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Windows Millennium Beta 2 Reviewed

To properly evaluate Windows Millennium Beta 2(Figure 1), its important to understand the goals for this release of Consumer Windows, which is outlined in my Introduction to Windows Millennium Beta 2. Millennium is designed for home users, not corporate desktops, for example, and it needs to be tested in appropriate scenarios . Unlike previous versions of Windows such as Windows 95 and Windows 98, Millennium will not be an option in businesses: Instead, Microsoft will push Windows 2000 Professional to those customers.

The Millennium Test bed
Unlike many reviews you'll see of Millennium, I use multiple systems to get a real feel for how an operating system works in a variety of situations. To evaluate Millennium, I installed Beta 2 from scratch on the following three systems:

  • Toshiba 490XCDT laptop running a Pentium II 266, 160 MB of RAM, a 4.3 GB hard drive, a rather impressive docking station with four PC card slots total, USB external mouse, a 3Com 3C574-TX PC-card NIC, and an internal modem. This system is attached to external speakers while docked.
  • Dell XPS-R400 mini-tower running a Pentium II 400, 384 MB of RAM, one 6.0 GB EIDE hard drive, two 5.1 GB EIDE hard drives, USB ZIP 100 drive, a 21" Dell-branded Trinitron monitor, Microsoft Sound System 10 speakers in USB mode, an Adaptec 2940UW SCSI controller with a 4/12 Plextor CDR, a NetGear FA310TX NIC, a 9X CD-ROM, and a Creative Labs AWE-64 sound card.
  • Home-built mini-tower running a Celeron 400, 256 MB of RAM, two 4.3 GB UW SCSI-III Cheetah hard drives, an Adaptec 2940UW SCSI controller, an Adaptec 7850 SCSI controller, a Yamaha CDR, a 3Com Fast Etherlink XL NIC, a 12X CD-ROM, and Bose speakers on a Creative Labs AWE-64 sound card. This system also includes a parallel port ImageWave scanner. Both desktops are running PS/2 mice and keyboards.

I chose these systems because they represent fairly typical mainstream hardware and, perhaps most importantly, they each have a variety of multimedia and USB devices that should take Millennium through its paces. I'll describe Millennium's ability to recognize and correctly utilize these devices in the next section.

I also upgraded a stock Windows 98 SE install to Windows Millennium Beta 2, since this will be the most common upgrade path for most users. This was performed on the Dell XPS-R400 system, and I subsequently installed my entire range of typically-used applications on the system to check it out thoroughly.

Setting up Windows Millennium
The Millennium setup program (Figure 2) is very similar to that employed by Windows 98 and Windows 98 Second Edition (SE) and will therefore be very familiar to the hundreds of millions of people already using these operating systems. A few of the dialogs in the setup wizard have been cleaned up (Figure 3) but most of the screens should be familiar to anyone who has installed Windows 98/SE (Figure 4 and Figure 5). However, there are a few new choices, such as the Compressed Folders feature from Plus! for Windows 98 (these choices are not available during an upgrade, however, which kind of stinks. And there's no way to install them later either, at least in Beta 2). One nice touch during Setup is a new dialog (Figure 6) that was added to the System Configuration stage of setup, which occurs as the last step after the second reboot: It displays progress bars indicating how far along the current component and the overall progress are. This takes the guessing out of what used to be the most monotonous stage of setup.

Windows Millennium, unlike Windows 2000, requires three reboots before you are presented with a running operating system and this, I think, is a weakness of this legacy operating system which cannot detect Plug and Play (PnP) and non-PnP hardware at the same time. The setup routine just takes too much time.

I set up Millennium in two ways: First, as an upgrade to Windows 98 Second Edition, and then, after a complete hard drive reformat, as a fresh install. In the case of the upgrade (which was performed on the 400 MHz desktop machine), Windows 98 SE had a "clean" Device Manager with no yellow bangs, meaning that every hardware device attached to the system was detected, configured, and working properly (Figure 7). In this limited upgrade test, Millennium upgraded without a hitch.

In the case of the clean installs, Millennium fared just a bit worse: On the home-built desktop machine, every hardware device was detected and  configured properly. On the Dell desktop and the laptop, the NICs had to be manually configured using drivers from the manufacturers, which isn't generally too much to ask though, in the case of the desktop, it was a nightmare: In fact, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to be able to get the network card installed when it suddenly just worked for some reason. On the laptop, the clean install resulted in one device (it turned out to be the Toshiba internal modem), listed under "Other devices" that wasn't found (Figure 8). Even given these small caveats, Millennium is a hardware compatibility champ, which is pretty much what I expected given its Windows 9x heritage.

A first look at Windows Millennium
When Windows Millennium first boots up, its appearance is a striking cross between Windows 98 and Windows 2000. The Windows 98 color scheme is used (teal desktop with dark gray window coloring) but the desktop icons are straight from Windows 2000 (Figure 9), as are the user interface gadgets in My Computer. In fact, a curious blend of Windows 98 and Windows 2000 pervades throughout the entire OS, making it sometimes difficult to tell which OS you're actually using. If I could make one recommendation to the Consumer Windows team, it would be to make sure that the Millennium user interface is as close to identical to Windows 2000 as is possible: This will at least give Millennium the appearance of quality.

Let's take a closer look at this. In the My Computer window alone, we can see a variety of cross-breeding between Microsoft's current two OSes (Figure 10). For example, the toolbar is identical to that in Windows 2000, even down to the Customize dialog that you can access by right-clicking the toolbar (Figure 11). The Web view in Millennium is unique, however, different from (and far uglier than) that in both Windows 98 and Windows 2000. The My Computer window itself mimics the Teutonic efficiency of Windows 2000, where all special folders except the Control Panel have been removed. Nice. 

The Tools menu in My Computer offers exactly the same choices as its Windows 2000 counterpart, though some of the choices work differently (Figure 12). The Map Network Drive and Disconnect Network Drive choices are identical to those in Windows 98, and do not offer the nice Wizard-based approach used in Windows 2000 (Figure 13). The Folder Options choice is straight out of Windows 2000, however, giving Millennium users access to a much wider array of choices than those presented in Windows 98 (Figure 14). But the Synchronize option is perhaps the most disappointing: In Windows 2000, this option allows you to synchronize Offline Folders, Offline Web pages, and Web Folders. But Millennium lacks an Offline Folders option because of its consumer bent, which is a shame (Figure 15).

Confused?  These types of subtle differences are all over the place and you can see that the Consumer Windows team is working toward getting Millennium as close to Windows 2000 as possible. The Millennium System Properties dialog is identical to Windows 98, not Windows 2000 (Figure 16). The My Network Places folder looks identical to that in Windows 2000, but works differently: For every shared resource on the network, a Network Place shortcut is automatically created for you, up to ten resources on ten machines (Figure 17). This quickly leads to a slew of icons in the folder, something that doesn't happen in Windows 2000. Another little disappointment: The Network Properties dialog is straight out of Windows 98, offering Fisher Price-like access to your network cards, protocols, and other networking properties, not the elegant interface used by Windows 2000 (Figure 18). And God forbid you change anything in networking: You'll be rebooting all day. Let's hope the Consumer Windows team can get the Windows 2000 networking code going in Millennium.

The Control Panel (Figure 19) benefits from some of Windows 2000's consolidations (Scanners and Cameras, for example) but not others (Millennium still uses separate applets for Modems and Telephony, for example, while Windows 2000 uses a consolidated Phone and Modem options applet to perform the same tasks). Microsoft has also provided beta testers with a brand new version of TweakUI, which is nice (Figure 20).

The Millennium Start Menu is laid out like that in Windows 98, but it does employ the Personalization feature from Windows 2000, which is nice. But Millennium actually surpasses Windows 2000 with its Taskbar and Start Menu options: In addition to the options we expect in Windows 2000 (expand Control Panel and Printers, for example), Millennium offers the following unique choices: Display Favorites (unless this is turned off with TweakUI), Display the Run command, Enable me to drag and drop items in the Start menu, Enable me to move and resize the Taskbar, and Enable shortcut menus on the taskbar (Figure 21).

I could go on and on about the user interface weirdisms (I guess I already have), but I think you get the idea. Of course, the user interface will probably change a bit over the course of the beta. I expect Windows Millennium to even more closely resemble Windows 2000 by the time it ships next year.

New HTML applications: A preview of Activity Centers?
Online help in Windows Millennium has been replaced by a new utility called Help and Support (Figure 22, previously known as Help Center when Activity Centers were a go and PC Health before that; it's also found in a folder called PCHEALTH, interestingly). This is an HTML-based utility that is designed to reduce support calls by giving the user and easy way to troubleshoot problems with the system. It could eventually be a great idea, but the current version looks sick when compared to the old online help though the opening "page" is nice enough. Once you drill down enough, however, you see the weird integration of Windows help files into the HTML user interface (Figure 23) and even some dead-ends. Granted, it's still in beta and I must admit that it's improved ten-fold since the first Developer's Preview last summer. I'll be writing a lot more about Help and Support in a Millennium Technology Showcase before the end of the year. Stay tuned.

There's also a new System Restore tool (Figure 24, located under System Tools in the Start menu) that can be used to undo changes made to your programs and Windows. You will be able to use this tool to go back to a previous state that was known to work properly, similar to the last known good configuration feature in Windows 2000. System Restore allows you to change your system configuration in three ways: By event (installing a new program, for example), by system checkpoint (Figure 25, checkpoints are snapshots that are taken several times a day; the system saves two weeks' worth of them), or by date (Figure 26). Changes made with System Restore can also be reversed, a nice feature. Also, anything saved in the virtual folder My Documents will not be affected, so you don't need to worry about Microsoft stomping all over your data files.

Both Help and Support and System Restore are examples of what would have been Activity Centers, had that feature been retained for this release of Consumer Windows. But both of these tools, especially System Restore, have somewhat nasty user interfaces, which are slow and awkward because they're based on HTML, not the rich and mature Win32 API normally used by native Windows applications. These tools will likely improve over time and, of course, when Activity Centers are finally implemented in Neptune, the technology will likely have matured dramatically. In the meantime, I'll reserve judgment on them for the final release.

Whither DOS?
One of the big rumors circulating about Millennium is that it has somehow done away with MS-DOS, which has been used as boot loader and run-time environment in Windows since Windows 95. Well, DOS is alive and well in Millennium, actually, but Microsoft has done a good job of hiding it. This was done to simplify the operating system, however, not in some bid to fool anyone about its underpinnings. (Shades of Andrew Schulman and "No, really, Windows 95 is a fully 32-bit operating system!")

So here's the story: Windows Millennium contains MS-DOS, as did Windows 95 and 98/SE (Figure 27). And like those operating systems, you can launch and run MS-DOS applications in full-screen mode or in a window and they run as good as ever. What's happened in Millennium, however, is that Microsoft has stripped out the options to shutdown to an MS-DOS command line or boot into a command line when the system first starts up. One could debate the rationale behind this, but I basically agree with the decision: The age of DOS is long gone, and almost nobody would ever need to boot into DOS anymore. And those that do can still use a boot floppy, of course.

I tested DOS support by running DOOM 2 and Duke Nukem 3D. Both ran flawlessly on each system, in both full screen and windowed mode.

In short, only Real mode DOS support has been removed: Windows Millennium will not process AUTOEXEC.BAT or CONFIG.SYS files when it boots (though it will populate these files as needed so that applications that rely on them will still work, an interesting touch). Environment variables that were previously set up in AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS can be set up in the Windows Registry, though no Windows 2000-like user interface for this currently exists.  I expect the UI for this to come along before Millennium ships, but we'll see. If you have a DOS program that needs to run in Real mode, you can always edit its PIF file to prevent the program from detecting that it is running under Windows. 

About Driver Signing and the future of Devices
Perhaps the single most controversial move in Millennium is the inclusion of driver signing, which blocks some non-certified drivers from installing. Microsoft did this with an eye toward reducing the single biggest cause of instability in Windows, poorly-written device drivers. In earlier Millennium builds, the driver signing feature actually blocked the installation of certain drivers, but I haven't seen that yet in Beta 2 and I've installed all kinds of crazy stuff. It looks like they've reduced the security to a set of sternly worded dialogs, which is a much better approach. Remember, consumers are going to expect devices to simply work on Millennium as they did on earlier versions of Windows 98. Microsoft has opened its Windows Hardware Quality Labs (WHQL) to OEMs, however: Hopefully, they will take advantage of this opportunity to get drivers certified by Microsoft and, better yet, included in the Millennium box.

New Power Management features
Millennium supports the ACPI and APM 1.2 power management specifications (Figure 28). New to Millennium is Hibernation, a Windows 2000 feature that saves the current state of the system to a file when you shut down the system, and then allows you to power off the system like you would when you normally shut down. When you decide to turn your computer back on, Windows will then restore your system to the state you previously left it in. However, Millennium Beta 2 was missing Hibernation support: Apparently, Microsoft discovered a problem with it and the feature will be returned in future builds. 

From my experience with Windows 2000, I'm not sure what I think about Hibernation: Like a World War II veteran that doesn't trust ATM machines, I'm a bit suspicious of this feature and its ability to save state. But more rationally, I'm also not too fond of the amount of time it takes a Hibernation-enabled machine to come back to life, at least in Windows 2000. For now I'll stick with Standby mode, which seems to work much more quickly in Millennium than it does in Windows 2000.

New gaming features
When Microsoft contacted me about the Millennium Beta 2 release, the press kit contained an interesting mention of a feature I hadn't heard of before, the Application Manager and Game Options applet. This tool, I was told, is designed to aid users in the installation and management of games. When games that support the Application Manager are installed, their disk space usage can be managed automatically, so that frequently used games get the space they need while infrequently used titles can be setup to use a CD-ROM disk instead. That sounds reasonable enough, and one of the first things I did when I received Millennium was to go and look for it. There's no icon for such a tool in the Start menu however, so I checked the Control Panel and saw nothing obvious. And because there was nowhere else to go, I finally took a look at the Gaming Options applet in the Control Panel (called Game controllers on a Windows 98 SE system). And there is it, almost completely hidden.

In Windows 98, the Game Controllers has two tabs, General and Advanced. The Millennium Gaming Options applet has three, Controllers (Figure 29, same as "General"), Controller IDs (Figure 30, same as "Advanced") and a new one, Disk Usage (Figure 31). The Disk Usage pane of the Gaming Options applet is, as far as I can tell, the only UI for this much-ballyhooed Application Manager and Game Options tool, at least in Beta 2. And as far as I can tell, there isn't much going on here. I installed two games, Quake 3 Arena and Unreal Tournament, on the Dell system but since both predate this tool (despite being brand new at the time of this writing), Millennium has no way to monitor their disk usage. So basically, a game would need to be written with this feature in mind for it to work at all.

I'm hoping that there's more going on here than what I can see in Beta 2. Time will tell.

Internet Explorer 5.5
Windows Millennium includes yet another version of Internet Explorer, this time version 5.5 (Figure 32). IE 5.5 doesn't offer much over IE 5.0 or 5.01, though it does, of course, include a number of bug fixes and a cool new Print Preview feature (Figure 33) that currently has some display issues (Figure 34). I'll be reviewing IE 5.5 separately soon, but there's nothing major to report.

Application and hardware compatibility
On my final install of Millennium Beta 2, an upgrade of Windows 98 SE that went flawlessly, I installed a large number of applications that I use on a regular basis, such as Office 2000, Copernic 2000 pro, Visual Studio 6.0, Netscape Communicator, and many more, including the two games I mentioned previously. Everything worked flawlessly.

I also installed a number of hardware items, including a parallel port scanner (Storm), a RIO 500 MP3 player, a Microsoft FreeStyle Pro game pad, the Microsoft IntelliMouse Explorer mouse, an Iomega ZIP 100 USB, and the Microsoft Internet keyboard Pro, all of which are USB devices. Everything worked perfectly. In fact, Windows Millennium seems to copy the behavior of Windows 2000 where many hardware device drivers are loaded on the system disk so that the CD-ROM isn't required every time a new piece of hardware is connected. In a age where 13 GB 7200 RPM drives can be had for less than $150, this is not a problem and I'm frankly pretty happy with the feature. However, I also think that this should be an option during install for the hard drive challenged.

The only real hardware compatibility issue I had was with the
NetGear FA310TX NIC in the Dell.  When I installed Millennium fresh, it refused to recognize the card, despite the fact that it's not a particularly new NIC. And my attempts to get the system to recognize the proper drivers were infuriating: After numerous reboots and retries, it finally took, though I still have no idea why. The upgrade from Windows 98 SE went far more smoothly: I installed the drivers under 98 without issue (other than the numerous reboots: One for the driver, one for changing to a static IP, one for installing MS Proxy client, and one for installing the MS file sharing service) and then upgraded. Windows Millennium accepted the drivers and proceeded like a champ.

In short, software and hardware compatibility were exactly what I expected: Nearly perfect. And frankly, I'd accept nothing less in a consumer Windows that is clearly a point upgrade of Windows 98. 

Windows Millennium, like Windows 98 Second Edition, is clearly designed for the vast majority of home/consumer users. Unless you're a programmer, work-at-home system administrator, or other power user who simply must have Windows 2000 Professional, Windows Millennium is the way to go.  It offers the best hardware and software compatibility in a package that easily out-performs Windows 2000 on identical hardware. Boot time is measured in seconds, not minutes. And because the out-of-box experience is so similar to Windows 2000, Millennium users will be able to get the best of both worlds.

But Millennium is also a pretty boring upgrade. Like Windows 98 and Windows 98 SE before it, Millennium offers a new Web browser (5.5 in this case), bug fixes, and a few new features. But nothing here is all that exciting and it certainly doesn't warrant a $90 upgrade price. Hopefully, Microsoft will take a page from its SE playbook and offer this release for $20 to existing Windows 98/SE customers. I've heard rumors, too, that Millennium will not be sold at retail but will be only made available with new computer purchases, ala Windows 95 OSR2. This wouldn't surprise me in the slightest. While it's likely that Millennium will ultimately be named Windows 98 Millennium Edition, the company may as well call it Windows 98 Third Edition (or Windows 95 Sixth Edition for the cynical). Without any serious eye candy, it's going to be a tough sell for many people.

Of course, Millennium is still pretty early in its development cycle and its likely that many things will change before its released. Hopefully, the changes will be geared toward reducing the usability differences between it and Windows 2000 Professional, though I'm thinking that Microsoft is going to come under some criticism for releasing yet another version of Windows 98 without any major UI changes. I'm looking forward to the full-fledged Activity Centers, though we won't see that until the Windows 2000-based Neptune, due in 2001.

The best thing about Millennium, of course, is that it just works. Even in this early beta form, it looks like a winner for consumers. I'll need to spend more time with Beta 2 in the coming weeks to be sure, but I'm looking forward to the final release, now expected in mid to late 2000.

Windows Millennium requires a Pentium 200 or higher and 32 MB of RAM or higher. I recommend a Pentium II processor with at least 64 MB of RAM, preferably 128 MB or more.

Figure 1: "Millennium" Beta 2 composite.

Figure 2: Windows Millennium Setup is almost identical to Windows 98 SE...

Figure 4: ...with dialogs with choices that are easier to understand...

Figure 6: The nicest touch in Setup: A component progress dialog.

Figure 8: On two systems, the network card wasn't properly detected and installed.

Figure 9: The Millennium desktop.

Figure 10: My Computer: The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Figure 11: Customizing My Computer toolbars is a snap.

Figure 13: No nice Wizard for you! 

Figure 14: Finally, the global Folder Settings from Windows 2000.

Figure 16: System Properties.

Figure 17: My Network Places includes an unusual auto-add resource feature that I detest.

Figure 18: Networking, for ages 3 and up. May include small parts that are hazardous to young children.

Figure 20: A cool new version of TweakUI that probably won't make the final CD.

Figure 21: The Taskbar and Start Menu properties exceeds that of Windows 2000, nice.

Figure 22: Look, an Activity Center! Oh, wait.

Figure 23: Uh, yeah, that looks fine. Go with it.

Figure 24: System Resources features a friendly puke-green UI.

Figure 27: DOS lives in Millennium!

Figure 31: Seriously, this is an exciting new feature.

Figure 32: Internet Explorer 5.5.

Figure 33: IE 5.5 supports a powerful new Print Preview feature.

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