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Windows 98 Review

Billed as the ultimate upgrade to Windows 95, Microsoft's latest and greatest operating system is all that and more. You've probably heard about Windows 98, or seen it on the news, and maybe you've attended a Windows 98 demonstration at any one of the many tradeshows that Microsoft has attended in the past two years. You may have heard that it contains 13 million lines of code and is the central figure in a battle with the Justice Department that may last well into the next century. But before we look at the final release of Windows 98 (build 4.10.1998.6), let's backtrack a bit and explore why this product is the way it is, and how it got that way along the long road to its completion.

A few weeks after the triumphant release of Windows 95 in August 1995, Microsoft began planning the next version. Looking ahead, Microsoft realized that the next major revision of Windows would be NT-, not DOS-based, so "Memphis"--as Windows 98 was known at the time--would be a minor point release, not a major one like Windows 95. This created a couple of problems right off the bat, most notably a possible perception from consumers that Windows 98 wasn't really a big deal. And indeed, over the past few years, stories have erupted around the Net that Windows 98 is nothing more than Windows 95 with Internet Explorer 4.0 bundled in for good measure. On the other hand, there wouldn't be any major user interface paradigm shifts like there were with Windows 95, so many users would feel more comfortable upgrading.

The Deathmarch Beta 1996-1998
I've been testing Windows 98 since the very first release, a developer preview that shipped just after Christmas 1996. That initial release was basically a rebadged version of Windows 95 OSR-2 with USB support, the release of Windows 95 you'd get if you bought a new computer in 1997. It was stable as hell, and though IE 4.0 integration was still months away, you could see from Day One that this product was going to be something special. Over the course of the next year and a half, I installed every single build of Windows 98 Memphis--and there were dozens, all available for download--on at least one machine. Most builds, I was able to install on two or three machines. I suspect that most Windows 98 reviewers are far less experienced than I in this regard: this isn't a point of pride necessarily, but I feel that I have had a unique amount of experience with this operating system and thus a unique perspective on its role in the industry.

In February 1997, Microsoft attempted to integrate an early build of Internet Explorer 4.0 into Memphis, but it was an unqualified disaster. IE 4.0 wasn't even close to ready and after a few extremely buggy Memphis builds, the Memphis team decided to forget about integrating IE until it was more stable. For the next six months, the Memphis beta shipped with, yes you guessed it, IE 3.02!

Finally, on the last day of July 1997, Memphis Beta 2 shipped with an integrated IE 4.0 that was actually usable. From then on, Memphis was an integrated package of Windows and Internet Explorer. It was also quite stable. That fall, testers wondered aloud why Microsoft wasn't getting ready to release the product: It was extremely stable and most of the people on the test team thought it was ready to go. Microsoft, however, had a problem: Delays in Windows NT 5.0 meant that Windows 3.1 users had no direct upgrade path to a new operating system (Windows 98 offered those people no upgrade path at all). Microsoft's original plan was to offer a second release of Windows 98 that included Windows 3.1 upgrade capabilities but decided this would be confusing to consumers and pushed the release back so that this capability could be added.

The press howled, testers were confused, and Microsoft worked quickly behind the scenes to get Windows 3.1 support added to the program. In December 1997, Beta 3 was finally released with this support and Microsoft began adding Windows 3.1 users to the beta to test how it worked.

The next few months were confusing. New releases appeared late every week, and while I diligently downloaded and installed each build, I found fewer and fewer differences (or problems, for that matter). Windows 98 just worked and many testers (myself included) questioned why this thing wasn't getting released. To its credit, the Windows 98 team at Microsoft responded (often by phone!) to each and every bug report, determined that this product would never be labeled "rushed out the door" as Microsoft products often are. They really, really wanted to get it right and realized that a few months delay would be worth it if the product was that much better.

Finally, in early April, a few interesting developments occurred. Microsoft announced publicly that Windows 98 would be released to manufacturing on May 15th for a public availability date of June 25th. Then, on April 3rd, Release Candidate 1 was given to testers and the final wind-down commenced. Testers received a total of five release candidates during the next month, and in mid-May, right on schedule, Microsoft released the sixth Windows 98 release candidate to manufacturing.

We were finally done. I had never participated in a beta test that lasted nearly that long, but it was finally over.

Windows 98: What's the point?
So, after all this time, one has to wonder what the point is. I mean, Windows 98 is only a point release, and yet it took almost two years to get it to market. It's comparable to the Windows 3.0-to-3.1 upgrade in one sense, and yet as the final rendition of the Windows 9x line, you must understand that this is the ultimate Windows. It's the best it's ever going to be, and yes, that's quite good.

The Windows 98 philosophy is "extend and improve". It's not designed to rock the boat. Rather, this release fixes a lot of the niggling little problems and wholesale disasters in Windows 95 while refining and improving the overall experience. Microsoft product literature will tell you that Windows 98 offers four key areas of increased functionality, and that's as good a place as any to start. While I will be covering these features in more detail below, here are the key improvements Microsoft points to in Windows 98:

Provide the Best Internet Experience
As just about everyone and their brother knows by now, Windows 98 ships with an integrated Internet Explorer Web browser and Web-view enabled Shell (Figure 2). What some people may not realize, however, is that the version of IE 4.0 included with Windows 98 is the just-released SP1 version (build 4.72.3110), meaning that Windows 98 users will get the latest and greatest browser experience available right out of the box. Aside from Internet Explorer, Windows 98 also includes everything you'll need to get and send email, read online news, participate in video conferencing, and more. Best of all, future upgrades to Windows 98 will be provided via a Web-based Windows Update tool.

Deliver Higher Quality Computing
Windows 98 is faster and more stable than Windows 95, and programs load and run more quickly. Microsoft says it has made over 3000 improvements to Windows since this version of the product was first conceived two years ago and the attention to detail is obvious. Windows 98 also offers a new file system that adds more disk space, support for multiple (up to 9!) monitors and faster boot-up and shut-down times. A wide range of automated tools keep your system running smoothly without any interaction on your part, making Windows 98 the first step toward a self-maintaining operating system.

Make Computing More Entertaining
Windows 98 includes numerous improvements to its multimedia capabilities, including the latest version of DirectX (for games), MMX support, DVD support, and support for all the latest multimedia hardware and software. If you're a game player, Windows 98 is the ultimate games platform (Figure 3), with full support for legacy DOS games such as DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D, as well as the latest and greatest OpenGL or DirectX games like Quake 2, Forsaken, and Unreal. Games and other multimedia software titles simply run faster and more reliably on Windows 98 than they did with Windows 95.

Unlock the Power of Your PC and Accessories
Windows 98 incorporates support for the very latest in hardware innovations, including Universal Serial Bus (USB, Figure 4), force-feedback joysticks, digital cameras and video, scanners, 3D sound cards, TV tuner cards, and more. Also included right out of the box is support for WebTV for Windows (originally known as Windows Broadcast Architecture, or WBA), which allows you to view regular and interactive TV on your computer, though it requires a hardware TV tuner card. Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) support allows newer computers to turn on and off instantly, like a television or VCR, meaning that you'll never need to wait for your computer to boot or shut-down (Figure 5).

Windows 98 features

Well, once you've waded through the market literature, and actually used Windows 98, you begin to realize that Microsoft, for once, is living up to the hype. Windows 98 is everything Microsoft says it is, and more. Let's take a look.

Windows 98 desktop and shell
If you look quickly at the stock Windows 98 desktop (Figure 6), you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between it and Windows 95. By default, Windows 98 installs without Web-view or one-click program launching, so it looks just like Windows 95. Personally, I prefer the one-click approach, but Microsoft is probably correct in not implementing it by default: People moving from Windows 95 might be confused by this feature and Windows 98 is designed to be less jarring than that. It's easy enough to turn on this feature, of course.

Windows 98 will probably be the last implementation of Active Desktop as we now know it. First seen in Internet Explorer 4.0, the optional Active Desktop adds an HTML layer over the traditional Windows desktop, allowing you to apply Web components called Active Desktop items (creative name, huh?) that present you with live information over the Internet. Some of the more successful Active Desktop items include stock tickers and ESPN-style rotating sports scores, but this feature has been widely panned by users, who find the components intrusive. A bigger problem, of course, is that most people still don't have constant high-speed connections to the Internet, making the Active Desktop a useless accessory. The worst offender is the Active Channel bar, a floating toolbar of links to high-profile Microsoft partners such as Disney and Warner Bros. Smaller companies have long complained about the Channel bar, and it's likely to be dropped in future versions of IE. Annoyingly, an Active Channel bar appears even when you turn off the Active Desktop (shame, Microsoft!) but you can turn it off. The pesky critter then has the gumption to ask whether it should come on the next time you boot-up. I always choose "no," of course. Why anyone would want such a feature is beyond me.

My Computer and Explorer windows in Windows 98 come in three varieties: Classic view style (like Windows 95 or NT 4.0), full Web view style (where all Windows include HTML content), or, Custom view style, where you can determine exactly how you want windows to appear (Figure 7). This third view style is a welcome addition because it allows me to add one-click program activation (which makes icons in Windows behave like hyperlinks on a Web site) without forcing Web-view (with an annoying HTML section in each My Computer window) down my throat. Microsoft is to be applauded for adding this much customization: Most users will stick with the default view style and never think much about it, but power users are also taken care of.

One of the other nice touches in the Shell is the menu bars and toolbars, which you can now move around and configure at will. For example, the new Windows branding logo that appears in all Internet Explorer, My Computer, and Explorer windows looks better when it's next to a toolbar, rather than the menu bar, where it appears by default. By simply moving the menu and toolbars around, you can create you own configuration quickly and easily. I suppose by this time, it's almost beside the point that Internet Explorer integration allows you to browse the Web from any My Computer/Explorer window and browse your hard drive from IE if you wish. It's all part of the plan, and it doesn't matter where you perform these operations as all Shell windows behave the same way.

The Start menu
One of the least obvious, but most welcome additions to the Windows 98 Shell is the ability to modify and completely configure the Start menu. Windows 95 power users are probably familiar with the fact that you can right-click the Start menu, and choose "Open" or "Explorer" if you want to change the Start menu. In Windows 98, however, all of these operations can be completed by simply dragging the items in the Start Menu around the menu itself, while it's open, without having to open a separate window. Many users asked why this feature wasn't included in Windows 95, but their wish was granted in Windows 98: The Start menu is fully customizable, on the fly (Figure 8).

One annoying side effect of this feature, however, is the placement of new items in the Start menu. Typically, the Programs portion of the Start menu, for example, consists of program folders on the top, with a few program icons (like MS-DOS prompt and Windows Explorer) on the bottom. This folder on top, programs on bottom scheme has existed since the first days of Windows 95, and typically, adding a new program to your system will result in a new program folder in the Programs portion of the Start menu. In Windows 95, these program folders are alphabetically arranged automatically.

Well, not in Windows 98. If you add a new program to Windows 98, its program folder will be placed at the bottom of the Programs portion of the Start menu, not alphabetically where it belongs. Microsoft did this because the Start menu is now configurable and they couldn't rely on people keeping their icons alphabetically arranged. I argued--unsuccessfully--during the beta that the vast majority of users would, in fact, keep their icons alphabetical and never mess with them. The least Microsoft could do, I thought, was check to see if the icons were alphabetical and then arrange the new icons that way as well. If the icons weren't arranged in this fashion to begin with, Windows 98 could simply position the new icon at the bottom, as it now does. Alas, Microsoft wasn't interested in this opinion, so what most users are going to see in the Programs portion of their Start menu is a group of program folders, some program icons, and then more and more program folders (as they install more programs over time). This is simply inconsistent, a rare lapse for this product. It's also ignorant, because it overlooks the way most people use their computers and Microsoft likes to point out that Windows 98 is the result of user feedback. I guess it's a classic case of adding something that users did ask for and killing something else users liked without realizing it until it was gone. Hopefully, this "feature" will be fixed in a future Service Pack to Windows 98.

Windows 98 system tools
Windows 98 ships with a wide, wide range of tools and wizards that are designed to make this operating system run smoothly without user intervention. The most obvious of these is the Task Scheduler, which was first introduced in Plus! for Windows 95. The Windows 98 Task Scheduler works with a new feature called the Maintenance Wizard to schedule, well, tasks to run regularly at any time you wish. Task Scheduler runs automatically in the background each time that you start Windows 98. The Maintenance Wizard allows you to determine which maintenance tasks you want run automatically; basically, you set it up once (and it has great default settings) and then it automatically configures Task Scheduler to perform those tasks at the times you specify. By default, the Maintenance Wizard (Figure 9) schedules Disk Defragmenter, ScanDisk, and Disk Cleanup (see below for details on these tools) to run regularly.

The following system tools are available in Windows 98:

  • Backup - A utility (Figure 10) that can back up files to floppy disks, a tape drive, or another computer on your network. If your original files are damaged or lost, you can restore them from the backup. The backup tool in Windows 95 was a joke, but this one is wonderful. If you do backup your system but normally skip this tool, take a second look. It's a gem.
  • Compression Agent and DriveSpace 3 - Allows you to compress and modify hard drives with DriveSpace 3 technology. In this day and age of huge hard drives and file systems such as FAT32 that make good use of them, using DriveSpace is not really recommended. On the other hand, people upgrading from Windows 95 may appreciate that this feature is still supported.
  • Disk Cleanup - This tool (Figure 11) scans your hard drive for files that are seldom used, such as lost clusters, zero-length files, temporary Internet files, and even screen savers or help files, and allows you to quickly delete them. This is part of the Maintenance Wizard, so you shouldn't need to run it manually that often.
  • Disk Defragmenter - The famous Defrag utility has been upgraded for Windows 98 and now works well enough to make me forget third-party solutions such as Norton Utilities. In short, the longer you use a hard drive, the more fragmented the files on it become, making it slower and slower. Disk Defragmenter performs two important tasks: it defragments files, obviously, but it also rearranges files so that the most-often-used files are placed closer to the start of the drive. This lets them load and run far faster than would be possible if they were scattered all over the drive.
  • Drive Converter - Lets you convert your hard drive into the more-efficient FAT32 file format. Converting to FAT32 typically frees up more disk space; the larger the drive, the more space you'll get. Please be aware that FAT32 is incompatible with Windows NT 4.0 and earlier, so if you dual-boot with NT, you can't use FAT32 on the C: drive (on the other, Windows NT machines can access FAT32 partitions over a network without problem). Another small problem: Once you convert your drive to FAT32, Windows 98 has no way to change it back to FAT16, the old file format. On the other hand, third-party utilities, like the excellent Partition Magic, do allow you to perform this operation painlessly.
  • ScanDisk - check your hard disk for logical and physical errors, which it can then repair automatically. ScanDisk also comes in a DOS version that automatically runs when your system boots if it wasn't shutdown properly.
  • Other tools- - Windows 98 ships with a full complement of useful tools. In addition to the ones mentioned above, you can optionally install tools to monitor your system resources, the network, group policies and more. The Control Panel in Windows 98 also includes all kinds of system utilities.

Internet tools
It's no surprise by now that Internet Explorer 4.0 SP1 is an integral part of Windows 98, but the OS also ships with a wider group of useful Internet-related programs that make seamless integration with the Internet possible. The following Internet tools come bundled with Windows 98:

  • FrontPage Express - Essentially the HTML editor portion of FrontPage 98, this editor allows you to edit Web pages and Web views for you My Computer/Explorer windows. It's actually pretty nice, with a WYSIWYG interface, but anyone who spends a lot of time editing Web views has too much free time on their hands.
  • VRML 2.0 Viewer - Allows you to view VRML (virtual reality) Web sites from Internet Explorer. VRML is one of those things that just never took off, but fans will be happy to have an integrated solution.
  • Microsoft Wallet - A secure solution for Internet shopping on Web sites that support this technology. I expect to see plenty of Microsoft Wallet-compatible Web sites in the near future, though I have yet to run into one.
  • Personal Web Server - The Windows 98 version of Microsoft's award-winning Web server lets Web developers work locally. This is version 4.0 of the product, and it requires a separate install off of the Windows 98 CD-ROM. Personally, I can't stand the PlaySkool-like interface of this product, which I find insulting and counter-productive. Use at your own risk.
  • Real Audio Player 4.0 - An odd addition, given that the 5.0 version of this player is readily available. Worst of all, users with Real Audio Player 5.0 will be dismayed to find it overwritten with this older version when they upgrade to Windows 98. Microsoft will soon ship a new media player that works with Real Audio and Video, making this player obsolete anyway. The beta version is now available from the Microsoft Web site.
  • Web Publishing Wizard- - Typically, users need to learn how to use FTP programs when they want to upload Web content to a Web site on a remote server. This Wizard lets you upload such content without needing to learn FTP. I can't say that I'm a big fan of it, but beginning users will find it useful.
  • Web-based Enterprise Management - An interesting addition, and one that is better left to systems administrators, since it can only be used in a network where WBEM support is installed. Steer clear of this if you're only using a single system.

Windows Update
Windows Update is, perhaps, the coolest new feature in Windows 98 (Figure 12). Basically, it's a Web site that provides a central location to find updates, upgrades, and specific files customized for your system. These could include service packs, system files, device drivers, and new Windows 98 features. There are several links to Windows Update in the Start Menu, including a new entry that's hard-coded to Settings. When you launch Windows Update, Microsoft's new Update Web site opens in Internet Explorer, giving you options to get product updates, update your registration information, and more. There's really no excuse not to get the latest files for your system anymore, unless of course, you're not connected to the Web.

Power Management
Windows 98 ships with advanced power management (PM) capabilities that dwarfs the similar features found in the laptop-friendly Windows 95. Power management in Windows 98 (Figure 5) is based on the newer Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) specification, rather than the older Advanced Power Management (APM) technology used in 95. More specifically, it offers power management schemes for laptops, desktop computers, and newer "Always On" computing devices such as most 300 MHz or faster Pentium II systems.

Power Management is installed in Windows 98 whether you want it or not, so you should be advised that the default settings--which I also argued against during the beta--are horribly inadequate for most users. Windows 98 PM can shut down your monitor and hard drive(s) automatically after a specified period time that ranges from 1 minute to never. The default, however, is only 15 minutes, even for a desktop system. As a long-time laptop user, I understand the benefits of such a feature but most desktop users will be shocked to find their monitor turned off for them after such a short period of time. This is one of the first features I change when I install Windows 98.

If you have a newer computer than supports the Always On specification, you can set your Windows 98 computer to go into system standby mode rather than shut down completely. This way, you can leave programs running and come back days later, "turn on" your computer (which will take just a few seconds) and pick up where you left off. This feature works amazingly well on my new Dell Pentium II 400 system and I suspect it will be a popular feature.

One other caveat with PM in Windows 98: I've experienced weird problems with some computers that should support PM, but don't. With some older systems (notably the Pentium 133 system my wife currently uses), the monitor and hard drives shut down but can't be woken up again. You may want to test PM on older systems with no programs running as the only way to bring it back is to shut off the computer manually, turn it on, and then wait while ScanDisk runs while it boots back up. If this happens to you, simply change the PM settings for monitor and hard drive shut down to "never".

Communications tools In keeping with its tradition of easily connecting users to the outside world, Windows 98 ships with a variety of communications tools, such as Dial-up Networking, Direct Cable Connection, HyperTerminal, and the like. For the most part, these tools are the equal of their Windows 95 counterparts, though Dial-up Networking is a much-improved version from the original. Also new in Windows 98 is Virtual Private Networking, which lets Windows 98 users connect to private networks securely over public networks such as the Internet. I've used this feature to connect to my employer's Web and Mail servers.

Desktop Themes and Screen savers
Windows 98 ships with all of the Desktop Themes found in Plus! for Windows 95, Microsoft Kids!, and the Windows NT 4.0 Resource Kit, as well as adding a few Windows 98-specific Themes. Themes alter the appearance of your computer by changing the screen saver, sound events, mouse pointers, desktop wallpaper, icons, colors, and fonts that you use, providing every user with a unique computing experience (Figure 13). A lot of people condemn Themes as needless fluff, but I believe that anything you can do to make computing more personal is a good thing. On that note, the Themes are pretty cool, and there are thousands of other Themes available on the Internet for free. Microsoft also includes more Themes in Plus! for Windows 98, a separate Windows 98 companion product that is now available.

In addition to the standard collection of screen savers found in Windows 95--Flying Windows, Scrolling Marquee, and the like--Windows 98 ships with a collection of beautiful 3D OpenGL screensavers that first appeared with Windows NT 4.0. Screen saver fans with nice 3D hardware will definitely want to check these out.

Online Services
There's always something. That one feature you curse, even as you attempt to delete every vestige of it from your system. Online Services is such a feature. Back in the summer of 1995, Microsoft agreed to offer equal desktop space to competing online services so that it would not give its own Microsoft Network (MSN) an unfair advantage. Well, MSN never really took off and now we're stuck with Microsoft's "solution" almost three years later. Sure, many Windows 98 users do use online services such as America Online, and including the latest version of their client software with the OS is a nice touch for these users. Here's the problem: If you tell Windows 98 not to install Online Services, it will still put all kinds of Online Services files all over your system.

And I hate that.

Here's what you get when you tell Windows 98 to not install Online Services:

  • A shortcut to the Online Services folder on your desktop.
  • An "Try MSN for free!" shortcut on your desktop.
  • An Online Services folder in your Start Menu.
  • An Online Services folder in C:\Program Files that includes the installation programs for America Online, AT&T WorldNet, CompuServe, Prodigy, and the Microsoft Network. This occupies about 2MB of hard drive space.

Now, I don't use any of these services, except MSN on my laptop, and I definitely don't need this clutter on any of my systems. What bothers me most is that I have to manually delete all of these files and folders every single time I install Windows 98. This is one of those areas where Microsoft needs to understand that "no mean no": If I specifically tell Setup to not install this "feature", I should never see this much crap on my system, period.

Multi-monitor support
This may surprise a lot of people, but I hate multi-monitor support. Don't get me wrong, it works great: I tested a dual-monitor setup here for about a week (using 17 and 15" monitors) but soon returned to a single monitor system which I later upgraded with a 21" monitor. I find this setup far superior to dual monitors because of a weird idiosyncrasy we all rely on every day without even thinking about it. In a single monitor system, the right edge of many (if not all) windows you open bumps up against the right edge of the screen. You may not realize it, but you actually rely on that screen edge when you mouse over to the scrollbar of these windows, because the mouse stops moving when you hit the edge of the screen. This allows you to scroll the mouse over to the edge of the screen without any precision because you know instinctively that the cursor will hit the edge and stop. You don't even have to think about it. In a typical dual-monitor scenario, the second monitor is aligned with the right edge of the first monitor (though it doesn't have to be; a nice feature). I found myself missing the scroll bar of the window I was trying to scroll as the cursor flew widely over to the second monitor. At first, I thought I would get used to this, but I swear I never did, and eventually, I just gave up.

My opinion not withstanding, many people will love multi-monitor support and it does work seamlessly.


Put simply, Windows 98 is the ultimate version of Windows. If you can accept that Windows is the de-facto operating system, and therefore represents what a modern operating is, then Windows 98 is the greatest operating system ever created. Sure, it's not a jarring leap forward like Windows 95, but then that's the point. Windows 98 is the refined, improved, almost-perfect version of Windows we've been waiting for over the past two years. In every way, it is an improvement over Windows 95, and in every way it offers little features that make you smile and wonder how you ever got along without them. From the configurable, shaded window title bars to the HTML-based help system and the myriad of other little things I could never even begin to fully describe here, Windows 98 reminds you again and again of all the hard work that went into it.

Just a few short years ago, companies such as Apple Computer were driving the personal computer revolution. Microsoft changed all that with the release of Windows 95, and since that time the gap has only widened. As new releases from other companies borrow more and more heavily from Windows (witness Mac OS 8 as the most obvious example), one can only wonder where it will all stop. Windows 98 raises the bar even higher and the Apple Computers of the world will find a target that is slipping further and further away.

For users of Windows 95 and Windows 3.1, Windows 98 is an obvious upgrade, as long as your system is at least a Pentium 100 with 16 MB of RAM. I suggest at least a Pentium 133 with 32 MB of RAM, however, and newer computers will be able to take advantage of Windows 98's coolest features more readily. A Pentium II system with over 32MB of RAM is optimal. People who purchase a new computer for the next few years will get Windows 98 whether they want it or not, of course, but that's fine because all that new hardware they're getting will be better served by Windows 98 anyway.

In some ways, it's unfortunate that Windows 98 won't come into this world with a bang as Windows 95 did, but then it's a sign of the times that a much better operating system should be met with a relative yawn. Windows 98 is Windows as it should be, and maybe that's not such as big deal. I happen to think that Windows 98 is a stunning achievement, however, and it will serve hundreds of millions of users well for years to come.

You may have heard the saying "God is in the details." That's what Windows 98 is all about.

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