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Thursday, May 22, 2014

All About Windows '98


Technique : PC Musician


Since Microsoft released Windows 98 at the beginning of June, some PC musicians have held back to see how stable it is, while others have taken their chances. Martin Walker crosses his fingers and jumps the latest hurdle from Bill Gates.

Although most PC industry professionals have been seriously underwhelmed by the great fuss surrounding Windows 98, retailers have been reporting bigger sales during the first few weeks since its release than for Windows 95 -- only 22 days after its launch, total worldwide sales had topped the million mark. This is surprising, especially considering that the differences between the two are widely seen as evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.




Eleven-device MIDI limit no longer applies.

USB peripherals directly supported.

Multiple monitor support.

Extensive range of utilities.


Internet-based desktop additions irrelevant for most musicians.

Conflicts with existing software still likely over the next few months.

Additional built-in functions may slow down music applications slightly.


A useful but largely inessential upgrade that provides a host of new bells and whistles, Windows 98 may however be invaluable if you have a lot of MIDI devices.

Even PC suppliers seem to be finding it hard to come up with a list of exciting new features to help sell the product. To give you an example, one advertiser was claiming "Windows 98 makes your computer work better by integrating tightly with the Internet and providing better system performance and easier system diagnostics and maintenance". Hardly a must-have product! This even extends to its packaging, where the first major claim is "Save time ­ applications launch an average of 36% faster than on Windows 95". I don't know about you, but the proportion of my day spent launching applications has only ever been a few minutes to the many hours I spend actually working with them.

Because of this, I must point out that this is not going to be a review as such. Far more important than a new paint job and a lot of new bells and whistles, for the PC musician, are the implications of installing a new operating system. This is not something to be undertaken lightly, since the OS is the core of your PC, and the PC's stability and performance are largely dependent on it. Features that shave a few seconds off a typical dabbler's day will not necessarily improve the performance of a typical MIDI + Audio sequencer -- indeed, in many cases they will slow it down.

Bearing this in mind, I have concentrated on those aspects that I think are more relevant to the musician, and particularly issues of compatibility. You might think that pointing out potential problems before going into the new features of Windows 98 is the wrong way round, but it is often far easier to install Windows 98 than to remove it and return to Windows 95. If you do find that your favourite program crashes every time you launch it in Windows 98, you may have no choice but simply to avoid using it until a patch is released by the developer, and you might be left for weeks or even months before the cure is generally available.

Look Before You Leap

Judging by the number of emails we receive, and the number of queries we are starting to see posted on the soundonsound.com forum, many PC musicians have already upgraded to Windows 98. Thankfully the majority of people are experiencing few hardware problems, but as I have often pointed out in PC Notes, this is never guaranteed. Because of the huge range of components found inside PCs, there is always the possibility that a particular combination will react badly.

One cautionary tale comes from Microsoft itself, who have admitted that some of Windows 98's new power management features require fairly recent BIOS versions. A warning has now been issued recommending that before you upgrade to Windows 98, you should contact your PC manufacturer to find out if you need a BIOS update. Some manufacturers are now warning that their older models may not work adequately with Windows 98, so checking is sensible.

Spec Check

The official minimum PC spec for Windows 98 (as printed on the packaging) is a 486DX/66MHz processor and 16Mb RAM, but Microsoft do seem to be rather optimistic here. Although I have come across 486 owners upgrading to Windows 98, I certainly wouldn't recommend anything less than a Pentium with 32Mb RAM. Many people are probably upgrading in an effort to make their machines run faster and achieve larger number of hard disk recording tracks, but I wouldn't hold out much hope of this. In general, it seems that Windows 98 takes a little more overhead to provide its extra features and functionality, and owners of slower machines may therefore experience a slightly more sluggish feel. However, anyone with a 200MHz Pentium or faster processor shouldn't notice any slowdown at all.

Where a distinct speed improvement will be found is in the start-up and shut-down times, both for Windows 98 itself, and when loading applications. Some people whose machines were badly set up for Windows 95 may also notice improvements in performance after running the various Wizards, such as the Maintenance Wizard, which will automate general housekeeping activities.

Windows 98 is shipped with a huge range of new drivers, and in many cases these are all that is needed to achieve optimum performance with your existing hardware (such as graphics cards and SCSI cards). Adaptec claim on their web site that most of their existing products have been tested with Windows 98, and that in most cases you should use the drivers already included with Windows 98. However, those of you with their DirectCD packet writing application are warned that version 2.0 should be updated to 2.5 (mentioned in October's PC Notes, and available as a free download to existing owners) before upgrading to Windows 98, as some users have reported spectacular crashes.

Various problems have been reported with hardware drivers if you are upgrading from Windows 95, and I suspect that this is primarily due to incompatibilities between Windows 95 drivers and Windows 98, despite initial assurances from Microsoft that Windows 95 drivers would work. You should be able to circumvent these by always attempting to use Windows 98 versions where possible. In fact, I see no reason why updating your hardware drivers to Windows 98 versions (downloaded from the appropriate manufacturer's web site) while still running Windows 95 should cause any problems, and at least then you know that when you carry out the upgrade to Windows 98, there should be no incompatibilities. Some Plug and Play expansion cards have required different settings from those used in Windows 95. Notebook users have also had to reinstall their PC cards before they are recognised by the new OS.

When it comes to soundcards, you should be guided by either the manufacturers' web site, or check directly with the UK distributor. In general, most Windows 95 soundcard drivers should still work quite happily, but a few people might experience odd problems. I didn't personally experience any driver conflicts during the subsequent installation of my software applications, but then I was extremely careful to visit manufacturers' web sites first, and download and install any new drivers specifically for Windows 98, rather than trusting that the Windows 95 ones would work.

On the software front, the most important compatibility checking should be with system utilities. Although Microsoft bundle a variety of these with Windows 98, many people have their own favourite

"The new features seem divided between utilities to sort out problems that you'd rather not have, and new features that you simply don't need."

utilities which are either more comprehensive or faster than the equivalent Microsoft version. It is vital to check compatibility before attempting to run any utility that works at a low system level, such as hard drive defragmentation, and particularly those that operate on the Registry. Thankfully Symantec (who market Norton Utilities) have an Internet update system, and all of their existing products can be updated automatically to run happily with Windows 98 ­ do this before you attempt to run any of the utilities. I suspect that other developers may well seize on the opportunity to launch new Windows 98-specific versions of existing products.

Although many applications may run happily with Windows 98, however, this doesn't necessarily mean that their performance will be optimised with the new OS -- the optimum settings for Windows 95 won't automatically be the same for Windows 98. After this raft of warnings, let's be more positive, and see just what Windows 98 has to offer the PC musician.

Install Options

The ideal way to install Windows 98 is as the full version, on a completely blank formatted hard drive, which will ensure that the install is clean and that all the drivers are the latest versions. However, many (probably most) people will have bought the cheaper upgrade version, which typically costs around £65 and can run from within either Windows 3.1 or Windows 95. In both of these cases, you use the 'Run' command, and type 'D:\WIN98\SETUP.EXE'. This installs Windows 98 over Windows 95, in the same directory, and migrates information in the current Registry about already installed applications and utilities so that it appears to Windows 98.

Teething Troubles

By the time you read this, most software developers should hopefully have sorted out any conflicts between their applications and Windows 98 -- although some seem resolute in not mentioning Windows 98 at all on their web sites. At the most basic level of system utilities, Symantec's Norton Utilities can be updated through the Internet, and Power Quest's Partition Magic 3 is already compatible, so formatting, partitioning and system fault-finding can proceed as normal.

On the musical front, Cubase VST seems to be running with no obvious problems on my PC, although there are no guarantees on the various Steinberg web sites. In fact, some users are claiming more stability than with Windows 95 on their machines. The latest range of Logic Audio packages are Windows 98 compatible, and Cakewalk Pro Audio 7 (and 7.01) seem to be OK as well, although Pro Audio 6 users have apparently reported a few problems.

Apparently some people have had problems with some DirectShow plug-ins ­ the only ones I personally had were with Qsound's Qtools123, which crashed Wavelab every time I tried it (although it worked fine in Sound Forge), and Spectral Designs' Loudness Maximiser, which crashed in both applications. Let's hope that these isolated instances are resolved by the time that you read this.

Apparently one cause of problems to those upgrading over an existing version of Windows 95 happens during this change of Registry information to the new format. Norton recommend using their Optimisation Wizard on your Registry before carrying out the upgrade, to remove any 'dead wood' left by cover-mounted CD-ROMs and unwanted applications. If there are any inaccurate or corrupt entries in it, the automatic Windows 98 Registry updater may fall over when trying to convert them.

For this reason, and to avoid potential hardware conflicts, many people also suggest uninstalling your multimedia software and soundcard drivers, and then removing the soundcards themselves, before upgrading and then reinstalling them afterwards. At least then if you do get a subsequent problem during an install you know exactly which component or application caused it.

You may prefer to install Windows 98 in a different directory (c:\Win98 instead of c:\Windows, for instance), and in this case you should run Setup from MS-DOS (make sure that you have CD-ROM driver support -- I described this process in a PC Musician feature in the September '97 issue). This does have the advantage of allowing you the choice of saving your existing MS-DOS and Windows 95 system files so that you can uninstall Windows 98 if necessary. If you have enough space on your hard drive, you can also copy the entire Windows 98 CD-ROM to a new folder, and then run Setup from there -- you won't then need MS-DOS CD-ROM driver support, and the install will be much faster as well.

A drive Converter utility is installed along with Windows 98, so that you can convert your hard drives to the more efficient FAT32 format (see later). If you do this, however, it is not possible to uninstall Windows 98 and return to Windows 95, unless you were previously running the most recent Windows 95 OSR-2 release.

If you are installing the full version, you get a Windows 98 floppy Boot Disk as well as the main CD-ROM, and use this to start the Setup procedure. I had the full version, and installed this onto a freshly formatted hard drive. I was very pleased to see that support for SCSI CD-ROM drives is now incorporated into the install procedure -- if an IDE CD-ROM is not detected, Adaptec SCSI drivers are installed, and a further search carried out for a SCSI CD-ROM. As usual, you can opt for a Typical, Portable, Compact, or Custom Install. I always opt for Custom, so that I can choose what gets installed, and what I don't want. However, since you can always install extra options later, or remove ones that you don't end up using, the choice is largely up to you. The whole procedure took about 3/4 of an hour.

Internet Explorer

I shall assume that when we talk of 'new' features, we are referring to those not present in the initial release of Windows 95. Some of the features of Windows 98 have subsequently been released either in Service Packs (free updates) or in the more recent versions of Windows 95 that have theoretically not been generally available other than to OEM manufacturers. Microsoft claim three main areas of enhancement for Windows 98: "Performance and reliability", "A new generation of hardware and entertainment", and "Improved ease of use and Internet access". The first of these alludes to the 3000 bug fixes and generally more robust nature of Windows 98 as compared with Windows 95, and the second to a range of new hardware and software drivers.

The last of the three is supposedly because customers have been asking for better integration between the PC environment and the Internet. Perhaps Microsoft are covering themselves here, as this is precisely what has caused so much controversy and legal debate -- the fact that Internet Explorer 4 is not only bundled with Windows 98, but as initially configured is such an integral part of the desktop that it can be difficult to escape from. Many people who took the plunge and installed Internet Explorer 4 with Windows 95 regretted it, due to the many low-level changes it made to the operating system. Thankfully, however, the general consensus is that since Internet Explorer 4 is such an integral part of Windows 98, it is much more stable, as well as faster than the previous combination.

I've always previously used Netscape Navigator for browsing the Internet, but since Internet Explorer 4 is such an integral part of Windows 98, I decided to change over. I adapted very quickly indeed, and was even able to import the extensive bookmark file of useful Internet sites from my previous machine (Navigator stores this as an HTML page, so if you make this Explorer's home page you still have access to all the same data).

Active Phone Bills

Extra Internet integration is provided by the new Active Channels feature, which allows you to subscribe to web sites that will deliver content to your PC on a regular basis. This is fine for those who have free local phone calls, but for most UK users simply doesn't apply.

You can turn the Active Desktop off, as you can the IE4-specific features. To do this, you will need the Windows 98 version of TweakUI, that invaluable Control Panel addition that makes all sorts of tweaks to the registry without having to actually get your hands dirty inside a registry editor. Although not installed as part of Windows 98, you can find it on the CD-ROM, in the 'tools\reskit\powertoy' folder -- simply right-click on the Tweakui.inf file, and then choose Install. To disable the IE4 features, click on the IE4 page, and then un-tick the appropriate box (see figure 2) -- you will need to log off and on again before the changes take effect. TweakUI can also be used to disable the ridiculous animations for things like menus that wind themselves up and down when you select them.

The Internet experience is now extended to Windows Explorer, which can now also be viewed in a web-page format, complete with background graphics and single-click launching for any file (see figure 3). The background graphic when viewing Windows Explorer as a web page labels the currently displayed folder, as well as providing useful information, and shows a thumbnail of the content of any HTML files.

A Helping Hand

I was pleased to find a lot more helpful utility programs installed with Windows 98; these appear in the Accessories/System Tools section. Disk Cleanup works much like the Norton Utility Space Wizard, providing a quick way to remove temporary files and empty the recycle bin. It also has useful options to remove installed Windows 98 components that you end up not using. The latest version of the Disk

Little Touches

Sometimes it's the little things that can bring a smile to your face. When running Windows 98, I noticed several small improvements that make day-to-day use just that little bit easier. Here are just a few of them:

Entries on the Start Menu can now be ordered by dragging them to their new positions -- this is far easier than previous tricks like adding a number at the start of the name to force it to the top of a menu. Right-clicking on any Start Menu entry also now brings up a new menu of useful options.

If you do suffer a crash caused by a badly written application, Scandisk is run automatically during the next boot to check for any possible errors on your hard drive.

Attributes can now be shown as an option in Windows Explorer -- this makes it easy to spot Read Only files without having to open the Properties page.

Windows 98 will also please those who have been envying the multiple monitor support provided by Macs. You will need a separate graphics card for each monitor you want to connect, but it can make life simpler for musicians -- you can view a different application with each monitor, or view a part of a larger virtual desktop on each. It is even possible to use different-sized monitors, and Microsoft claim that up to nine monitors can be supported (though how they expect you to fit nine graphics cards in one PC is another matter!).

Defragmenter makes use of the fact that Windows 98 monitors applications that you launch, and creates a log file for each of them in the Windows\Applog folder. When you defragment your drives, Disk Defragmenter rearranges the program files in the order they are accessed, so that in future each program will start more quickly. I certainly noticed a significant difference, although it's a good job I did after the half an hour or so that it took to rearrange the contents of my drive!

Drive Converter (FAT32) will change the format of an existing FAT16 drive to give you more efficient use of space, and possibly faster loading of smaller programs. The general consensus seems to be that for musicians, however, the slightly increased overhead that allows this to take place will degrade the speed for hard disk recording. Possibly the best compromise is to use a separate audio drive (or partition), and either format this as FAT16, or leave it as FAT32 but use a utility like Partition Magic to increase the cluster size from 4K to 16K. This should reduce the overhead, and hopefully give you the best of both worlds -- more space on your primary application drive, and more speed on the audio recording one.

Maintenance Wizard allows those who leave their PC on 24 hours a day to schedule a suitable time for automatic defragmentation, scanning your hard drive for errors, and deleting unnecessary files. Most musicians will probably prefer to run these tasks as a single batch on demand, rather than dicing with death when routine maintenance kicks in during the middle of a perfect take at 2am.

"Personally, I like the new utilities a great deal, but this should not be the main reason to upgrade."

For those of us who like to delve deeply into the workings of our machines to squeeze out the last possible drop of performance for hard disk audio applications, the System Information tool is a godsend. This gathers together all the technical information that you (or Microsoft) might need for technical support purposes, from the Registry, System.ini, Autoexec.bat, Config.sys, and from the operating system (such as which modules are currently running). This makes it far easier to find out about your hardware resources (IRQs, DMAs and so on) -- a Conflicts/Sharing section shows any devices that are in conflict or currently sharing resources.

Surfin' USB

Along with many other improvements to drivers, Windows 98 now directly supports USB (Universal Serial Buss) peripherals. This finally removes the major obstacle for USB development -- although many motherboards had USB circuitry, Windows 95 didn't directly support the standard. For this reason, many PC manufacturers didn't bother to add the sockets that connected USB to the outside world, although most PCs bought in the last twelve months or so will probably have them.

Now, with the arrival of Windows 98, you should finally be able to add up to 127 hot-swappable peripherals in daisy-chain fashion, and take advantage of whatever developers come up with that benefits from a high-speed serial buss, without having to worry about IRQs, DMAs and so on. Sadly, USB peripherals for musicians are still fairly thin on the ground, but things look to be gathering momentum.

Opcode have just announced the DATport, which provides a single stereo S/PDIF input and output on a six foot cable plugging into the USB buss for £169 including VAT. This would seem to be about the cheapest way to add digital I/O, with the added advantage of not needing an expansion card to be fitted (with all the attendant problems that these can sometimes bring). If you have Windows 98, you simply plug it in (no drivers are needed, and there is no need to reboot). Mac drivers are also expected soon, and other models are expected in this new USB family.

Roland have also announced a new USB peripheral, the Audio Canvas UA-100. This provides 20-bit A/D and D/A converters, a fully shielded case with guitar and vocal inputs, a built-in DSP effects processor and a 2-in, 2-out MIDI port. It really does look as if USB is finally going to take off in a big way.

The Components view shows the status of device drivers and multimedia software, and also provides a driver history. For instance, this showed that when I originally installed my Event Gina soundcard, it got allocated IRQ5, but then after I subsequently installed an ancient ISA MPU401 MIDI Interface, it got moved to IRQ4. This sort of information can be a real help when troubleshooting. The third view is Software Environment, and this shows all the drivers, modules, and tasks currently loaded, including Startup programs (not only those in the Startup group, but those run automatically by the Registry, which you may not even know about).

Along with all the information, there is an additional drop-down menu of extra tools, such as the invaluable System File Checker, which maintains a database of all your system files (see figure 4). Whenever you run this, it informs you of any system files that have changed (after a badly behaved install routine for instance) -- you can ignore the change, update the database if you decide the new file is a more recent version, or restore the original from the Windows 98 CD-ROM. Within the first couple of weeks this detected a Windows 95 system file that one of my applications had installed over the top of the new Windows 98 one. The beauty of the Restore is that it gives you the option of saving a backup copy of the file you are replacing, so if you do run into problems later, you can retrace your steps.

Registry Checker works in both MS-DOS and Windows, and is also run automatically during each bootup, when it backs up the current Registry in a compressed form, and maintains up to five copies. In the event of a Registry problem, it will revert to the most recent backup copy. If there are none, it will attempt to fix Registry problems as well, and will even optimise it if it is getting bloated with unused entries.


I'm still in some doubt as to why so many musicians are upgrading to Windows 98. The main benefits for us seem to be the removal of the 11-device MIDI limit, and direct support for USB devices such as cheap S/PDIF interfaces, along with more stability and a large collection of bells and whistles. Although the major new features are Internet-based, users seeking the fastest hard disk recording speeds will probably switch most of them off.

Personally I like the new utilities a great deal, but this should not be the main reason to upgrade. During the few weeks that I've been using Windows 98 I've been largely happy with its performance, but have experienced various minor crashes on occasions. Mind you, it still seems fairly stable, although only Microsoft could turn '3000 bug fixes' into a new Windows 98 feature! Microsoft have also gone on record as saying that Windows 98 will be the last version of this operating system, and that their next general OS release will be based on Windows NT. This has many potential benefits for the PC musician -- indeed, some are already using Windows NT, and reporting significant speed improvements. However, the biggest disadvantage of the NT platform is that because it was developed primarily for business users, there are far fewer drivers available for soundcards and MIDI interfaces. Most people who have tried have been forced to return to Windows 95, simply because one of their hardware devices hasn't got a suitable driver.

Overall, you may suspect that I am seriously underwhelmed by Windows 98, and you'd be right. I've no doubt that most people will be using it in six months' time, especially when software developers have ironed out any remaining conflicts in their software. However, the new features seem divided between utilities to sort out problems that you'd rather not have, and new features that you simply don't need. Be prepared to spend as much time searching out and switching off unwanted features as you do installing it. If you want to use more than 11 MIDI devices, go for it. Otherwise, weigh up the pros and cons carefully before taking the plunge.   Overall, you may suspect that I am seriously underwhelmed by Windows 98, and you'd be right. I've no doubt that most people will be using it in six months' time, especially when software developers have ironed out any remaining conflicts in their software. However, the new features seem divided between utilities to sort out problems that you'd rather not have, and new features that you simply don't need. Be prepared to spend as much time searching out and switching off unwanted features as you do installing it. If you want to use more than 11 MIDI devices, go for it. Otherwise, weigh up the pros and cons carefully before taking the plunge.

Published in SOS November 1998

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