The Forgotten Laptop OS?

I don't travel quite as much as I used to, but I do get out on the road at least once every 2 months, sometimes more. I've had various laptops over the years, but my current companion is a Toshiba Satellite Pro 490XCDT, a 266MHz Pentium II box that's maxed out with 160MB of RAM. I've been running Windows 2000 on this machine on and off since mid-1999, and a BIOS upgrade late last year finally enabled Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) power management support, an almost incalculable benefit for mobile users. But Win2K is a massive OS with hefty disk and memory requirements, and the little Toshiba isn't really up to the task, given the applications I run regularly. On a recent trip to Phoenix, I actually started cajoling it out loud, practically begging the thing to run faster. I just couldn't take it any more.

During the course of the Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me) beta, I loaded the machine with various versions of this consumer OS as well, hoping to find a happy medium between Win2K's power and Windows 98's speed and size. But Windows Me is woefully inadequate, at least on this machine, and I experienced a bizarre series of problems that are serious enough for me to discount Windows Me as a valid mobile OS. It supports ACPI power management, which is nice, but it takes far too long to switch between hardware profiles, which happens when I remove it from the docking station (Win2K makes the switch almost simultaneously). And Windows Me goes into a catatonic state when I try to work offline; the machine is virtually useless for offline Web viewing while on a plane. Combined with Windows Me's relative instability, lack of security, and other issues, I can't bear to use it on the laptop. I just wouldn't trust it on a trip.

I've tried various other Windows 9X versions as well, but they suffer from the same limitations as Windows Me: Ultimately, the crashes and lockups wore me down. I had pretty much concluded that I needed to spend big bucks on a new high-end laptop powerful enough to run Win2K. But even as I began pricing these boxes on the Web, I realized that I had forgotten about another OS alternative, one that doesn't necessarily leap to mind in a discussion about mobile computing. I'm talking, of course, about Windows NT.

When NT 4.0 shipped in 1996, Microsoft had pretty much conceded the mobile end of the market to Windows 95. At the time, there just wasn't any way to make NT work well on a laptop: It didn't support power management at all, for example, and its heady hardware requirements brought most mobile computers to their knees. In 1997, I briefly ran NT 4.0 on a Dell P133 laptop with 24MB of RAM—but battery life and performance were atrocious. Today, however, NT 4.0 is actually a viable solution for many Pentium II-level notebooks, assuming that you have the proper drivers. In my case, I do: Toshiba supplies a wide variety of NT 4.0-compatible drivers for my system, up to and including APM power management. No, it's not as powerful as the newer ACPI power management (e.g., it can't go into Standby mode when I close the lid), but it's far better than nothing.

So I'm running NT. It's secure, fast, and stable. NT makes Win2K look like even more of a dog. The base NT OS occupies half the drive space Win2K takes, uses half the RAM at idle, and boots in about half the time. It has the IIS Web server I need for local Web development, and I still have 1.8GB free on a hard disk that had 1GB less space free with an identically loaded Win2K system. The difference, frankly, is staggering. What I lack, of course, are some of the niceties that I could expect from Win2K: the aforementioned ACPI, USB support, and, most egregiously, Offline Files and Folders, a feature I've grown to love. But the performance gains more than outweigh the cost, and running NT 4.0 gives new legs to a system I was ready to give up for dead.

Does NT 4.0 still make sense for your suddenly aging mobile computers? Visit the support Web site for your laptop manufacturers to check for NT 4 drivers—and you may be pleasantly surprised. Also, check out Microsoft's excellent online resource for NT 4.0 laptop support.

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