In this review, I take a look at Windows Millennium Edition ("Windows ME") Beta 3, which was released on April 11, 2000. The final release of this product, which essentially marks the end of the Windows 9x line of products, is currently set for June 2, 2000; expect to see it in stores and bundled with new machines approximately 6 weeks after that.
The Millennium Test bed
To accurately gauge the success of Windows Me, I tested Beta 3 and a number of pre-Beta 3 builds on a variety of systems, in both upgrade and full install situations. The following systems were tested with Windows Me Beta 3:
- Dual processor Celeron 500 with 256 MB RAM (Windows Me only sees one processor). This system includes a Voodoo3 video card, Microsoft USB speakers, a SCSI CDR drive, two 13.6 GB IDE hard drives, an IDE CD-ROM, a USB keyboard and mouse, an HP LaserJet 5P printer, and a Diamond RIO 500 media player. Windows Me was initially clean-installed onto this system; later, a clean install of Windows 98 SE was upgraded to Windows Me.
- Celeron 400 with 128 MB RAM; system includes two 5.1 GB IDE hard drives, a SCSI CDR, an IDE CD-ROM, a Creative Labs AWE-64 sound card, and a parallel port scanner. A heavily used Windows 98 system was upgraded to Windows Me Beta 3.
- Celeron 433 with 48 MB RAM; system includes one 2 GB hard drive and an IDE CD-ROM. Windows Me was clean installed onto this system.
- Pentium II 400 with 128 MB RAM. This system includes a USB scanner, a 6 GB IDE hard drive, an IDE CD-ROM drive, and a USB mouse. Windows Me was clean installed onto this system.
- Pentium II 266 laptop with 160 MB RAM, a 4.3 GB hard drive, IDE CD-ROM drive, PC card-based network card, USB ZIP 100 drive, and a docking station. This system was upgraded to Windows Me from a heavily used Windows 98 install.
I encountered a number of issues installing and using Windows ME Beta 3 on these systems, which I'll discuss below as appropriate. Some noteable problems: The 3Com Fast Etherlink 16-bit PC card in the laptop was not properly detected (I needed to install the drivers from 3Com's driver disk) and the USB mice were useless during the DOS-based portions of clean installs, forcing me to use the keyboard only. I don't consider either of these issues to be serious. However, I did encounter two Setup issues that I do consider serious; these are discussed below.
Upgrading Windows 98 to Windows Me
I performed three upgrades from Windows 98 SE to Windows ME Beta 3; two were fairly "dirty" long-term Windows 98 installations (Figure), one was a clean Win98 install (Figure). Windows ME will upgrade Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows 98 SE, but not Windows 3.1--Windows 3.1 users will need to upgrade to 98 first. The Windows ME upgrade installation is straightforward, even elegant (Figure): virtually no prompts are used, beyond an acceptance of the license agreement, a choice to save your system files in the event you want to downgrade back to your previous OS, and a choice to create a Millennium startup disk. And unlike the Windows 98 setup procedure, each of the options that require user input all occur during the first phase of Setup: After that, you can walk away and come back in 30-60 minutes, depending on your system, to test the new OS (Figure).
When you upgrade, you're also treated to a nice-looking Setup program (Figure) that replaces the stodgy version from Windows 98 (DOS-based clean installs will still be treated to the old installation program; see below). Otherwise, the process is amazingly similar to the Windows 98 Setup, requiring the same mind-numbing number of reboots (Figure).
I was interested to see how Windows ME handled a fairly "dirty" Windows 98 installation (Figure) with numerous installed applications and a customized look and feel using Microsoft's Themes applet. When you upgrade a Windows 9x machine to Windows ME, Microsoft retains the desktop icon layout that was used previously (in other words, My Computer will appear on top of the screen, instead of below My Documents, where it typically appears in Windows ME, Figure). But unlike Windows 2000, the Windows ME Setup spews an unwanted collection of icons on your desktop, including MSN setup, Online Services, Windows Media Player, and Connect to the Internet (Internet Connection Wizard), which is especially curious since most people upgrading to Windows ME will have already set up Internet access (Figure). And Windows Media Player is elevated to a new position of power with a separate icon in the Quick Launch toolbar in the taskbar (Figure).
On a positive note, the color scheme and Themes used previously were retained, which was appreciated. However, Windows ME annoyingly changes some settings that would be easy enough to leave alone. For example, I had removed the Recycle Bin icon from the desktop with TweakUI after changing its default behavior to physically delete all deleted files. Not only did Windows ME return the icon to the desktop in each upgrade, but it reverted the Recycle Bin behavior to its default as well.
On Windows 9x systems that use the default color scheme (teal desktop with dark gray windows), however, Setup forces a change to a new Windows 2000-like color scheme (Figure) with a blue backdrop and light gray windows. This isn't a huge issue, but Windows ME, unlike 2000, doesn't offer a "Windows Classic" display scheme so that you can revert to the old look and feel if you prefer. It's a little thing, but it's annoying.
On the laptop upgrade, after the first of three reboots during the upgrade Setup, the system stuck on a black DOS screen with the following text:
An internal stack overflow has caused this session to be halted.
Change the STACKS setting in your CONFIG.SYS file, and then try again.
I found this to be curious because Windows ME supposedly doesn't parse the CONFIG.SYS file at bootup, but then this was an upgrade. So I rebooted the system with the reset switch and Setup continued as if nothing had happened. None of the other upgrades experienced any issues like this.
Overall, the Millennium upgrade is easy and transparent, and all of the software I was using on each upgraded system continued working. After a few mouse clicks and a short wait, your system is upgraded, no muss, no fuss (Figure). And given the improvements in this release, which I discuss below, this may very well be a no-brainer upgrade for many users of Windows 98.
Installing Windows Me (clean install)
A clean install of Windows ME--where the OS is installed onto an empty hard drive and not used to upgrade a previous version of Windows--introduces its own issues. It should be noted, however, that most people will not install Windows ME in this fashion: The vast majority of Windows ME clean installs will be performed by PC makers, not end users. And the next-most popular install, an upgrade from a previous version of Windows (discussed previously) is fairly straightforward. To install Windows ME on an empty hard drive, you'll need a Windows 9x boot disk of some sort (I expect ME to include such a disk in the full edition), as the CD-ROM isn't bootable like the one included with Windows 2000.
Before Setup begins, you'll be presented with the same ScanDisk disk-checking activity that Windows 98 used (Figure). And the first stage of the Windows ME installation uses the same basic ugly Setup program that Microsoft used for Windows 98 and Windows 98 SE, further cementing this release's true heritage (Figure). This stage of Setup presents all of the user prompts you'll need to answer, however, which is a nice improvement. After the first reboot, an ugly VGA rendition of the upgrade user interface appears and installation continues from there.
In any event, clean installing Windows Me is relatively straightforward. Of course, the DOS-based install doesn't support USB devices from the get-go, so I was unable to use the USB-based IntelliMouse Explorer on two of the systems during setup, but this wasn't unexpected. On the other hand, these mice work fine in the graphical portions of Windows 2000 Setup. When Setup is complete (after three reboots), you're asked to logon if you have a network card (Figure) and then you're presented with the stock Windows Millennium Edition ("Windows ME") desktop (Figure).
Overall, hardware detection was good. Windows ME didn't correctly detect my PC card NIC, as described above, or the 3dfx Voodoo 3 in my dual Celeron 500 system, but it detected just about everything else, including a USB ZIP 100 drive.
A first look at Windows Me Beta 3
A quick run around the Windows ME user interface shows some Windows 2000-inspired touches as well as some features that are unique to this release. Curiously, the Balloon Help from Windows 2000 is missing in Windows ME, where such a feature would be far more appropriate. The cascading Start menu (Figure) is personalized, like that in Windows 2000, so that the OS will display only those programs that you most frequently access. New additions to the Start menu include a host of lame Internet games (Checkers and the like), Windows Movie Maker (which cannot be enabled or disabled in Setup, curiously), and System Restore. Icons for Windows Explorer and MS-DOS Prompt, like their Windows 2000 equivalents, have been moved into the Accessories group, no doubt in a bid to reduce visual clutter.
And reducing clutter seems to be goal throughout the user interface of this release, with the exception of the default desktop, which is as messy as ever. The My Computer window (Figure), for example, does away with the slew of icons displayed in Windows 98, leaving only the drive icons and Control Panel behind. And when you open a drive in My Computer, you're presented with an HTML-based "nag screen" that blocks your view of the drive contents (Figure). From here, you can choose to view My Documents, Add/Remove Programs, or Search. And you can optionally disable the nag screen to display the normal drive view. While I understand the point of this type of thing, I can't help but think that most people will be turned off by such an intrusion and will simply disable the feature. You can't protect people from themselves.
These HTML nag screens pervade the user interface. In Control Panel, Microsoft has attempted to actually provide a front-end to the most-often used applets (Figure). While this is a notable first attempt, there's no way to customize it and the process for enabling and disabling this HTML front-end is completely broken, as the option to display/not display the HTML isn't always present. And on one occasion, I had to repeatedly reopen Control Panel simply to re-enable the HTML front-end. But that's not the only way this feature is broken: Microsoft has apparently hard-coded the front-end to display the options shown in this figure, but Dial-up Networking is an optional feature: If you decide not to install this feature, the HTML front-end will show an empty folder icon in its place (Figure). While I appreciate the gesture, this needs to be completely reworked: As it is, the Control Panel front-end is completely brain dead.
Meanwhile, the rest of the user interface is a strange hybrid of Windows 98 and Windows 2000: Internet Explorer 5.5 Beta is included, and Windows ME Beta 3 uses Windows 98-like Networking and System Properties dialogs. There are many more Taskbar and Start Menu Properties than Windows 2000 user received, however, and the Help system (described below) is a huge change over any previous versions of Windows. But overall, the general look and feel is very familiar and few, if any, revolutionary changes are present. This isn't all bad, of course: For the hundreds of million of Windows 9x users out there, Windows ME will be an easy transition.
In the following sections, I'll examine the changes Microsoft made to Windows and see whether their goals were realized for this release.
Digital media in Windows Me
With Windows Me, Microsoft is firmly embracing the notion that home users are embracing a brave new world of digital media. This means that people are listening to music on their PCs, listening to music and watching videos across the Internet, storing images from digital cameras and scanners, and even making their own videos. All of these activities are enabled, in one way or another, in Windows Me.
For still images, Microsoft has expanded the notion of the My Pictures folder from Windows 2000. Now available in Windows Me, this special folder also takes on new prominence with Start menu accessibility and more integrated hooks into the operating system. For example, you can launch scanners and digital cameras from the My Pictures folder now, and Windows Me even supports the ability to stream the images in My Pictures as a screensaver-like slideshow (Figure). And like its equivalent in Windows 2000, My Pictures still supports a special thumbnail view mode while providing an automatic preview of each image as they're selected.
Scanners and digital cameras are more easily accessed, however, through the imaginatively titled Scanners and Cameras applet in Control Panel. These devices are easily added through this applet, and once one is available, the Scanner and Camera Wizard makes it easy to acquire digital images (Figure). You can also link "events" to these devices so, for example, you could launch a particular application in Windows Me when a certain button is pressed on the device (Figure). I used this capability to link the "GO" button on my USB-based MicroTek scanner to PhotoDraw 2000 Version 2: When the button is pressed, PhotoDraw launches and automatically scans, using a pre-set configuration. This is a huge timesaver and a nice integration of software and hardware. In short, this is the way things should, but often don't, work.
For music and video playback, Microsoft provides the new Windows Media Player 7 (WMP7), which is a radical departure from previous versions of Microsoft's media players (Figure). Like My Pictures, Windows Media Player 7 has been elevated to a new level of importance within Windows, right down to a new icon in the default Quick Launch toolbar. To users of previous versions of Windows Media Player, version 7 is confusing a big: It now features a host of new features designed to allow it to compete with the big players in the market, such as Winamp and RealPlayer. As such, WMP 7 sports an integrated Web-based Media Guide, a CD audio interface for music CDs (Figure), a RealJukebox-like media library (Figure), an Internet radio tuner (Figure), support for "portable devices" (but not my beloved RIO 500, at least not yet: currently WMP7 only supports Windows CE-based PocketPC devices), and even a skin chooser (Figure). The most radical skin, and the one that Microsoft likes to show off, features a green head with slide-out ears containing various options (Figure). It's trippy and creepy for those of us over 30; no doubt the targeted audience will eat it right up. For audio enthusiasts, WMP7 also displays various "visualizations," which present undulating graphical representations of the music playing.
But Windows Media Player 7 goes beyond simple playback: You can also use this free player to "rip" CD-based music onto your hard drive, which raises some interesting questions. It also raised some bugs on my Celeron 500 system, which sports dual CD drives: The track listing for a music CD would only show up in WMP7 when I placed a CD in the first of the two drives. In any event, the "Copy Music" function simultaneously plays songs while ripping them onto the hard drive in Windows Media (WMA) format; it also places the song in WMP7's Media Library, under a contorted Artist | Album | Song hierarchy. While I'm sure that the more sophisticated digital music users out there will turn to their program of choice as usual, WMP7 is more than enough program for most users. And maybe that's the problem: It's a bloated, contorted mess in many ways. Hopefully, future skins will enable this beast to at least look more elegant.
Meanwhile, the Windows Movie Maker (WMM) application is designed to allow you to edit audio and video that was captured with camcorders or digital cameras (Figure). It's hard not to be cynical about WMM, as Apple Computer introduced similar, but more full-featured movie editing software in its Mac OS last year. But unlike Microsoft, Apple is committed to desktop video and the company sells a $1000 professional version of the software that it bundles for free with the iMac. Meanwhile, the Microsoft solution reads like a shovelware tie-in designed solely to satisfy a feature checklist. Since I don't have a FireWire-capable camcorder (who does?) I tested WMM with a decidedly sickly-sweet Brittany Spears video (gotta remember the target market here) and came away unimpressed (with the video too) with the awkward interface. But the biggest problem is stability: WMM crashed constantly (Figure).
The online experience in Windows Me
As expected, the Internet is a pervasive force in Windows Me, available at every twist and turn. The default My Computer window and desktop are both Internet-capable, though Microsoft has continued the old double-click launching paradigm used in previous versions of Windows (Web-style single-click is, however, an option). Microsoft realizes that many home users are now Internet connected or want to be, and the desktop is littered with Internet-related icons from the first boot. And, as always, a slew of online services are at the ready, with a more prominent placement for the in-house MSN service, which has become more and more interesting over time.
First up is the irrepressible Internet Explorer 5.5, which offers little in the way of end-user improvements when compared to previous members of the IE 5.x family (Figure). IE 5.5 includes unspecified "performance improvements" (Microsoft's words; I have yet to see such a thing) and a nice Print Preview feature (Figure). Other than that, most of the new features in IE 5.5 are developer related and thus uninteresting to 99% of the planet. The beta release of IE 5.5 that's included in Windows Me Beta 3 is incredibly buggy, featuring an issue I remember from previous releases: When you enter an invalid URL and click Go, the browser will explain that the address is bogus. Click Refresh, however, and the URL you just typed is replaced by the following inscrutable mess:
The problem here, of course, is that you must completely retype the URL to get the browser to connect. I expect Microsoft to fix this problem, but it's going to be maddening for Beta 3 users. But I've crashed this browser repeatedly in just a few days of use, and that's not very promising.
Also included in the base OS for the first time is the MSN Messenger Service, Microsoft instant messaging client (Figure). Unlike Windows Movie Maker and Windows Media Player 7, MSN Messenger is an optional component and you can actually uninstall it if desired. But for users of Hotmail especially, MSN Messenger is a godsend, and it works well, if only for providing a quick pop-up when mail arrives.
Like Windows 98 SE, Windows Me includes an Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) feature that allows you to share a dial-up (modem or ISDN) or dedicated (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection between two or more computers. For this scheme to work, of course, you will need the appropriate networking hardware (at least one network card, or NIC, for each machine, cabling, and a hub). But ICS is a nice feature done right: It installs easily and works well. Of course, this type of thing requires a bit of work on the hardware and configuration end, but Microsoft provides some good instructions in Help and a nice Home Networking Wizard for configuring a home network for connection sharing (Figure).
In addition to the previously mentioned Internet-related applications, Windows Me also includes NetMeeting 3.1, Outlook Express 5.5, and a few other tools. None are particularly different from previous versions. There are also a number of Internet games--Checkers, Backgammon, Reversi, and the like, that you can play online with Microsoft's MSN Gaming Zone (Figure). Their inclusion is somewhat trivial.
In short, the Internet features in Windows Me are somewhat expected, given previous versions of Windows. But one area that Windows Me pulls ahead involves its online help, called Help and Support, which provides a wide range of online hooks so that the support information you have available to you in Windows Me is always up to date (Figure). This is most welcome, and certainly a worth argument for Internet integration. Falling into the same category are AutoUpdate and Windows Update, two system reliability features that, like Help and Support, are described in a bit more detail below.
Windows Me and PC Health
Though Windows Me drags the legacy Windows 9x kernel along for one last hurrah, Microsoft should be commended for doing a lot to make this release as stable and reliable as possible, given its architectural shortcomings. And the list of improvements in this area is impressive. Let's take a look.
First, Windows Me does away with Real Mode DOS, the 16-bit version of DOS that runs in the first 640 KB of RAM on a PC. This removal has several positive effects on the system: It boots up faster, much faster. Windows Me also shuts down must more quickly. But most importantly, Windows Me is more stable as a result. On the downside, however, you can no longer boot into DOS or shutdown to MS-DOS as you could with previous versions of Windows: The only way to boot into a command line with Windows Me is to use a boot disk. But DOS programs still run fine. To test this, I installed WordPerfect 6.1 for DOS (Figure)and Duke Nukem 3D (Figure), an excellent DOS game that brings back memories. Not only do these programs run in Windows Me, but they run fine in both full-screen and windowed mode (this includes Duke Nukem, incidentally, which even supported sound on my USB speaker system, something that didn't work in Windows 98).
Microsoft also included a stability improvement from Windows 2000, System File Protection (SFP), which replaces System File Checker in Windows Me. Essentially an automated protector for key system files, SFP ensures that an errant application doesn't overwrite important files on your system, ensuring a certain level of stability.
Next up is System Restore, which two levels of system protection, automatic and manual (Figure). System Restore will automatically create "restore points" so that you can return your computer to a previously known good configuration. But you can also manually create a restore point, say before you install a suspect application, so that you can return your system to a good state if things go bad (Figure). The System Restore user interface, like Help and Support, is HTML-based and friendly enough; I think it's a welcome addition.
While Windows 98 users will find the Windows Update feature to be old hat, Microsoft has taken this concept to the next logical level with AutoUpdate, which is available from the Automatic Updates applet in Control Panel (Figure). AutoUpdate will, optionally, allow your system to keep itself up-to-date automatically by checking the Windows Update Web site for updates (bug reports, security fixes, even driver updates) that are specific to your system (Figure). Unless you're extremely nervous about a Microsoft program polling the Internet regularly, I highly recommend this feature (Figure). In fact, I can't wait for this to be added to Windows 2000.
Finally, Microsoft's troubleshooting and support tools in Windows Me are excellent. Framed by the elegant Help and Support, which sports a surprisingly well-done HTML user interface, help is only a mouse click away in Windows Me (Figure). And with the inclusion of Assisted Support, which is essentially a group of online hooks in Help and Support that connect you to online resources at microsoft.com, your support options will always be up-to-date, and there's no need to find the appropriate site on Microsoft's Web site if you need to report an incident or bug (Figure). Early versions of Help and Support were ugly and hard to navigate, but the version in Beta 3 is a huge improvement. If this is the future of Windows user interfaces, I'm ready. On a side note, the familiar System Information tool from Windows 98 has been subsumed by the Help and Support user interface, which is interesting (Figure).
Overall, Microsoft improvements in the areas of reliability and stability are almost staggering, especially when one considers that this OS is essentially built on the same core that's been around since 1983. While some may laugh at the thought of yet another Windows 9x, this is easily the most reliable and stable version of Windows to date, NT/2000 notwithstanding, of course. On the other hand, Windows Me does suffer from its legacy roots: I've crashed the OS down to the metal several times and the sheer number of times it must reboot--after a networking change, for example, or an application installation--has me yearning occasionally for Windows 2000. But Windows 9x users are used to this trade-off and Windows Me is definitely more stable and reliable than its forefathers. This is a huge win for Microsoft.
Home networking with Windows Me
Rounding out the list of goals for Windows Me is home networking, which has been nicely implemented in this new consumer OS. Microsoft includes a new Home Networking wizard, which will make sure your system is on a network and configured properly (Figure). Then, you can setup networking and Internet Connection Sharing, and create a Home Networking Setup Disk that can be used to setup the other systems on your network (assuming they're running Windows 95 or 98 only). But none of this is required: If you're savvy enough to set up a few IP addresses and subnet masks, Windows Me networking support is virtually identical to that in Windows 98, and I was able to connect it to a variety of clients and servers on my home network (Figure).
Like previous versions of Windows, you can optionally install a file-sharing feature which allows you to share resources across the network (Figure). This feature is virtually identical to that in Windows 98 (and ironically, it defaults to a more secure setup than Windows 2000 does). You can also share printers, of course, so that other machines can print documents over the network.
The Home Networking Wizard provides a gentle handholding experience for new users, which is nice, because networking is easily one of the more complicated tasks that consumers will attempt at home. But there's also a heady hardware requirement, which is partially offset by the new home networking kits that various manufacturers are just now making available. Microsoft tells me that its working with major network hardware makers to create home networking packages that are designed specifically for Millennium; expect to see them begin appearing later this year.
Overall, there isn't much to say here: Microsoft has expanded a bit on the support found in Windows 98 SE, but the biggest advances in this area, frankly, are found in the documentation and support areas, where home networking is nicely explained in plain language.
Overall, Windows Me Beta 3 is a surprisingly solid release and a much better solution than Windows 2000 Professional for most home users, especially if software and hardware compatibility is an issue. While Windows Me can't approach the stability and reliability of Windows 2000, it is a huge improvement over Windows 98, while providing a number of compelling new features that truly do set it apart from its predecessors. Unlike Windows 98 SE, where the improvements were mostly under the hood, Windows Me also offers up some eye candy and catchy new applications that are sure to be a hit in its target market. And though Windows Me doesn't walk boldly into a new era of HTML-based user interfaces, it does take some tantalizing steps with its Help and Support and System Restore features, which point the way to the future.
While there isn't enough here to sway most Windows 2000 users, Windows 98 fans are going to have to make some serious choices this summer. Unfortunately, Microsoft has no plans to offer a public release of Windows Me Beta 3, which is a shame: I expect that many existing Windows 98 users are clamoring to get their hands on this build. Expect the final release of Windows Me in early June, with retail availability in mid-July. Prices are expected to be in the same ballpark as Windows 98 SE, though final pricing has yet to be determined. Windows Me requires a Pentium 150 with 32 MB of RAM; I recommend a Pentium II 300 with at least 64 MB of RAM.
PLUSES: Unmatched hardware and software compatibility, System Restore, Help and Support, AutoUpdate, tweaked user interface
MINUSES: Windows Movie Maker, Windows 9x kernel, number of required reboots
Looking good: The Windows ME splash screen.
A heavily modified Windows 98 SE install, ripe for the upgrading.
Windows ME features an improved Setup with a more pleasing color scheme.
An upgrade installation will typically take 30-60 minutes.
Our system after the upgrade: Icons are still in the right place, but some Windows ME defaults have overwritten our settings.
Same system with new HTML-protected My Computer window, Windows Media Player 7, and new Windows ME system tools.
Default desktop of an upgraded Windows 98 install.
If you perform a clean install, you'll get the ugly old installer from Windows 98 during the first phase of Setup.
The stock Windows ME desktop after a clean install.
Windows Me features a personalized Start menu and a cleaner My Computer.
Control Panel defaults to an HTML view that hides most options.
Explorer nag screens are even more pervasive in Windows Me than they were in 98 or 2000.
The Scanner and Camera Wizard makes short work of Image Acquisition.
The new Windows Media Player features some cool skins, including this trippy green head.
Even Brittany Spears can't save Windows Movie Maker.
Internet Explorer 5.5 isn't much different from its predecessors...
...but it does feature a nice new Print Preview feature.
Help and Support is one of the shining success stories in Windows Me Beta 3.
Legacy DOS games and applications run just fine in Windows Me, thank you very much.
Like Help and Support, System Restore sports a nice HTML user interface.
Auto Update takes Windows Update on step further by allowing Windows to automatically update itself over the Internet.
One of the nicer features in Help and Support is this Windows Me Tour.