Windows Me: A first look

Well, Microsoft has created yet another version of Windows. As it nears release, Brien Posey gives you this first peek at its features.

In recent years, it seems as though we’ve been bombarded by an endless array of new Windows operating systems. It all began five years ago when Microsoft triumphantly released Windows 95. Since then, we’ve seen Windows NT 4.0, Windows CE, Windows 98, and Windows 2000. Now, Microsoft is planning to release Windows Me. Windows Me is the millennium edition of the Windows 9x operating system. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll discuss a preview version of Windows Me that I’ve recently received. I’ll also discuss some of the new features and my overall feelings toward this new operating system. I’ll let you decide for yourself if this new version is the next big thing or Windows overkill.

The hardware
I originally attempted to load Windows Me onto a spare PC that I often use to test similar products. To my dismay, Windows Me wouldn’t load on this PC because it required a minimum of a Pentium 150. Obviously, this requirement should present no problems for the vast majority of the people who will be using the new version of Windows. However, it does mean that you can’t load Windows Me on all of your old systems.

Next, I attempted to load Windows Me onto a 266-MHz Pentium II with 64 MB of RAM. The new operating system loaded, but the installation program took over an hour to complete. When the operating system was finally loaded, it seemed to run much slower than the copy of Windows 98 that had previously run on the system. As I continued running the operating system, it appeared to speed up significantly. It still seemed a bit sluggish, but I doubt that the speed difference between Windows Me and Windows 98 would be noticeable on newer systems.

The big question that I’m sure that many of you are wondering is whether Windows Me contains an integrated version of Internet Explorer. Contrary to my expectations, Internet Explorer is a part of the operating system. The version in use is 5.5.

Windows Media Player
When Windows Me comes up, it looks identical to Windows 98 except for a couple of icons that have changed. The one noticeable exception is the addition of a Windows Media Player icon.

The Windows Media Player has totally changed. This new version, shown in Figure A, has been designed to incorporate many different types of media into a single player. For example, you can play streaming audio and video from the Internet. In addition, you can play music CDs as well as standard video and audio file types, such as AVI files or WAV files. The Windows Media Player even offers the ability to use a radio tuner card. To gain further usefulness from the Windows Media Player, you can use the built-in mechanism to transfer audio and video files to and from portable devices, such as Windows CE machines.

Figure A
The new Windows Media Player supports many new types of media.

In the Paint program, I noticed one minor change. Although the program remains largely unchanged, it contains a preview window in the Open File dialog box. This preview window lets you see what an image looks like before you open it.

One new feature is the Synchronize command on the Start | Programs | Accessories menu. The Synchronize program allows you to make favorite Web sites available offline. You can synchronize your offline copy with the online version with the click of a button. You can even set up Windows to automatically synchronize when you log on to Windows or at a preset time.

Windows Movie Maker
One of the coolest new features is the Windows Movie Maker. This tool allows you to do video capture without the need for an extra application. You can do direct capture from a camcorder or from a VCR. You can also incorporate sound and still images. This program isn’t quite as nice as some of the commercial video-capture programs, but it gets the job done.

Home Networking Wizard
In addition to the new emphasis on multimedia, Windows Me places an increased focus on home networks. Because networks can be complicated to set up, Windows Me includes a Home Networking Wizard. This wizard is found under Start | Programs | Accessories | Communications | Home Networking Wizard.

In addition to helping you to establish basic connectivity, the Home Networking Wizard helps you get Internet access on all of your PCs. It does this by asking you questions about which PC is connected to the Internet and how.

As you progress through the wizard, it asks more basic questions, such as requesting a computer name. It also asks if you’d like to share your My Documents folder or your My Shared Documents folder. You can even specify a password for accessing these folders from within the wizard. The wizard also guides you through the process of sharing your printers with other computers.

Fax support
Another new addition is built-in fax support. The various options on the Start | Programs | Accessories | Fax menu allow you to compose faxes, create a cover page, or request a fax.

System tools
For the most part, the system tools are identical to those found in Windows 98. All of the old favorites—such as ScanDisk and Disk Defragmenter—are still there. Some of the old tools have been given a face-lift but still function identically to the older versions.

You’ll notice that some of the system tools that had to be manually installed in older versions of Windows are now installed by default. These include programs like Net Watcher, System Resource Meter, System Monitor, and System Policy Editor.

One new system tool is called System Restore. Although System Restore is installed by default, it must be enabled through Control Panel’s System tool before you can use it. System Restore is a utility that uses a portion of your free hard disk space to keep a log of every change that’s made to your system. If you make a serious error, you can go back in time and return the system to its prior state. The cool thing about this tool is that performing a restore doesn’t necessarily return the system to the point that it was at when you configured the System Restore utility. Instead, you can restore the system to the way it was five minutes ago, an hour ago, or the previous day, for example. Keep in mind that although System Restore is intended as a disaster-recovery tool, it’s no substitute for regular backups. Obviously, if a hard disk were to fail, System Restore wouldn’t work.

Another new system tool isn’t installed by default—you’ll have to use Control Panel’s Add/Remove Programs icon to install it. This tool is called Compressed Folders. The Compressed Folders tool makes Windows Me Zip file aware. With this tool, you can view or create Zip files from within Windows Explorer. Simply right-click on a file and select the Send To option to send the file to a compressed folder. I mentioned that this tool integrates with Windows Explorer. To be more precise, Windows Explorer no longer exists. Instead, you must use Internet Explorer, My Computer, or a similar function for file management. It all still works in basically the same way—there just isn’t an icon or a menu option for Windows Explorer.

The taskbar and Start menu
One of the biggest changes since Windows 98 is the Settings | Taskbar And Start Menu command on the Start menu. At first glance, the Taskbar And Start Menu Properties sheet looks just like the one found in Windows 98, except for the fact that it now contains an option to use personalized menus. However, if you select the Advanced tab, you’ll see just how different this properties sheet really is.

As you can see in Figure B, the top portion of the Advanced tab is just like the one found in Windows 98. The main difference is that a Re-Sort button has been added. This button re-alphabetizes the options on the Start menu after you make changes.

Figure B
The Taskbar And Start Menu Properties sheet’s Advanced tab has really changed since Windows 98.

Another nice addition is the Clear button. You can click this button to clear the list of documents, programs, and Web sites that you’ve recently accessed. As you can imagine, this button can be very handy if you like your privacy.

There are many other options that have never been available in their present form. You can enable or disable many Windows options from here. For example, you can disable the Run command or the Logoff command.

Control Panel
Another notable change occurred in Control Panel. When you open Control Panel, you’ll see that it now initially hides many applets, preventing you from accessing potentially destructive features. You can unhide them by clicking View All Control Panel Options. The panel has also been redesigned so that key features are easier to use. You can see an example of the new Control Panel in Figure C.

Figure C
Control Panel has been redesigned to be safer and easier to use.

The first time that I saw the new Control Panel, I was very upset. After all, how can I be a true power user if Microsoft has removed most of my Control Panel icons? However, after I took a deep breath, counted to ten, and took a closer look, I saw that all I had to do to get back to the classic Control Panel was to click on the View All Control Panel Options hot link. Clicking this link will permanently switch Control Panel to look more like what you’re used to seeing. If you do need to switch back to the new version, though, simply click the hot link that says Display Only Commonly Used Control Panel Options.

Working through the full Control Panel, I noticed a couple of new icons. For starters, there’s a Scanners And Cameras icon, which lets you install and configure any TWAIN-enabled device. There’s also a new icon for the Taskbar And Start Menu (which I discussed earlier) and for the Automatic Update feature.

In this Daily Drill Down, I’ve discussed the new Windows Me operating system. All in all, it seems that Microsoft has added a few applications to Windows 98 and upgraded Internet Explorer rather than producing a new operating system. Nevertheless, Windows Me seems to be a nice operating system. In my tests, it appeared to be very stable. But then again, why shouldn’t it be? It looks as if most of the code is left over from Windows 98.

Editor's Picks