August 1998


A BugNet Special Report, Part 2

Windows 4.1 (AKA Windows 98) -- Hardware Problems

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM says Clinton won the 1992 election by focusing on an issue summarized by a sign at campaign headquarters, "It's the economy, stupid."

Conventional wisdom may also say that maybe Microsoft should hang up a sign in the Windows 98 Development office that says, "It's the hardware, stupid."

One month into the Windows 98 rollout and it is apparent that the biggest issue is hardware compatibility. For awhile, many OEMs had rather blunt statements on their web sites warning about upgrading to Windows 98 on many of their models.

Later, some of these statements were watered down, with the word on the 'Net saying this was due to pressure from Microsoft. (For instance, see "OEMs tone down their Win98 warnings" on ZD Net.)

Earlier in July, BugNet reported that Compaq, Dell, Gateway, IBM, and Toshiba, among others, were warning customers about upgrading to Windows 98, suggesting either not upgrading certain models, or waiting until an updated BIOS or driver set is released.

One critical problem that was discovered early was an incompatibility with a new power management feature found on laptops, Advanced Configuration Power Interface, or ACPI.

A sampling of some of the problems:

  • Compaq: If you upgrade to Windows 98 on a Compaq Presario computer, you will get a message telling you there is no support in DOS mode for your CD-ROM drive.
  • Dell: their Latitude CP, Latitude CPi, Latitude XPi CD, Latitude XPiCD MMX, Latitude XPi P133, Latitude LM, Latitude LM MMX, are upgradeable to Windows 98, but it is not recommended.
  • Gateway: Gateway says some of its Solo 9100 laptops should not be upgraded to Windows 98 until the BIOS has been flash upgraded.
  • IBM: According to IBM, there are "significant issues with Windows 98 support of ACPI (advanced configuration power interface). " This affects the ThinkPad 600, 770E, and 770ED.
  • Toshiba: also has problems with ACPI. Users of the Toshiba 100CT, 305CDS, 310C, 320CT, 320C, 330C, 490CDT, 490XCDT, 550CDT, 750CDT, 750CDM/DVD, and 780CDM/DVD laptops should wait for an updated BIOS.

Talk on both BugNet's Windows 98 forum on InfoWorld as well as Microsoft's Windows 98 newsgroups point out that even desktops seem to be having power management problems, with many users having problems either getting their computers to go to sleep, or waking them up afterwards.

One person on the forum said, "I installed Windows 98 on a brand new machine with Intel's latest BX chipset, and Award's latest BIOS. After installing the basic options onto a clean drive I let it run. No screen savers running, just let it sit at the desktop. Sometime in the middle of the night it CRASHED! Blue screen of death. Really an impressive operating system..."

A response to his problem report noted "Based on reports of Win98 power management fighting with hardware-based power management (especially, or maybe primarly[sic], with notebooks), turned off ALL hardware-based power management in setup. Problem apparently went away."

Still another problem, which can manifest itself in a variety of hardware woes, is the fact that Windows 98 replaces a few crucial DLL files, one or more of which may required by hardware peripherals to function correctly. This is an old Windows story, of course, having proved a major problem with Windows 95 when it was first released.

And from the release of Win98, the same pattern has been repeated. Within days of Win98's rollout, BugNet was receiving complaints and workarounds like the following from Daniel Webster at Valley Micro: "I bought a MaxTech PNIC3000 combo Ethernet/fax/modem PC card [for a Windows 98 machine]. Everything PnP, installed, drivers load, doesn't work. Total exasperation. MaxTech support, when finally reached, tried to simulate problem with no success. Kevin said, 'hardware compatibility problem on laptop.' Micron support: email walked back through install procedures already done.

"Finally, however, searching their site (www.micronpc.com), I find a BIOS upgrade actually dated earlier than my machine, but try it anyway... Success! (kindof)."

As Brian Livingston noted in his July 13 InfoWorld Column, Windows 98 typically replaces Twain.dll, Msconv97.dll and W95inf32.dll. Livingston suggests that everyone upgrading to Windows 98 run Windows 98's Version Conflict Manager (VCM) AS SOON AS WIN98 IS INSTALLED.

VCM allows users get back the older versions of DLL files that Win98 has replaced, but because it only works at Windows 98's installation, you need to run it right away. You'll find it by clicking Start, Programs, Accessories, System Tools, System Information, Tools, Version Conflict Manager.

Chicken or Egg?

While many people report that they have been able to upgrade to Windows 98 successfully (and many more do it successfully and don't bother hanging around newsgroups reporting the fact) there have been many others who have run into a lot of hardware difficulties in the upgrade. A popular topic is "Who do we blame?"

Surprise, Surprise, as Gomer Pyle used to say. Some people are blaming Microsoft. Should Microsoft ensure that Windows 98 works on all systems? After all, these are not obscure, fly-by-night vendors who are reporting problems. It's companies like Dell, Toshiba, and IBM who are doing much of the complaining. Yet others blame the OEMs.

One person posted a complaint on the BugNet forum on InfoWorld, telling of the difficulty he had installing Windows 98 on a Compaq Presario: "Compaq is passing the buck big time for its failure to test Win98 with its components prior to Win98's release. Win98 betas and several RC candidate releases of Win98 were widely available for *months* prior to the formal release of Win98. This provided plenty of time for vendors like Compaq to thoroughly test the drivers with their systems. Obviously, Compaq has been caught with its pants down." In Microsoft's defense, the number of combinations and permutations in BIOS, motherboards, video drivers, sound cards, etc., is staggering, and they certainly aren't going to be able to check them all.

Many people passed along the sensible advice that you should check to make sure that you have the most recent version of all your drivers before you upgrade. Checking the web sites of your computer manufacturer, your video card supplier, your modem supplier, and so on, for patches or new drivers, downloading and then installing often seems like a daunting enough task if you are a computer professional.

But is this something you expect the average retail purchaser of Windows 98 to do? Isn't this what Plug and Play was supposed to eliminate? Well, there are enough reports of Windows 98 not recognizing devices to say that "Plug and Pray" may still be an apt description.

Another issue that has the OEMs worried is the automatic update feature of Windows 98, where users would download patches and updates directly from Microsoft. What happens if one of these patches has a bug or incompatibility with a Dell BIOS, for instance, that immobilizes the computer? The user may not know what happened, or where to go for help.

Software

Compared to the hardware situation, the software problems seem a little tame. There are a number of minor bugs and incompatibilities, but there doesn't seem to be anything earthshaking.

Possibly the most significant issue is one that Microsoft inflicts on itself. If you are running Microsoft Office 97 and Windows 95, you should install the Office 97 Service Release 1 patch before you upgrade to Windows 98. Otherwise, you will not be able to install the patch once you have upgraded to Windows 98. (Hmm -- do you think we should change that old saying to "The jobs not done till Microsoft don't run" ?) By the way, you can get the patch at http://www.microsoft.com/office/office97/
servicerelease/default.asp

The Big Picture

Although it isn't a buggy disaster, Windows 98 still dominates BugNet's Top Ten List this month, and its early bug/fix success rate is significantly worse than Windows 95's.

This much seems clear amid the Sturm und Drang: for the smoothest possible Windows 98 experience, don't bother to upgrade. Windows 98 works best when it's been factory installed on a brand new machine.

There also seem to be less problems if you are upgrading on a newer computer. If you are upgrading, check to make sure that you have the latest drivers and BIOS for your system, especially checking at your computer manufacturer's website.

Happy trials, er, trails...

-- Bruce Kratofil


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