While this is still a beta, I do have a few quibbles with Setup Manager: The option to install NT to the hard disk of your choice is unclearly hidden under an "Advanced" button in an early dialog box. The first time I tried to install NT, it tried to overwrite my 98 install on the C: drive. And there is no option, ala Windows 95/8 and NT 4.0, to do a custom install. As a result, the system installed a bunch of features I didn't want, including accessibility features, a fax program, games, and other similar drivel. Most damning here is that there is no way to remove this stuff once it's installed: The otherwise excellent Add/Remove Programs applet doesn't offer any way to remove these components. It's a minor irritation now, but if it ships this way, a lot of people are going to be upset. This kind of oversight is known as a regression bug: the newer product (NT 5.0) has removed a feature that was present in the previous (4.0) version.
Other than that, the Setup Manager is quite nice and it offers you two basic types of installation: Upgrade (over Windows 3.1, Windows 95/8, or NT 3.51/4.0) or Install. The second option will setup a dual-boot menu so you can boot between Windows NT 5.0 and whatever other operating systems you might already have installed. At this early stage in the beta, I do not recommend upgrading anything other than Windows NT 4.0 and even that may have complications. While NT 5.0 is extremely stable, I can't recommend wiping out a perfectly good OS just to use it. Go the dual-boot method (Install, not Upgrade) and all will be well, assuming you have an extra partition to install it to.
Aside from providing my name, a machine name, my workgroup name, and an IP address (because my home network does not use DHCP), the install proceeded with little input from me. About 30 minutes later, I was presented with the NT 5.0 login dialog box, and the system was ready to go. After logging in, I got my first surprise: NT 5.0 automatically recognized my sound card! I don't know of anyone who got NT 4.0 to automatically install their sound card, and maybe I'm just a geek, but hearing the startup sound brought a smile to my face. This has never happened before with NT. I took a quick look around the Shell and decided that any existing Windows user will be quite at home here. Let's take a look at the new features in the user interface.
User interface improvements
At first glance, the Windows NT 5.0 user interface is virtually identical to the one you're used to in Windows 95/8 and NT 4.0 (Picture). But it doesn't take long to realize that there are lots of little things that have changed, and while some of them may be disarming at first, it quickly becomes clear that there is a rhyme and reason to these changes. The Windows NT 5.0 user interface has been simplified, modified, and overhauled into a virtual work of art. All the features I've begged for have been added, as have some features I never knew I needed until I saw them. I won't dwell on any features that were added in Windows 98, though they are all here. Here's the run-down of new Windows NT 5.0 user interface features.
- New mouse cursor -- The mouse in NT 5.0 has a subtle, yet noticeable shadow underneath it. As it passes over the desktop and any windows you have open, you get a visual cue that the cursor is hovering over the rest of the screen. Admittedly, this is a small thing, but the effect is quite pleasing.
- Personalized menus -- The Start menu and menus in Shell windows such as My Computer and Explorer are personalized (by default, you can turn it off), meaning that the system tracks the way you work and places more commonly-accessed items closer to the top of the menu. This effect takes a week or so to kick-in, because the system needs time to get a feel for the way you use your computer. This feature was lifted from the Office 2000 team, incidentally.
- My Network Places -- Another nod to simplicity, this replacement for Network Neighborhood shows a default display of the network resources you most frequently access, not a boring list of every machine on the network (you can still get to that list, of course). (Picture)
- Customizable Shell toolbars -- The toolbars in My Computer and Windows Explorer are completely customizable now, ala those in Office. Simply right-click a toolbar, choose Properties and go to town.
- Network Connections -- This Shell folder, which is available from the root of the shell, replaces both Dial-up Networking and Network Properties. It offers a one-stop place to setup any kind of connection, be it modem, ISDN, cable modem/DSL, Ethernet, or whatever. (Picture)
- Hardware Wizard -- Yup, NT 5.0 has a full-featured Hardware Wizard that even surpasses the one in Windows 98. (Picture)
- Device Manager -- Don't rub your eyes, you read it right: Windows NT 5.0 has also received a Device Manager! And imagine my surprise when I saw that my new NT 5 install had correctly detected and installed every piece of hardware I owned. This isn't your father's NT! (Picture)
- Add/Remove Programs -- Now implemented in rich HTML, the Add/Remove Programs applet in NT 5 is clearly a step above previous implementations. And it's smart too, with various view styles and support for a new setup format that will one day see the death of setup.exe files everywhere. (Picture)
- Folder Options -- Now available as a global Control Panel applet, Folder Options in NT 5 makes the version in Windows 98 look sick. It also offers many TweakUI-like settings, like the ability to cascade open the Control Panel, Printers, and My Documents items in the Start Menu (Adios Mio, I've been asking for that for three years!). This is a HUGE improvement. (Picture)
- Data Links/ODBC -- As ODBC goes the way of the dodo, Microsoft has added a new Data Links applet that controls OLE-DB data connections. The old ODBC applet is still there for backwards compatibility.
- Power Management -- OK, this one is just like the one in Windows 98, but can you believe your eyes? It's in NT! Note that NT 5.0 only supports ACPI power management, not the older APM. (Picture)
Despite the fact that Windows NT 5.0 isn't aimed at the home user, Microsoft saw fit to add just about every multimedia feature from Windows 98 and then some. I may as well mention the one omission right off the bat: NT 5.0 will not include WebTV for Windows because of marketing reasons (and general laziness, in my opinion: There was quite an outcry for this feature at the NT 5.0 Technical Reviewers Workshop). Anyway, game players and other multimedia users will not be disappointed in NT 5.0. In addition to full hardware support for DirectX 6.0 (yes, you read that right: HARDWARE support, just like Windows 98), Windows NT 5.0 will support the full list of Windows multimedia features including:
- Windows Media Player -- Plays just about every type of streaming audio and video there is. Kiss RealPlayer goodbye for good!
- Deluxe CD Player -- Windows 98 users have to buy Plus!98 to get this one, but it's free with Windows NT 5.0. And it rocks!
- DVD Player -- I don't have a DVD player to test this one (mostly because the two DVD titles that currently exist aren't that compelling to me) but you can be sure that NT 5.0 will out there supporting the latest standards from day one.
- Sounds properties -- This one is interesting. Remember in NT 4.0 when Multimedia Properties would setup your sound hardware but Sounds properties would setup your sounds and sound schemes? In NT 5.0, the two are combined into a single Sounds Properties. This single applet is used to setup anything related to sounds (or any other kind of multimedia, including joysticks and the like). Why they don't call it "Multimedia Properties" is beyond me: it would be more logical. (Picture)
System management features
One of the big goals when Microsoft developed Windows 95 (think back a bit now) was to remove the confusing array of "Manager" programs in Windows 3.1 (such as File Manager, Program Manager, Print Manager, etc.). It was a laudable goal, but Microsoft committed the same sin all over again with the management tools in Windows NT 4.0. If you look through your "Administrative Tools" folder in NT 4.0, you'll see a bewildering array of programs, and adding any of the BackOffice servers, like Exchange, SQL Server, or SMS just adds to the confusing list of possibilities.
In late 1996, Microsoft took the first steps to correcting this problem with the development of the "Slate" management tool, which eventually became known as the Microsoft Management Console (MMC). The MMC made its debut in late 1997 with Windows NT 4.0 Option Pack, and it is fully integrated with Windows NT 5.0 as well. The NT 5.0 version of MMC is used to manage virtually every aspect of your system, from users, services, and events to disk management (including defragmentation) and system information.
Windows NT Workstation doesn't offer the wide array of management options that comes with Server, but the list is still quite impressive (Picture):
- Computer -- A collection of management plug-ins, and the default view you get when you right-click My Computer and select "Manage."
- Certificate Manager -- Manages digital certificates, which authenticate secure exchanges of data on non-secure networks.
- Event Viewer -- View the Application, Security and System logs in a variety of view styles.
- Index Service -- Indexes hard directories and Web sites to make searching more efficient.
- Internet Information Services -- Optional install of Web and FTP services.
- Removable Storage -- An incredible range of tools for removable storage devices, including CD-ROM drives, ZIP drives, and the like.
- User Manager -- Manage local user and groups.
- System Information -- Another seemingly endless list of system information utilities, including conflicts and sharing, I/O addresses, IRQs, system components, services, jobs, and much, much more.
- Services -- Applications that run automatically in the background without any need for a user to login.
- Group Policy Editor -- Manage policies for user groups.
- File Service -- A connection and resource usage summary for local and remote computers. This was previously managed by the Server applet in Control Panel.
- Device Manager -- Yup, Device Manager. Manage all your hardware devices from a single location.
- Logical Drives -- Get property sheets for every drive, all from one location.
- Disk Management -- This is a plug-in replacement for the old Disk Manager program.
- SMTP Server -- Part of Internet Information Services, this is a send mail component generally used for Web sites.
- And there's probably more: The NT 5.0 MMC is a rich environment for administration and management.
And by using a single management console, Microsoft has made it easy to manage your system: No need to hunt around for the right tool, just right-click My Computer and choose Manage. What could be easier? And the MMC is configurable, so you can make your own custom consoles. Let's say you use User Manager, Internet Services, and Index Server a lot: Simply open a blank console, add those plug-ins, and save a shortcut. Custom consoles are a snap! And perhaps best of all, the MMC works over networks and the Internet so you can manage remote sites as well.
Applications and applications management
Technically, this is a management topic, but the way Windows NT 5.0 handles applications and applications management is worthy of its own heading. Consider the old Windows 95/8/NT 4.0 way of installing and managing an application: You run the installation program, typically from a setup.exe file. The application installs itself on your computer and, hopefully, provides an entry for itself in Add/Remove Programs. If you'd like to modify the installation of the application later (add or remove components, or delete the whole thing), you visit Add/Remove programs, perform your change and hope it works. With this method, there are all kinds of problems: First of all, you have to hope the program "follows the rules" for Add/Remove Programs. Some applications let you add and remove components while others just remove the program when you choose it from Add/Remove programs. And then there's the "DLL hell" problem: Applications add older DLLs, screwing up other applications. Or when you uninstall the program, it actually asks you whether you want to keep certain DLLs or delete them. It's the software equivalent of Russian Roulette.
In NT 5.0, there's a new game in town. While NT 5.0 will, of course, support the older method of installing programs, Microsoft has created a new way to install programs and a new Add/Remove Programs (Picture) to manage this task. In the NT 5.0 world, Applications register themselves with the system, which tracks any changes the application makes to DLLs and the like. Windows NT 5.0 is smart enough to prevent programs from overwriting newer DLLs and it will repair itself if an errant app does somehow manage to screw something up. And the Add/Remove Programs applet, which is now an HTML form, will give applications vendors a rich environment for supporting its users, with a place to record support information, including phone number, product ID, version number, and the like. What this all adds up to is a kinder, gentler Windows. Obviously, we'll be dealing with old-style apps for years to come, but Windows NT 5.0 is the first step toward a total exorcism of this problem and it looks like Microsoft is heading in the right direction.
With all this good news about Windows NT 5.0, you may be wondering why they don't just ship it. Well, it may look ready, but there is still some work to do under the hood. Because this is a beta release and not the final code, there are some (admittedly small) performance issues when you compare an NT 5.0 system with a similar Windows 98 or Windows NT 4.0 install. There are occasional small pauses when you click on a button or select a program from the Start Menu, for example.
Also, there are many types of hardware that aren't yet supported, including most scanners and digital cameras, USB devices (I tried a USB Connectix--now Logitech--Web camera, which NT 5.0 sees as a "Generic USB Printer" (Picture)), and Voodoo/Voodoo 2 video cards (these are the cards that you plug in alongside your existing PCI video card). ACPI power management in this release is limited to a very small number of chipsets, presumably because of problems in early releases. On my Pentium II 400, for example, Windows 98 can shut the system down completely, but Windows NT 5.0 Beta 2 gives me a "You may now shut down your computer" screen. Microsoft will support a much wider range of machines by Beta 3, I'm sure. And I had some curious problems trying to connect to IIS 5.0 from Visual InterDev until I read the release notes: There's a quickie work-around to this problem.
You're probably getting the idea that none of these issues are huge, and you're right. It's a good sign when you have to haggle over the small stuff.
Well, what can I say: I plan to use this operating system on a daily basis for some time to come, and I can't think of any higher praise than that. Unlike the clumsy misfire that was Beta 1, Windows NT 5.0 Beta 2 is, finally, a worthy owner of the NT name and a successful step into the future of computing. There isn't a single issue with this OS that qualifies as serious and it's certainly more stable than Windows 95/8. Whether it will prove to be more stable and robust when compared to Windows NT 4.0 is another story, and one that I will be unable to tell until I've spent more time with it. But my preliminary view of Beta 2 is nothing but good news: Microsoft has a serious winner on its hands. Kudos to the NT development team for a job well done.