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Should You Upgrade to Windows 2000?

I get a lot of mail, but the question I get asked more than any other is:Should I upgrade to Windows 2000? The question is generally prefaced with a short explanation of the hardware that person uses, the software they have installed on their system, and/or the operating system they are currently using. Because of the complexity of this question, I've decided to write up the definitive explanation of why you should--or shouldn't--upgrade to Windows 2000.

First of all, despite it's name, Windows 2000 is not the binary successor to Windows 98. You might assume that Windows 2000 is an obvious upgrade for Windows 95 and Windows 98 machines, but this isn't necessarily the case. Windows 2000 began life as Windows NT 5.0, the next major revision of Windows NT, Microsoft's operating system for businesses. So Windows 2000 is actually an obvious upgrade for Windows NT users, not Windows 9x users. Under the hood, Windows 2000 is an elegant 32-bit operating system with absolutely no ties to the DOS-based 16/32-bit mishmash we call Windows 95 and Windows 98. However, Windows 2000, like NT 4.0, is largely compatible with the software that is written for the 9x family, so there are some less than superficial likenesses between the two.

What Windows 2000 brings to the table, when compared to Windows 98, is reliability, ease-of-use improvements, and scalability. For example, Windows 2000 will rarely, if ever crash. Anyone who uses Windows 98 knows that this is not the case in that operating system. The Windows 2000 user interface includes a number of changes that make it simpler than Windows 98. And a Windows 2000 system rarely, if ever, needs to be rebooted. For example, in Windows 98, any change to networking properties will require a reboot. But in Windows 2000, you can make constant changes without rebooting: It just works. Finally, Windows 2000 Professional, the end-user version of Windows 2000, supports up to two microprocessors. So you can finally take advantage of the power of multiple microprocessors, a feature that is unavailable to Windows 9x users.

Windows 2000 also surpasses Windows 98 for mobile users with a host of power management and file synchronization features that are simply unavailable in Windows 98. For mobile users that meet the hardware requirements, Windows 2000 is impossible to beat.

In addition to these features,  Windows 2000 includes most of the features you've come to know and love in Windows 98. Windows 2000 is compatible with a wide array of hardware devices, including the latest USB, IEEE-1394 ("Firewire"), and AGP devices. It offers the same Internet Explorer 5.x Web-integration features as Windows 98. And Windows 2000 runs virtually all of the applications that are available for Windows 98.

Looking over this stunning list of reasons to use Windows 2000, you might logically conclude that upgrading to Windows 2000 is a foregone conclusion. But hold on. There are some issues and problems you need to be made aware of first: Windows 2000 isn't for everybody, at least not yet. Let's take a look at the main sticking points in a Windows 2000 upgrade.

Base requirements
Microsoft advertises the minimum requirements for Windows 2000 as an Intel or Intel-compatible PC with a 133 MHz microprocessor, 64 MB of RAM, and 2 GB of free disk space. Anyone who installs Windows 2000 on such a system is in for trouble, however: I recommend, at minimum, a Pentium II 300 or higher and at least 128 MB of RAM. Windows 2000 will eat up whatever hardware resources you have, and each running application will take its toll as well. If your system meets this criteria, then you're halfway home. If not, then you're going to want to get used to Windows 98 or start planning for an upgrade.

In short, if you don't have a 300 MHz CPU and 128 MB of RAM, forget Windows 2000.

Hardware compatibility
Hardware compatibility is the single biggest issue facing any upgrade. Before slapping down any dough on Windows 2000 Professional, be sure to download Microsoft's free Windows 2000 Readiness Analyzer. This tool will analyze your system and report potentially incompatible hardware devices and software applications. While it's not exhaustive, it's an excellent first step. If the Analyzer finds no incompatibilities, run over to the Microsoft FTP site and check out the latest version of the Windows 2000 Hardware Compatibility List (HCL), which is updated constantly. This manual way of checking hardware compatibility will take more time, but provide a more complete picture. If you have an existing Windows 9x setup, check out the Device Manager for a complete list of your installed hardware. Then, search the HCL for that hardware. If it's all on there, chances are, the Windows 2000 upgrade will work without a hitch.

If it isn't all there, then it's time to do some soul-searching. Some compatibility trouble areas for Windows 2000 include scanners and digital cameras ("imaging"), 3D video cards (especially newer models), non-Microsoft gaming devices, portable MP3 devices, and other consumer-level hardware. If Microsoft doesn't explicitly include support for a hardware device in the box, then you'll need to download drivers from the hardware maker. And in many cases, those drivers won't be immediately available but will instead arrive sometime over the course of 2000. If you decide to install Windows 2000 before the driver(s) are available, you'll need to do without for a while. If it's a device that's required to use the computer, such as a video card, don't even bother: 16 colors at 640x480 isn't a fate to be wished on anyone.

For the short-term, Windows 2000 won't be able to touch the hardware compatibility of Windows 98, which will work with every piece of hardware out there. Over time, however, Windows 2000 will catch up. If the incompatibility of specific devices is keeping your from upgrading, keep visiting the vendors' Web sites to see when and if Windows 2000 drivers are provided.

Software compatibility
If your system meets the minimum requirements and is completely compatible, it's time to take a look at the software you use. While Windows 2000 should work with the vast majority of software written for Windows 9x, there are some applications that simply won't install or run correctly on Windows 2000. To ensure that the applications you need to run will work under Windows 2000, visit Microsoft's Hardware and Software Compatibility Web site. This site will allow you to search an online database for the applications you use regularly. If your applications are marked as "ready" or "certified," then you're good to go. Otherwise, you may need to contact the manufacturers for upgrades or take your chances and see whether they work in 2000.

Quick rule of thumb: Virtually all 32-bit applications written for Windows 9x will install and run fine under Windows 2000. Games, however, are another story. Many games are written to expect Windows 9x and will therefore simply refuse to run under Windows 2000. Other games may install correctly but refuse to run. If you're a game player, you may want to hold off on a Windows 2000 upgrade until at least mid-2000 so that game makers have a chance to ensure that their products run correctly under Windows 2000. Likewise, gamers will probably be turned off by Windows 2000's lack of support for gaming devices and other gaming-related hardware.

Case in point: Out of the box, Windows 2000 contains "support" for the 3dfx Voodoo3 video card, an accelerated 3D video card designed primarily for games. 3dfx specifically supports a subset of the OpenGL graphics library called Glide that is used by popular games such as Quake III Arena. So, you'd assume that the Voodoo3 would work fine with Windows 2000. After all, it's on the HCL.  However, Microsoft only includes 2D and DirectX support in the box, so Quake III Arena won't work with the Voodoo3 on Windows 2000 until 3dfx releases updated drivers. Unsuspecting gamers, seeing the Voodoo3 on the HCL, might simply go for the gold and upgrade their Windows 98 systems to 2000. Big mistake.

Doing the dual-boot
If you've sailed through the hardware and software compatibility tests and have decent-enough hardware to run Windows 2000, you've got one more task ahead of you: Dual booting with Windows 2000. Before you wipe out your Windows 9x system by upgrading it to Windows 2000, be aware that this upgrade is an all-or-nothing affair: There is no "uninstall" option in Windows 2000. Once you upgrade, you will be unable to get Windows 98 back without completely reformatting your system. For this reason, it's extremely important to install Windows 2000 in a dual-boot situation with Windows 98 so that you can choose which OS to load when your computer starts. With a dual-boot system, you can test Windows 2000 without killing your 9x install. That way, if it doesn't work out, you can go back to 98 without any major hassles. Windows 2000 will install the dual-boot menu for you automatically when you install it.

However, dual-booting has some issues of its own. You will need to install Windows 2000 to its own partition or hard drive, not to the same partition that Windows 2000 is installed on. If you cannot do this, then I don't recommend installing Windows 2000 without completely backing up your system.

If you do install Windows 2000 in a dual-boot with Windows 98 and it works out for you, then it's time to go ahead and do the upgrade. Of course, going forward, you will need to ensure that all of the hardware and software you buy is Windows 2000 compatible. For the first year that Windows 2000 is available, this could be a hassle. I needed to buy a scanner recently, for example, and though my local Best Buy and CompUSA had over two dozens models on the floor between them, none of them were Windows 2000 compatible. So I ended up ordering a Microtek Scanmaker scanner over the Internet instead, even though this is generally the type of thing I like to see firsthand before buying. In this case, I lucked out, but for many people this might be unacceptable.

If you run Windows NT 4.0, meet the minimum hardware requirements for Windows 2000 (mine, not Microsoft's), and have checked the HCL for compatibility, you should have no problems upgrading to Windows 2000. For Windows 95/98 users, however, the upgrade is a little more perilous, especially if you're using common consumer-level hardware like a scanner or digital camera. Windows 2000 is not an obvious upgrade for most consumers, due to its incompatibility with many games, gaming devices, and other consumer hardware. However, if you're using Office-type applications, Windows 98 will upgrade to Windows 2000 without issue, assuming the other compatibility issues have been resolved.

If you find that you can't upgrade to Windows 2000 for some reason, there are other Windows upgrade paths coming down the pike. In mid-2000, Microsoft hopes to ship the final version of Windows 98, code-named Millennium. This version of Windows 98 includes the Windows 2000 user interface and some other ease-of-use features that may be mildly enticing to consumers. And because it offers the same compatibility with hardware and software that Windows 98 has, it's a sure thing for consumers. In 2001, Microsoft will ship its first consumer Windows product based on Windows 2000. This version of Windows 2000 will benefit from the passage of time, as most hardware and software will likely be made compatible by then. 

And this, really, is where it's at: If your hardware or software isn't compatible with Windows 2000, just hang on. Unless you hear otherwise from the manufacturer, chances are that it will eventually work with Windows 2000. It's just a matter of time.

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