with a digital camera yet, but it works wonderfully with a scanner (Figure). I particularly like the option that allows you to choose actions for certain events. With my particular scanner, a USB-based ScanMaker X6u, there is a "Go" button on the front of the device. WIA allows me to choose which program I'd like to execute when the button is pressed; by default, the Scanner and Camera Wizard is launched, but I could change this to PhotoDraw 2000 or whatever if I wanted (Figure). Nice.

To organize, view, and share acquired images, Windows Me includes some subtle enhancements. First up is My Pictures, a special shell folder that debuted with Windows 2000; it's the new default save location for images in Windows (Figure). In Windows Me, the My Pictures folder supports a new slideshow feature that lets users create a screensaver-like slideshow of the images stored within. And My Pictures features thumbnail views of each image, previews, and rotation capabilities. To share images with other users, the new WIA allows you to ship an image off in an email attachment directly from a WIA-compatible device, without ever saving it locally first.

For digital music lovers, the recent MP3 craze hasn't passed by Microsoft unnoticed, so Windows Me includes a number of features that make it easy to work with this format, as well as Microsoft's audio and video formats. The centerpiece of this strategy is an activity center called Windows Media Player 7 (WMP7), which, despite its name, bears no resemblance at all to previous versions of WMP (Figure). Instead, WMP7 is similar to RealNetworks' RealJukebox, an all-in-one program that maybe attempts to do a bit too much. Indeed, WMP7 is a weak spot in Windows Me, though its pretty obvious that this initial attempt will be improved upon. WMP7 sports a complex user interface with numerous functions, including an online media guide that will pop-up if you're connected to the Internet (Figure), a "now playing" mode that displays the current media file along with some interesting "visualizations" if you're playing audio only (Figure), a CD audio mode for playing music CDs (Figure), a media library for organizing your digital music collection into playlists and other sub-categories (Figure), a radio tuner for listening to live Internet radio stations (Figure), a way to interface with a variety of portable music devices (Figure), and a skin chooser (Figure), where you can choose to change the user interface of the program, but only when it's in compact mode (full mode cannot be changed).

Confused? Welcome to the club. Windows Media Player 7 replaces the old, simply WMP as well as the cool CD player that Microsoft shipped in Plus! For Windows 98 and early Windows Me betas. As an all-encompassing media player, recorder, and organizer, WMP7 is non-intuitive, resource hungry, and ugly. And worst of all, you can't uninstall it or choose to not install it when you set up Windows Me. It's this kind of thing that landed Microsoft in court, and it's disheartening to see it happening again in Windows Me. On the other hand, I'm somewhat resigned to the fact that WMP7 will probably get better over time. And while I'm no fan of its user interface or clumsy way of doing things, it seems to work well, assuming you've got boatloads of RAM. Don't even attempt to run this beast on a 64MB, or smaller, system.

Microsoft has also included a way to manipulate digital movies with Windows Movie Maker, another questionable addition (Figure). Windows Movie Maker allows you to transfer videotape onto the computer and store it digitally. And because of compression, it is possible to store over 20 hours of video per gigabyte of hard drive space, which is nice. Windows Movie Maker will automatically visually index every video you store on your system and provide full resolution playback. It also has the capability to edit movies, using fades, background music, sound effects, and more Figure. I wasn't able to test Windows Movie Maker extensively because I don't have a hardware video capture device. But I did play around with some video files, adding sounds and editing frames. And while I appreciate the capabilities, I have to wonder about this product's inclusion in an operating system in an age where this company has been found guilty of illegal product bundling. I'm sure that third party makers of video editing software aren't that excited about this particular feature.

For gamers, Windows Me continues the compatibility tradition set by Windows 98/SE, adding a slightly newer version of DirectX (7.1, not 8.0 as widely reported), DirectPlay Voice, and some lame online games from the MSN Gaming Zone, which are free anyway. Microsoft had originally intended to ship a bizarre feature in Windows Me that would have allowed properly written games to unload parts of themselves from the hard drive when other, more often-used games needed the space. To say that game makers weren't enthralled with the idea is an understatement of epic proportions. Needless to say, this feature was scrapped early in the beta process.

Of the new gaming features that did make it into Windows Me, only DirectPlay Voice is of any interest. DirectPlay Voice allows gamers to chat with each other during game play using headset microphones connected to their soundcards (Figure). Of course, this feature requires games that are specifically written for DirectPlay Voice, which is exposed as "Voice Chat" in Windows Me. And in order for players to use voice chat, the both players must be running Windows Me. I wasn't able to test this feature because of its exclusive nature at this time, but it will be interesting to see how game makers support it. And, of course, it's a good idea to add this capability directly to the operating system. Certainly, I'm looking forward to verbally goading over fallen enemies in DOOM 2000 and Unreal Tournament 2 (or whatever they're called). And it will be fun to enable this feature for team play as well.

Easier networking
As we move forward into an interconnected age of pervasive Internet access and smart devices, it's becoming more important to shield end users from the complexities of the underlying network. And with more and more users adding second PCs to their homes and networking them together, it makes sense that Microsoft would want to make this process simpler. Windows Me introduces a number of consumer-oriented networking features that offer significant advantages over Windows 98. Chief among these is an improved Home Networking Wizard (HNW), which (unsurprisingly) simplifies the set up of a home network (Figure). The HNW is available directly from My Network Places (Figure), and it helps the user share folders, printers or an Internet connection, using a simple, easy-to-understand interface. For advanced users, however, the old Network applet is still available in Control Panel, though many will be disappointed to learn that this is virtually identical to the applet used in Windows 95-98 SE.

The HNW can optionally create a Home Networking Setup disk that can be used to enable Home Networking on Windows 95 and 98 computers that might be available on your home network, a nice touch (Figure). One might have assumed that Microsoft would simply require Windows Me on all systems for this feature to work.

Behind the scenes, Microsoft has done a lot of work to ensure that networking is more reliable than it was in Windows 95/98. The core TCP/IP networking stack was completely scrapped in favor of the version used by Windows 2000, giving Windows Me the corporate-level networking reliability of its upscale brethren. The new TCP/IP stack makes Windows Me perform better while networking, while improving the stability of the product. Dial-up networking was improved with better error handling and help, integrated auto-dial for Internet Connection Sharing, and a new PPTP stack for more secure Virtual Private Networks (VPN). Support for Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) will let Windows Me systems control UPnP devices, though few such devices exist at this point. Like USB, however, support for these devices will explode once the capability is built into the core OS.

Overall, the home networking features in Windows Me make this release more compelling for consumers that wish to network PCs together and share a single Internet connection between these PCs. If you're not a networking guru, Windows Me will make life easier.

A prettier face
The user interface in Windows Me is a significant evolution of the Explorer user interface (UI) that debuted in Windows 95 (Figure). It incorporates the Desktop Update UI from Windows 98, most of the tweaks and enhancements from Windows 2000, and adds its own little updates that make this the most elegant version of Explorer yet. But Windows Me is also the end of the line, so while it's a comfortable update for any Windows user, it's also the last version of Explorer we're likely to see. In the next consumer Windows, due next year, Microsoft will debut a new, high-customizable user interface that's based on XML and other Web technologies. Whether the default interface resembles today's Windows remains to be seen.

For now, however, we have Windows Me, and like a comfortable baseball mitt, it wears well.

The ugly side of Windows Me
Like anything from Microsoft, every improvement seems to bring with it some problem, and Windows Me is no exception. Throughout this review, I've alluded to questionable product tie-ins (Windows Media Player 7 and Windows Movie Maker) and other issues. Windows Me also includes the lackluster Internet Explorer 5.5 (Figure), which barely deserves mention, as it adds exactly one new feature: Print Preview (Figure). And while this feature is certainly laudable, one gets the idea that it could have easily been added to IE 5.01, perhaps in a product more honestly called IE 5.02. But in its zeal to grab the attention of potential users, Microsoft has opted for the loftier IE 5.5 title, hoping this seemingly bigger upgrade will appear more interesting than it is. But IE 5.5 is a stealth release of IE with significant technology improvements that will benefit Windows-based Web and software developers. It's too bad that Microsoft couldn't have tied these improvements to a product that offered more for the end user.

On a curious side note, Windows Me doesn't even include the final version of IE 5.5 for some reason. I have my suspicions about meeting release dates and whatnot, but IE 5.5 didn't go gold for almost a month after Windows Me was finalized. How Microsoft will reconcile this remains to be seen.

But the most disturbing thing, in my mind, about Windows Me, is the way that certain components, such as Windows Media Player 7 and Windows Movie Maker, cannot be uninstalled by a PC maker or end user. It's curious that these applications should be forced on users when so many people will simply choose to use other programs. While it's hard to complain about lost disk space when new systems regularly ship with 20 GB hard drives, Microsoft propensity to bloat the OS with unnecessary applications says much about its attitude toward users, third party software developers, and even the law.

And that's about it. For typical home users, there aren't many downsides to Windows Me.

I highly recommend Windows Me to all home users that own hardware that meets my minimum system configuration (see below). It will work well with all of your hardware and software, providing better compatibility than Windows 2000. But Windows Me offers tremendous reliability and stability improvements, making this upgrade truly worthwhile. Features such as System Restore, SFP, and the removal of Real Mode DOS do a lot to outweigh the use of Windows Me's legacy underpinnings. And because Windows Me will offer a clear upgrade path to Whistler, it's not a dead-end at all.

Power users, programmers, and other type-A personalities will probably want to stick with Windows 2000, even if that doesn't completely make sense in many cases (you know who you are). But I strongly recommend that all non-enterprise customers take a long look at Windows Me, which should fare better than its buggy predecessors, Windows 98 and Windows 98 Second Edition (SE). None of Windows Me's problem areas are particularly heinous, given the market that Microsoft is tackling here.

It's easy to ridicule Microsoft for milking the Windows 9x cash cow yet again. But the reality is that this release is exceptional, especially considering its technological heritage. Put aside your preconceptions and give Windows Me a chance. I think you'll be surprised.

Availability, pricing, and system recommendations
Windows Me will be available in retail stores on September 14, 2000, though I expect PC makers will begin bundling it with new computers at least a month before that. It will cost the same as Windows 98, though this time around the price is actually worth it: $209 for the full version and $109 for the upgrade. My recommended minimum Windows Me configuration is any Pentium II-class processor or better with 64 MB of RAM or higher. And unlike Windows 2000, even power users will be happy with 128 MB of RAM.

PLUSES: Unmatched hardware and software compatibility, System Restore, SFP, Help and Support, AutoUpdate, tweaked user interface

MINUSES: Windows Media Player 7, Windows Movie Maker, IE 5.5