When office managers discuss crumbling employee infrastructures, they are often referring to Windows 95 or 98. Microsoft's consumer-oriented versions of Windows, with wobbly DOS underpinnings and "blue screen of death" crashes, are not always ideal for business productivity. But choosing from the alternatives can be scary.
Since most business PCs use x86- or Pentium-compatible chips from Intel or AMD, we decided the best way to help is to look at four x86 clients -- one current, one prerelease version of Microsoft Windows, and two flavors of Linux. For Mac shops, opt for Apple's Mac OS X, which runs on PowerPC G3/G4 chips.
More Changes, More Choices
Only one of the four contenders, Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional, appeared in the last operating systems Buyer's Guide (in the July 2000 issue). Since then, Windows 98 Second Edition has been replaced by Windows Millennium Edition. We did not include that here since Windows Me emphasizes consumer entertainment applications, such as MP3 music and home movie editing, and will be gone by year's end anyway.
Instead, we sampled a beta-test release of its successor, Windows XP. The system represents the long-awaited merger of Microsoft's Windows 95/98/Me and NT/2000 product paths -- and the final demise of the old DOS and Windows 3.1 code that's made Win 95/98 like a muscular body with a calcium-deficient skeleton.
Meanwhile, Linux has quietly become Microsoft's biggest competitive headache in the small and medium server market, and continues to build buzz as a desktop contender. Most Linux distributors offer their versions of the open-source Unix clone free for the download, but make money selling different bundles of CD-ROM software, including extra utilities and support applications.
How We Tested
We tried each OS on at least two, and often three, of a variety of new and not-so-new PCs: a Gateway Select desktop with a 750MHz AMD Athlon processor and 128MB of RAM; a small-footprint NEC Z1 with a 450MHz Pentium III and 96MB; a Compaq Presario 5240 with a 400MHz AMD K6-2 and 64MB; and a Toshiba Satellite 4080XCDT notebook with a 366MHz Pentium II and 64MB. We checked whether the OS recognized each desktop's graphics, network card, and modem.
Once up and running, we put each operating system through a series of day-to-day tasks ranging from surfing the Web and fetching e-mail to writing reports and presentations. We installed Star-Office 5.2 on both the Linux and Windows systems and Microsoft Office 2000 on the latter. Finally, we assessed how intuitive each platform was for fundamental chores such as copying files, creating new directories or folders, starting up, and shutting down.
MandrakeSoft Linux-Mandrake 7.2 Complete
Linux-Mandrake is evolving into both the best-selling retail version and the most beginner-friendly Linux you can buy -- especially in Macmillan Software's four-CD Complete edition ($30). The latter lacks the server and source-code development tools of the seven-CD PowerPack Deluxe ($70), but provides applications ranging from the StarOffice 5.2 suite and Everybuddy instant messaging client, to Adobe Acrobat editions of three Linux books.
Installing Mandrake is a fairly painless, half-hour process. A helpful partition utility called DiskDrake simplifies Windows' coexistence and dual-boot setups, though it couldn't resize the Windows partition on our Gateway; Mandrake also had trouble recognizing that system's sound card.
Though it's half hidden in the documentation, a Lnx4Win option can install a slightly slower Linux right alongside Windows, with no partitioning required. DrakConf, a point-and-click control panel that simplifies numerous configuration chores, includes a DrakFont utility that can import your Windows TrueType fonts -- a boon for Linux's chronically weak (and typically unattractive) font offerings.
Craig Sprout is a network administrator for Crown Parts & Machine in Billings, Mont., a maker of parts for monster mining trucks and electric shovels. He says, "Mandrake has the 586 optimizations right out of the box, and the install's been quite a bit easier than most of the other ones I've dealt with. I gave a 7.2 CD to a friend of mine who'd never seen Linux, and I said 'This is going to install itself.'"
Though based on the older Linux 2.2.17 kernel, Mandrake 7.2 anticipates the 2.4 kernel by supporting many USB peripherals and the ReiserFS journaling file system. A MandrakeUpdate utility, akin to Microsoft's Windows Update, retrieves and installs component upgrades, while tinkerers can install almost all programs packaged in the popular Red Hat RPM format.
"My personal desktop at work is a box that had Windows Millennium Edition on it and I couldn't use it -- it'd crash to the point of distraction," Sprout recalls. "It took a little tweaking to get Mandrake up on it, but once I did, it worked great."
Linux-Mandrake 7.2 doesn't ease every headache such as tweaking sound cards or installing StarOffice, but it removes much of Linux's intimidating, configure-it-yourself character and is a terrific bargain.
Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional
In amazingly self-flagellating ads and tests on its Web site, Microsoft says Windows 2000 Professional is 13 to 50 times more reliable than Windows 98. We can't reproduce those results, but must concur: Along with admiring some interface improvements and superior networking support, we pounded on Win 2000 for weeks and couldn't make an errant program bring down the whole OS. It's pricey at $219 for an upgrade ($319 if you're installing to an empty hard disk), but we think the step up to Windows 2000 Professional is 13 to 50 times more valuable than that from, say, Office 97 to Office 2000.
As we noted last year, Win 95/98 users will find Win 2000's interface familiar, yet subtly cleaner and better organized. The Programs menu fights clutter by hiding items recently left unused (as in Office, clicking a chevron at the bottom of the menu restores the full listing). Menus shimmer into view in a handsome bit of animation, and a shadow effect makes the mouse pointer easier to find.
It took roughly an hour to upgrade each of our Windows 98 machines to Windows 2000 Professional. In each case, the setup routine offered to check the Internet for the latest upgrades and compatibility information, then performed a hands-off installation including a few reboots.
Those may be the last reboots you experience for a while, since Win 2000 excels at configuring an office network, adding and subtracting shared resources and even Web or FTP servers on the fly. Those still running Windows NT will be pleased with 2000's up-to-date Plug and Play and USB support, as well as seamless PC Card and power management handling for laptops. If a client is still running 95/98, it will take some time to get acquainted with Control Panel and master several extra management and security chores, but that's a good thing for businesses that need VPN access and don't want users making radical changes at random.
About the only negative, besides its cost, is that 2000 Pro is incompatible with every program and peripheral available for Win 98. Not only antivirus and disk utilities (which are always OS-specific) and games and entertainment applications (such as DVD players), but some handy products that hail from the home office space, such as 10Mbps phoneline alternatives to conventional Ethernet networks. But that's not a deal-breaker for most businesses, and will become a nonissue as the unification of the two OS paths under XP means vendors can supply one driver for all potential customers. As of today, the Windows 2000 Professional is your best OS bet.
Microsoft Windows XP (beta)
Your employees are going to love Windows XP. Even though the only preview available was an early Beta 1 build without the final version of Microsoft's prettier new "Luna" interface, we were impressed with how XP puts a new shine on Windows. Microsoft eliminated many confusing elements such as the "Log Off Default" menu item that's baffled a generation of Win 95/98 users. Instead, XP opens to a sunny "Welcome" screen with customizable icons for different users, and personalized Start menus that offer Web browsing, e-mail, and a handful of the most commonly used other applications as primary choices. The usual Programs menu has been moved to a subordinate "More Programs." Better yet, XP makes it remarkably easy to share a PC -- users can yield workspace to a coworker without shutting down applications, so an entire work session reappears when they log in again.
Compared to Win 98, the whole concept of different users and permission levels is a giant step for office administration; at last, every Windows PC will have what every Linux or NT/2000 setup has long had. That's because XP is Windows 2000 in every way that matters, from the option to check for updates during installation, to the ability to run for weeks without freezes or crashes. Unlike Win 2000, however, XP promises to run hundreds of off-the-shelf programs designed for Win 95/98 -- and if a program's not on the "now compatible" list, you can run it in a special mode that emulates Win 95 or NT 4.0.
Strictly-business bosses won't relish the Windows Me-style entertainment extras. The My Documents folder has been joined by My Pictures and My Music; Windows Media Player is more prominent than My Network Places; and there is heavy emphasis on manipulating images directly from digital cameras and scanners. But some interface changes, such as a smarter Taskbar that consolidates five or six open Word documents or Outlook messages into a single pop-up menu rather than tiny separate items, are smart -- though the default Control Panel view, organized into not-always-intuitive categories, gets mixed reviews.
IT managers will be intrigued by and wary about the potential security risks of Remote Assistance. A variant on Win 2000 Terminal Services, it lets a struggling telecommuter permit an on line colleague to take control of his or her PC to perform a fix, rather than trying to talk the remote worker through it. They should also enjoy sprightly performance on new PCs, although our beta -- partly due to being a beta, partly due to having only 64MB of RAM -- was sluggish on our Toshiba Satellite.
Unfortunately, there's one feature we hate: Windows XP will sport a new anti-piracy scheme dubbed "Product Activation." Though it lets users stay anonymous, it requires them to make Web or phone contact with Microsoft within 30 days of first boot, or the OS stops working. Furthermore, each copy of Windows will be locked to only one PC, meaning XP cannot be installed from the same CD onto both a desktop and notebook, and will have to reactivate with Microsoft with substantial hardware changes. Office XP will have a similar scheme, but allow use on a second computer.
Red Hat Linux 7 Deluxe Workstation
Red Hat is, at least in the U.S., the biggest name in Linux, and makes the closest thing to a standard distribution for IT managers and third-party software vendors alike (the only one, for example, officially supported by pre-release versions of Nautilus Eazel). Unfortunately, that benchmark platform is Red Hat Linux 6.2 -- version 7 has received a mixed reception since its debut last fall. For one thing, our $80 Deluxe Workstation kit came with a prominent "errata" sheet and CD-ROM, and Red Hat's Web site offers a long list of patches and bug fixes for version 7 customers. Even Linux hackers raised eyebrows at Red Hat's decision to bundle a buggy prototype version of the gcc compiler set, though none of the glitches affected our everyday testing. But while a few components are arguably too new, Red Hat's choice of the older LILO rather than GRUB boot manager required awkward post-install tweaking to enjoy Linux/Windows dual-booting on our Gateway and Compaq desktops.
Red Hat Linux 7 provides more helpful printed documentation than Linux-Mandrake 7.2, and excels at conveniently mounting floppy and CD-ROM drives on the desktop. It automatically detects hardware, including the graphics and sound chips of our Toshiba laptop, but an improper default display mode meant we had to abort its graphical installation routine for text-mode setup. The company also provides telephone as well as e-mail tech support, at least for the often-daunting installation process, and its Red Hat Network, though still at the toddler stage, is a step beyond MandrakeUpdate for installing upgrades.
But for those who are uncomfortable typing commands in a terminal window and editing configuration files, there are few equivalents to Mandrake's mouse- controlled tools for tasks like changing screen resolution. Red Hat 7 is a powerful, versatile OS, but is more suited for savvyLinux/Unix users than office desktop workers and Windows emigrants.
What We Think
You don't have to admire Bill Gates to admit that Windows' sheer ubiquity and unbeatable selection of accounting, CRM, and other types of business software, make it difficult to choose anything else for a company's desktops and laptops.
For now, that means we'd pick Windows 2000 Professional, though when Windows XP actually ships, we expect its Remote Assistance and multi-user support will overcome our displeasure at its multimedia frills.
That said, we don't expect XP will be any happier than Win 2000 on systems with less than 128MB of RAM. Linux, by contrast, shines on two- or three-year-old PCs (although a loaded KDE or GNOME desktop can make Linux users wish for faster systems too).
And though no boxed distributions had caught up with it at presstime, the latest Linux 2.4.2 kernel -- with superior USB, and FireWire support -- makes the open-source OS even more appealing, as does software like Star-Office. Most importantly, Linux-Mandrake 7.2 makes both set up and everyday use surprisingly smooth. It's the most tempting alternative to Windows we've seen.