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Win ME – not bad at all

Worthwhile upgrade for Win9x users

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September 14 is the date when the Windows Millennium Edition, or Win ME to its friends, hits the streets. The latest (and last) version of Win9x, should perhaps be more accurately named Windows 98 Third Edition, as it is more of a service pack than a new operating system.

But there is enough new and improved stuff on the CD to make it worth looking at an upgrade. We took a look at the gold code (Build 4.90.3000)

DOS still lurks behind the scenes but is better hidden than before. A result of this is that some system functionality has been removed - for example, you can't SYS a floppy disk, you have to copy IO.SYS and COMMAND.COM by hand if you need a floppy to do things like updating the system BIOS.

The removal of a lot of legacy deadweight also means ME fires up a damn sight faster than any other version of Windows. On our 1GHz Athlon (Thunderbird) we got from the OS selection menu to the Win ME logon box in 22 seconds, while an 800MHz Pentium III was a tad slower at 25 seconds. Win98 SE took the best part of a minute on both these machines.

Shutting the system down is so fast that you can't help being surprised - both the above machines tidied everything up and switched themsleves off within four seconds of clicking on 'shutdown' - you don't get a chance to even glimpse the 'Windows is shutting down' or 'It's now safe to switch off' splash screens. Overall system performance is on a par with Win98 SE.

Slick

The adoption of the much slicker GUI from Windows 2000 is a welcome improvement, adding such delights as cascading menus for control panel, printers, my documents etc.

An undocumented but extremely useful feature is the ability to drag any disk, or the My Computer icon, onto the start button. This provides a cascading menu for the entire contents of the disk, making finding a file considerably faster than opening loads of separate folders.

Internet Explorer and Outlook Express 5.5 are included, IE5.5 finally getting a decent print engine featuring print preview. Of course, you can already download both of these for free should you feel so inclined.

The revamped media player 7 is a pretty good stab at an all-singing, all-dancing MP3 player with better usability than most of the competition.

It works with most standard audio and video formats, (but not RealMedia), and features a Web radio tuner, a jukebox, and a file transfer utility to copy and compress files or streaming media to portable MP3 players and Windows CE devices.

Some pretty animations and skins allow you to spiff up your listening.

Windows Movie Maker records video either from a camera or files. Existing videos can be imported from most formats (again with the exception of RealMedia) but can only be saved in Windows Media Format, not AVI or MPEG.

Minimum system requirements for ME are more stringent than for Win 98. Unless you have at least a 150MHz Pentium, 32Mb of RAM and around 500Mb of free disk space, setup will tell you to get lost.

Setup was completely painless on our two machines, taking less than 30 minutes to upgrade from Win 98SE with no manual intervention apart from typing in the licence number.

System Restore is a new feature that backs up vital system files when the machine is idle, by default taking a system snapshot every 10 hours. If the system stops working, and - providing you can at least reboot - you can fire up a wizard and choose from earlier saved system states. Only damaged system files will be repaired, documents and emails created after the snapshot will remain unchanged.

Windows ME will be available as an upgrade (earlier versions of Windows or Office) for around $110 or as a full product for $210.

It will likely start appearing pre installed on new PCs in the next few weeks, but if you're currently using Win 98, Win 95, or - God forbid - Win 3.x, put your name down for an upgrade today. ®

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