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Windows 2000 Professional Beta 3 Review

Windows 2000 Professional is designed for business desktops and corporate mobile users that require access to their data and personalized settings regardless of physical location. Unlike Windows 98, which caters to the home/consumer and gaming markets, Windows 2000 Professional--which replaces Windows NT Workstation--is designed solely for businesses, which its feature-set bears out. Still, so-called power users and software developers will probably flock to Windows 2000 Professional as they did with Windows NT Workstation. And they should: This is the best desktop operating system that Microsoft has ever created.

To fully understand Windows 2000 Professional Beta 3, it's important to evaluate the goals of this release. When Microsoft began preparing for the next version of Windows NT shortly after the release of NT 4.0 in July 1996, it was decided that simplicity and reliability should be the primary goals for Windows NT 5.0, which became known as Windows 2000 in late 1998. Over time, the list was expanded somewhat so that Windows 2000 would be the easiest version of Windows yet, include the best business features of Windows 98 with the power of Windows NT, while lowering the total cost of ownership (TCO). This somewhat nebulous set of goals was fortified with specific changes to the product that, literally, makes it the best desktop Windows ever created.

Let's take a look at these goals individually and see how Microsoft met the challenge or, in some cases, fell short. In the following sections, I examine the features in Windows 2000 Beta 3 that Microsoft is using to sell Professional as a solution for business users. 

Easiest Windows Yet?
A cursory examination of the Windows 2000 desktop (Figure 1) reveals no major surprises, resembling as it does its Windows 98 and NT 4.0 forbearers. Aside from a few obvious graphical changes (new icons and color scheme, for example), there are a couple of subtle changes here: The My Documents folder is now located more conspicuously at the top of the screen and Network Neighborhood has been renamed to My Network Places. But the Windows 2000 desktop is also less busy that previous Windows desktops, with fewer icons and needless clutter. And the My Computer window is likewise less cluttered: Icons for Dial-up Networking, Printers, Scheduled Tasks, and Web Folders have been removed and placed in more logical locations within Control Panel. This isn't a huge deal, but any attempt at cleaning up the cluttered interface is a welcome change.

When you open the Start Menu, however, things begin to get interesting. Windows 2000 uses a new feature called Personalized Menus, which tracks the way you use the Start menu (and other menus, such as the Favorites menu in Internet Explorer). Programs that you use infrequently begin to drop off of the menu over time. You can still get to them via a small chevron (Figure 2) at the bottom of each menu, but in day-to-day use, your menus will appear more compact, with fewer meaningless choices obscuring the icons you do actually do use. If you do need to get at the hidden choices, however, it's easy: Simply click on a chevron (Figure 3) or hover over the menu for a few seconds and it will expand to reveal all of the choices (Figure 3b). Months ago, when I first encountered this feature, I wasn't sure that it was such a great idea, but today I overwhelming endorse the concept. However, if you're not interested in using Personalized Menus, they're easy to turn off from the Taskbar Properties dialog box (Figure 4).

The Find feature from previous versions of Windows has been revamped into an HTML-based Search Wizard, which opens an Explorer Bar-enhanced Internet Explorer window (Figure 5). This new Search feature, not coincidentally, somewhat resembles the search feature in Internet Explorer 5.0, but it allows for  sophisticated searching of your local drives and remote resources for files with numerous options. There's one particularly annoying limitation of Search that was also present in the old Find feature: When the search results pane fills up, there's no way to click on the folder name of one of the files it returns to open that folder (Update: Thanks to reader Paul Hill, who discovered that this feature does actually exist: You can alternate-click a found item and choose "Open containing folder."). Overall, however, the Search feature is a nice addition to Windows 2000, despite the fact that it doesn't remember the settings from your previous searches as Find did.

Microsoft's move to an HTML-based Help system has drawn collective groans from various parties, especially developers that are forced to wade through the massive Visual Studio 6.0 documentation in a less than elegant way. But the HTML Help system in Windows 2000 (Figure 6) isn't as annoying somehow, perhaps because of the type of information it displays. This feature is neither better nor worse than the old Help system in Windows NT 4.0 in my opinion. Microsoft also provides a link to an online version of the help system via the Windows Update Web site. 

Windows 2000 also introduces a set of new Open and Save/Save As dialogs, which bear more than a passing resemblance to the similar dialogs ignobly added to Microsoft Office 2000. These dialog boxes (Figure 7) now feature an Outlook Bar of frequently-accessed locations such as the Desktop, the My Documents folder, and more, a huge benefit to any user. And more subtle additions--such as the scaled-back navigational toolbar--only add to the effect. All in all, the new dialogs are a welcome change. However, I wish there was some way to modify the icons in the Outlook Bar to include locations of my own choosing: Perhaps there's a place on the network I frequently visit, for example.

Error messages in Windows 2000 have been improved dramatically as well. Gone are the obscure error codes of years past, replaced with plain English descriptions and links to appropriate help topics. I'd like to demonstrate one of these dialogs, but the truth is I haven't had a single error (let alone a crash) in Windows 2000 Beta 3 (and earlier) in over a month.

Microsoft has always done a good job of supporting multiple languages, but the new multi-language functionality in Windows 2000 is simply amazing: you can switch between languages on the fly, changing one language to another on the same computer without having to reboot. But more importantly, you can use Windows 2000 in multiple simultaneous languages, where some applications are in French, say, and others are in English. Or, you could typically use Spanish for most tasks, but view, print, and write documents in Russian.
For more information about this excellent feature, please check out this Microsoft White paper.

Windows 2000's Add/Remove Hardware Wizard (Figure 8) is very similar to the Add New Hardware Wizard in Windows 98, though it's far more powerful, allowing you to add a new device, troubleshoot an existing device, uninstall a device, or unplug a hot-swappable device. Take that, Windows 98. And kudos to Microsoft: Along with a real Device Manager, this was one of the most painful missing feature in Windows NT 4.0. And because Windows 2000 supports Dynamic Plug and Play for automatic configuration of hardware and support for new swappable devices (such as PC cards, mobile computer batteries, USB devices, and the like) Windows 2000 is conspicuously better than even Windows 98 when working with the latest hardware. I have a USB ZIP drive, for example, attached to my daily use Windows 2000 Professional workstation. Because this is a hot-swappable device, Windows 2000 added a new icon (Figure 9) to the system tray that allows me to easily unplug or eject the hardware (Figure 10). Very nice.

The Network Connection Wizard is another example of steady improvement in Windows 2000: Now, all types of network connections, be they dial-up connections, VPN connections, Ethernet/NIC connections, direct connections, or whatever, are handled through the Network and Dial-up Connections applet in the Control Panel. And the new Network Connection Wizard (Figure 11) makes it easy to setup and manage any kind of connection at all. This kind of consolidation--where two related by previous separate applets are combined into a more logical single applet--occurs throughout Windows 2000. And it's a welcome and successful move toward simplicity.
Finally, the infamous Web integration of Internet Explorer 5.0 bears some mention. When Windows 98 was in beta, Microsoft tried to shovel a one-click, mouse-over highlighting My Computer/Explorer interface that closely resembled the way the Web works. The company argued (I think somewhat successfully) that using this method for navigating the file system would require users to learn only one paradigm. However, customer complaints caused them to back off from this approach: In Windows 98, as with Windows 2000 Beta 3, the system ships with the old style double-click interface and leaves the single-click style as an option (Figure 12). Also, the Active Desktop in Windows 2000 is downplayed somewhat, so that it is off by default, though still easily accessible. And the annoying Channel features from IE 4.0 (Channel bar on the desktop, etc.) are nowhere to be found.


By now, I'd expect that most people are pretty comfortable with the IE integration in Windows (Figure 13) with the possible exception of system administrators that can't stand anything superfluous on their systems. But IE is so thoroughly integrated into Windows 2000 that the point is almost moot, and by this point the IE code has finally matured to the point where its inclusion in an NT product is longer an issue.

There are a couple of weirdisms in the IE interface in Windows 2000, however. If you're familiar with Windows NT, you'll recall that its multi-user nature caused Microsoft to divide the Start menu into two logical areas, the "current user" section and the "all users" section. You can see the contents of these sections most clearly by right-clicking the Start button in NT 4.0 and choosing either "Open" (for the current user) or "Open All Users" (for the all users section). Windows NT 4.0 divided the sections in the start menu with a line, so that they were clearly demarked and many system administrators used this demarcation to separate user applications (like Word and Excel) from administration tools and server applications (such as SQL Server and IIS). When IE 4.0 was introduced, the two sections remained (and indeed, each section had its own unique icon) but the dividing line disappeared, causing all kinds of complaints from sys admins. In Windows 2000, Microsoft has blurred things a bit by combining the contents of both sections into a unified Start menu they call combined menus. So even though the two sections remain in the file system, they appear as one in the Start menu (Figure 14). Sort of.  When you move icons around the Start menu, Windows 2000 will suddenly complain that "this change will affect all users of this computer," a confusing little dialog to say the least. My opinion on this is that the current situation is somewhat acceptable but not even close to what we've been asking for all these years since IE 4.0 debuted: Why can't it just go back to the way it was in the first version of Windows NT 4.0?  Weird.

Another weird little issue related to IE integration is the toolbar icons. Many users, for example, might like to display the toolbar icons in My Computer as small icons but display the toolbar icons in the IE 5.0 browser as large icons. Tough luck: When you change the view style of either My Computer or IE 5.0 toolbar icons, the other changes as well (Figure 15). I realize this isn't a huge deal, but I think this little problem is a good example of where IE integration just doesn't make sense: My Computer and IE 5.0 are "different" conceptually to most users and settings changes in one shouldn't affect the other. Weird.

Finally, the Personalized Menus feature from the Start menu has been added to the Favorites menu in IE 5.0 (Figure 16). While I'm a big fan of the personalized Start menu, I think that adding this feature to IE 5.0 was a huge mistake: Favorites, by definition, are something you explicitly add to your system, so the operating system should never hide any of them from you.  Unlike applications, which tend to spew icons for all kinds of useless things all over your Start menu, Favorites are manually added by the user and they should remain visible at all times.  Again, it's not a huge deal, and I'll probably find myself getting used to this feature. 

So, is Windows 2000 the easiest Windows yet? Yeah, I'd say so. Many tasks have been streamlined and the user interface has been cleaned up, though almost to the point of stupidity in some cases (Figure 17). One thing I'll never understand is why a business OS like Windows 2000 uses cutesy names such as "My Computer" and "My Network Places" when it would have been so easy for the system to auto-name them to the computer name and network domain name, for example. But overall, Windows 2000 really is the easiest Windows ever, assuming your hardware is compatible of course. There's nothing easy about a system that won't boot. In the end, it's almost ironic that an NT-based operating system would so easily outpace the consumer-oriented Windows 98 in this area, but then these things rarely make sense. Expect the 9x line to jump into the lead again next year when the new Consumer Windows is released.

The best of Windows 98 with none of the DOS
With Windows 98, Microsoft raised the bar of Windows 95 with an improved user interface and a host of small yet compelling new features that made the upgrade worthwhile. But the biggest reason to use Windows 98 is compatibility: Compatibility with all of the hardware and software on the planet. Windows 98 just works. And NT, for many people, was a non-issue because of its incompatibilities with both hardware and software. So a goal for Windows 2000 was to add "the best of" Windows 98 (an important phrase to remember, by the way) to NT. But "the best of" Windows 98 really only applies to business features.
Inevitably, the question will arise of whether Windows 2000 is an appropriate upgrade from Windows 98. The short answer to this question, alas, is no, although there will be exceptions. If you're using Windows 98 on a corporate network, for example, Windows 2000 makes sense. If you're using a Pentium II 300 or better with more than 64 MB of RAM, Windows 2000 may make sense assuming all of your hardware and software is compatible. And, most surprising of all, if you're a business user with a qualifying laptop (A Pentium II with at least 64MB of RAM) then Windows 2000 actually blows Windows 98 out of the water.

How is this possible? Windows NT 4.0 almost completely abandoned the mobile market because of its utter lack of support for power management and mobile hardware support. Well, Windows 2000 screams ahead with a vengeance,  offering all of the excellent power management support from Windows 98 while adding support for the newer ACPI power management specification. Windows 2000 literally offers state of the art mobile support that surpasses Windows 98.

But it doesn't stop there. Looking at the way mobile users interact with data, Microsoft decided to make it easier for people to access network shares while they are disconnected from the network. Two features make this possible (and, frankly, easy to use): Offline folders and the Synchronization Manager. Here's how it works: Let's say you're a typical Dilbertesque mobile worker that needs access to data in one more network shares while the laptop is physically disconnected from the network (because of a business trip, or a telecommuting scenario). All you have to do is navigate to that resource, alternate-click and choose Make Available Offline. This launches the Offline Files Wizard, which steps you through the process (Figure 18). You can choose to synchronize the offline files automatically every time you log on and off the computer, or manually synchronize the files with the Synchronization Manager before the big trip (Figure 19). And the Wizard allows you to set up all kinds of options, such as offline reminders and desktop shortcuts to the offline resource (Figure 20). Sweet. 

If you choose manual synchronization, you can launch the Synchronization Manager from the Tools menu in My Computer or Explorer (Figure 21). This dialog allows you to perform all kinds of setup changes as well. Very nice.

But Windows 2000's support for the best features of Windows 98 doesn't end there. Windows 2000 includes a Device Manager, Add/Remove Hardware Wizard, DirectX and OpenGL support, a new Backup program, a disk defragmenter (Figure 22), and a disk cleanup tool similar to the one in Plus! for Windows 98. Full support for Windows 98's FAT32 file system means an end to the agonizing file system incompatibilities between NT and 9x (well, 98 still can't read NTFS, but at least NT/2000 can now fully utilize FAT32). And because Windows 2000 technically supports all of the next-generation hardware--such as USB, IEEE 1394/FireWire, AGP, multiple monitors/video cards, DVD, and Device Bay--it's ready to go on the latest systems.

It's not all roses, of course. Windows 2000 doesn't support the WebTV for Windows feature from Windows 98. And at this time, hardware support for new Direct3D and Open GL video cards is spotty at best. I have a 12 MB Voodoo 2 card that isn't natively supported yet, so I'm forced to use the NT 4.0 drivers which don't give Direct3D support so many new games are out of the question. This situation will improve over time, however. There's no doubt that Windows 2000 will become a superset of Windows 98 with time. Right now, that's not the case. But it can only get better. 

By using the phrase "the best of Windows 98," Microsoft has effectively shielded itself from incompatibility criticisms for the time being. Users of Windows NT will be delighted with the new Windows 98 features in Windows 2000. Windows 98 users--well---some of them are going to be disappointed. Especially if game playing and legacy hardware/software support are an issue (So don't even think about playing DOS games like Duke Nukem 3D in Windows 2000, for example. It ain't going to happen). But Windows 2000 does include the "best of Windows 98" from a business point of view, assuming we're talking about mobile computer support, power management, user interface niceties, system utilities, FAT32 file support, and other business-related improvements. 

The power of Windows NT... obviously
Stating that the "power of Windows NT" is a feature of Windows 2000 may seem fairly obvious to someone computer literate, but to the world at large, "Windows 2000" sounds like an upgrade to Windows 98, not NT. But Windows 2000 inherits the core of Windows NT 4.0 while adding a host of new features. Because it's based on Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000 is extremely reliable, virtually crash-proof, and scalable. But Windows 2000 starts with the best of NT, if you will, and takes it to the next level.

First of all, Windows 2000 benefits from three years of improvements to Windows NT 4.0 right out of the box. All of the security updates, bug fixes, and other subtle improvements that have come about in five service packs for Windows NT 4.0 are present in Windows 2000. So Windows 2000 is going to be the obvious platform of choice for developers, power users, engineers, high-end graphics users and anyone else that needs a reliable, secure, 24/7 operating system. 

But Windows 2000 requires far fewer restarts than Windows NT 4.0: Microsoft identified 75 tasks in  NT 4 that required a reboot (such as changing networking settings) vs. only 7 in Windows 2000. Folks, that's amazing. To test this, I changed IP addresses on my workstation, enabled and disabled Connection Sharing, and performed other networking related changes. Not a single restart. To an NT user, this is nothing short of miraculous.

Microsoft pushes the Windows Installer as a major new feature of Windows 2000, but this wonderful program certainly isn't present during Windows 2000's overly simple installation. Instead, we're treated to a hand's off install with absolutely no chance to perform a custom install without scripting it (I'll be explaining how to do a custom install both before and after completing a normal Windows 2000 installation in a future Technology Showcase. Update: My "Removing Windows components after installation" Technology Showcase is now available). This is clearly the most agonizing miscue in Windows 2000, and the one brain-dead mistake that the Windows 2000 team made in designing this product. But Windows Installer is built-in to Windows 2000, so future applications can take advantage of its wonders. I'll also be looking at Windows Installer in a future Tech Showcase.

Microsoft says that the performance of Windows 2000 Professional is better than Windows 98 on systems with 64MB or more of RAM. Don't believe it. Anyone that runs Windows 2000 on a 64 MB system (unless you run one application at a time) will notice a difference. But once you bump the RAM up to 128 MB (and use at least a Pentium II 300 processor), Windows 2000 clearly outshines Windows 98. And, for you power-hungry freaks out there, it also supports up to 4 GB of RAM and supports two microprocessors, unlike Windows 98. 

Windows 2000 positively oozes with security features, something that's completely missing in Windows 98. And because Windows 2000 is secure from the ground up, with an Encrypted Filesystem (EFS) for local security, Kerebos for network security, Public key for Internet security, and smart card support for physical machine access security, Windows 2000 is the ultimate OS for anyone that's worried about data invasion. Windows NT has been battle-tested in the field with numerous security updates, and Windows 2000 promises to be even better.

One amazing new feature is the new System File Protection (SFP), which protects all SYS, DLL, EXE, and OCX files that ship with Windows 2000. This is a valiant (and successful) deterrent to "DLL hell" where an application you install simply overwrites key system files with its own--sometimes out of date--version. Windows 2000 prevents applications from doing this, while throwing up a reassuring dialog box explaining how it just saved the day. Folks, this thing works and it works great. Bravo.  

Lower Total Cost of Ownership for mere mortals
The final goal for Windows 2000--lowering the total cost of ownership--is something that's been attacked from a variety of angles. The simple truth is that Windows networks are expensive to maintain and support, so Microsoft has added new technologies to Windows 2000 that makes it easier to deploy, install, manage, and support Windows 2000-based networks.

Indeed, the "feature" I complained about in the previous section--the lack of a custom install--is touted by Microsoft as a TOC feature, because it simplifies the install while allowing massive sites to script custom installs. I kind of see the point but have to wonder why the Windows Installer isn't used to install Windows 2000 and why there isn't a command line switch to trigger a custom install. Whatever: The Windows 2000 installation is hands free and you can still use the System Preparation Tool (updated for Windows 2000) to manager massive identical installs. Sometimes I feel alone when I complain about things like this (Incidentally, I'll be covering the Windows 2000 install process in my review of "Upgrading Windows 98 and NT 4.0 to Windows 2000 Beta 3," which should be done soon).

Using the incredible IntelliMirror technology, administrators can perform remote installation of Windows 2000 Professional workstations, and manage Windows 2000 networks like never before. These features require Windows 2000 Server as well, but you can perform policy-based deployments across network from a single location, allowing network roaming users to logon to any machine on the network and see all of their customized settings (desktop, color and sound schemes, Favorites, etc.) and easily replace desktop computers without losing any data. I'll be looking at IntelliMirror in a future Technology Showcase of course.

As far as upgrading goes, Microsoft says that migration from Windows NT and Windows 9x is "simple" but I'd add a few caveats. The Windows NT 4.0 to Windows 2000 upgrade is virtually guaranteed, but upgrading Windows 9x to Windows 2000 could result in a bizarre Frankenstein's Monster OS, with dangling incompatible programs and utilities still cluttering up the system. The installation program will tell you which hardware and software will be out to lunch before it installs, however, a nice touch.

On the manageability front, we see a mixed bag. Certainly, Microsoft has done a lot to clean up the numerous Control Panel applets and administration tools (indeed, the admin tools are hidden by default in Windows 2000 Professional). But rather than truly fix the problem, Windows 2000 simply reshuffles the numerous applications you need to administer the OS effectively. I'll look at this more closely in my Server Beta 3 review but suffice to say that you'll be using "Manage this Computer" (Figure 23) more than you'd like. 
On the good news front, however, is the way Microsoft will be handling service packs for Windows 2000. Unlike the ugly service pack install issues in Windows NT 4.0, administrators will be able to slipstream the updated files from service packs into the i386 install directory on a server, allowing them to maintain one master image of the OS that always has the latest bits. No more bizarre reinstallation of applications after applying a service pack. And service packs will be used solely to fix bugs, not add new features. Future Option Packs will be used to add functionality.

Finally, Microsoft has added a new boot-up diagnostic utility that is enabled by pressing F8 when the system starts. And like Windows 98, you can actually access a command line prompt at boot-up too, rather than have to boot into the GUI. Windows NT administrators have been asking for this feature for years.

Well, there's a lot of territory to cover when you talk about a major new OS release such as this and it's hard to do it the justice it deserves. But in the end, it's clear that Microsoft has done an incredibly good job of determining what people wanted upgraded in Windows NT 4.0 and then implemented those changes in a way that makes sense. Windows 2000 Professional isn't an OS for everyone--Game players with certain hardware configuration will find better hardware and software compatibility in Windows 98, for example, and legacy hardware is basically out of the running for an upgrade--but Windows 2000 excels in areas that Windows 98 can't even touch, such as security, reliability, and scalability.

In short, Windows 2000 Professional Beta 3 is the ultimate Windows desktop operating system for business users, mobile users, engineers, graphics artists, software developers, and power users. Its powerful new features are balanced with a simplicity and elegance not found in any previous version of Windows. I strongly recommend that anyone with the proper hardware (at least a PII 300 and 64 MB of RAM, and be sure to check the HCL for compatibility first) evaluate this operating system immediately.

Calling Windows 2000 Professional a triumph is an understatement. I'll be using Windows 2000 Professional Beta 3 as my day-to-day OS for the rest of the year and I suspect that you'll want to as well.

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