Taking a Closer Look at a Mobile NT

Last week, I introduced Windows NT 4.0 as my new choice for mobile computing on my aging Toshiba laptop. The feedback I've received suggests that people's mobile experiences with both NT 4.0 and Windows 2000 are somewhat mixed, so lets explore the issues a bit further.

Years ago, when I had more free time and the inclination, I became enthralled with id Software's first true 3-D game, Quake. When the original Quake was released, low-end Pentium-based machines were the norm, and hardware-accelerated 3-D had yet to turn the gaming world on its ear. Back then, players would do anything they could to speed up game play, resorting to lower screen resolutions and a bizarre series of setup tweaks that were particular to individual systems. The hardware has since grown up to match the quality of the games, and newer and more powerful games have appeared, but one constant remains: People's perception of performance—and what they're willing to do to change it—is very individual. I wouldn't touch Win2K on a machine with less than a Pentium II 300 processor with 128MB of RAM, for example. But I receive a lot of email from people who run Win2K on far less powerful systems—and claim to enjoy decent performance.

So what's the discrepancy here? A lot of it has to do with the applications people run. I regularly run Microsoft Outlook 2000, Word 2000, a few instances of Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0, and any number of other big applications. As a Web developer, I often run Visual Basic (VB) and Visual InterDev simultaneously with other applications, and I have Microsoft's IIS Web server and SQL Server 7.0 running in the background. That's a lot to ask of any computer, and I suspect it's more of a drag on resources than many people impose on their systems. So your results will always vary based on the applications you run.

In many ways, installing NT 4.0 was a blast from the past. I bought my copy of NT 4.0 Workstation on the first day it was available in July 1996. To give you an idea of how long ago this was, I purchased it at an Egghead retail store in Phoenix; the once-powerful Egghead later became a victim of computer superstores such as CompUSA. NT 4.0 Workstation came with IE 2.0 because IE 3.0 was still a month from shipping. (Does anyone else still have his or her Midnight Madness t-shirt for downloading IE 3.0 the night Microsoft released it?)

One of the first issues I faced when I installed NT this time around was getting IE up to speed. First, you must upgrade to IE 4.0, which adds the Desktop Update software that improves the Windows shell. Then, I upgraded to the latest version of IE 5.0, which, for some reason, doesn't install the shell enhancements.

The IE issues are emblematic of NT installation today. Because this is a fairly old OS, many parts of it must be updated before you can install applications. You must deal with service packs—the latest version is Service Pack 6a (SP6a)—and hot-fixes galore. And because I was installing NT 4.0 on a laptop, I had to figure out which of Toshiba's NT 4.0 drivers and updates I needed. I found that you must install much of this stuff in a particular order, which isn't always obvious. It's a hassle frankly—not something I'd do if my machine were more modern. But the result, at least in my case, is definitely worth it. Again, your experiences will vary, depending on your system's maker. (Some offer excellent NT 4.0 support, while others—most notoriously IBM—do not.)

I miss Win2K features, of course, and the list of what I miss is deceptively long. NT 4.0 doesn't support automatic hardware profiles, USB devices, Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) power management, true Plug and Play (PnP), and a host of other features. But I don't need many of these features on a machine that's never going to change. I have to shut down to swap the second battery with a CD-ROM drive, and that's a hassle. But NT boots much more quickly than Win2K. (Of course, with Win2K, I didn't have to shut it down at all, so that's sort of a toss up.) NT 4.0 can't connect to the network after it has been in Standby mode, and that stinks. But then I don't use Standby when the machine's plugged in anyway, and that's when I'm on the network. As you can see, each issue seems to have pros and cons.

In the end, NT 4.0 isn't a panacea, but it's a viable solution for people who run older hardware that can't handle Win2K efficiently. In my case, NT has been a huge success on a machine I was ready to give up for dead.

I suspect that many people will be pleasantly surprised by NT's performance, although others think Win2K runs just fine. Your own take on OS performance will be based on the laptop you use, the type and number of applications you run, and your reliance on specific Win2K features, especially if your entire network is upgrading to Win2K. But don't discount NT 4.0 just yet: It's not just for workstations any more.

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