Which Windows?

Which Windows? Don't Close Your Old Windows NT's Portable Power NT Storms the Server Mixing It Up:
Win95 Features In NT Workstation
One-on-One: Win95 and NT

The mainstream choice for the desktop remains Windows 95--but don't discount
NT Workstation 4.0.

By Joseph C. Panettieri, Associate Editor, Features

PC users by the millions have been asking the same question for months: Which 32-bit Windows is better for me?

By now, you know Microsoft's two desktop contenders-Windows 95 and Windows NT Workstation 4.0. Conventional wisdom says Win95 is ideal for a mainstream PC or a portable, while NT Workstation is better suited to a powerful corporate desktop. In a nutshell, Windows 95 offers exceptional mobile computing features, extensive support for legacy DOS and Windows applications, and a smaller memory footprint than NT. By contrast, NT offers superior security, stability and scalability.

With the advent of NT 4.0, however, some of these lines are blurring. NT 4.0 solidifies Microsoft's commitment to make most-but not all-Win95 features and functions available on NT, and vice versa. In addition to borrowing Win95's user interface, NT 4.0 also sports the Exchange e-mail client, CD autoplay and other features Windows 95 pioneered. On the flip side, Win95 uses TCP/IP and otherprotocol stacks Microsoft introduced earlier in NT.

Win95 and NT share other similarities. Both support preemptive multitasking of Win32 applications (though only NT can preemptively multitask Win16 apps, and then it runs just a selected number of such apps); remote system performance monitoring; multiple user profiles; and extensive connectivity to NetBEUI, SPX/IPX, DLC and TCP/IP networks. Longer-term, NT and Win95 are expected to gain a next-generation Object File System and will ride atop the same kernel (NT's, that is).

Ubiquity for Win32

Win95, at a little more than a year old, is used by more than 50 million PC enthusiasts. That's five times the audience running IBM's decade-old OS/2. Microsoft expects Win95 to outsell NT for the foreseeable future, but NT is steadily gaining momentum.

After an anemic start in 1993, NT shipments are skyrocketing. Microsoft insiders estimate NT's installed base at 2.5 million units. And by the end of next year, that number will increase almost tenfold to top 24 million units, predicts market research firm Dataquest of San Jose, Calif. Digital Equipment, for example, expects that more than half its corporate PCs will be preloaded with NT in about a year. NT will gain even more ground when the Pentium Pro displaces the traditional Pentium as Intel's volume processor. Analysts say that could happen as soon as 1998. The Pentium Pro was designed to support pure 32-bit operating systems-like NT-better than hybrid operating systems like Win95 (which includes some 16-bit code for compatibility with legacy applications). So don't be surprised if many 3.x users leapfrog Win95 and go right to NT, while legions of Win95 devotees make a quick switch to NT as well.

A 32-Bit Headache

A word of caution: Don't underestimate the importance of your OS decision. Choosing the wrong Windows can trigger quite a migraine, since corrective action-migrating from Win95 to NT or the reverse-will require reinstalling all your applications. That's because Win95 and NT have incompatible Registries. Microsoft promises to address this glaring oversight with software tools in Cairo (the next version of NT), which is due in 1997 or beyond.

You can avoid this and other migration dilemmas if you first figure out which 32-bit operating system will run best with your hardware, software and peripherals.

Hardware Matters

To make the first move toward Win32, take inventory of your hardware. Windows 95 requires at least 40MB of free disk space and a minimum of a 386DX with 8MB of RAM. It runs ideally on a 486 or Pentium-class machine with 16MB of RAM. By contrast, NT Workstation requires 120MB of free space on your hard disk and a 486 (version 4.0 won't even boot on a 386) with at least 12MB of RAM. NT performs best on a Pentium or Pentium Pro with 32MB of RAM.

Given those specs, many PCs can run either NT or Win95. Generally, Win95 is your better choice for portables, and for 386-, 486- or Pentium-based PCs that require extensive legacy-application support. NT, on the other hand, is the logical pick if you're rich with RAM and processing power, and need a secure, stable and scalable environment for running primarily 32-bit applications.

If cost is an issue, Win95 has the edge, as it's far less expensive to acquire than NT. A Win95 upgrade from Win3.x costs up to $109. Microsoft offers no special upgrade price for moving from Win 3.x or Win95 to NT Workstation. If you're a first-timer with NT, version 4.0 will cost you $319. Upgrades from NT 3.51 are $149. Similarly, buying a system with NT, rather than Win95, preinstalled will add about $90 to the system's price tag.

Roaming with Windows

If you're frequently on the road, you're an ideal candidate for Win95, which was designed for mobility. It has a smaller memory footprint than NT, and supports Plug and Play as well as Advanced Power Management (APM). Plug and Play eases or even automates the installation of new hardware or peripherals, such as a PC Card modem or network adapter. APM ensures that your battery life is maximized between charges. Windows NT won't support these portable features until the release of Cairo sometime in 1997.

However, a small but growing number of corporations are seeking to reduce IT support costs by standardizing on a single operating system-NT-across servers, workstations, PCs and portables. Consequently, several portable PC vendors are developing their own stopgap NT power-management and Plug-and-Play enhancements.

Leading the way is Digital's HiNote Ultra II portable with NT 4.0 preinstalled. The portable includes manual/automatic suspend and resume, APM to conserve power when the CPU or video is idle, hot docking and undocking, and an advanced battery gauge. It also features either a Pentium 133MHz or 150MHz processor, a removable 1.35GB or 1.44GB hard drive, and an 11.3-inch screen.

At press time, pricing for the Hi-Note Ultra II had not been announced. Earlier this year, about 10 percent to 15 percent of Digital's high-end portables sold with NT preinstalled. Digital expects that figure to top 50 percent by the end of 1997.

IBM is also eager for a piece of the NT notebook action. The company supports NT 3.51 and NT 4.0 across all of its ThinkPads, and it's testing "warm swap" support for floppy disk drives and CD-ROM drives on NT portables. At press time, the warm swap driver was due for final release early this fall. As IBM ThinkPad guru Steve Leach puts it, "NT on mobile PCs is the strategic battleground of the future. We're focused on it like a laser beam."

Another PC giant, Dell Computer, offers NT Workstation as an option on its Latitude XPi portable line. And now that NT 4.0 is shipping, Dell plans to offer it as an option on its Latitude LF family as well.

Even software companies are seeking to cash in on the growing NT mobile market. For instance, Phoenix Technologies is developing NT 4.0 versions of its NoteBIOS, PowerPanel, BatteryScope and PhoenixCard Executive software for portables. NoteBIOS and PowerPanel support standby and suspend modes. Several portable PC vendors are expected to install Phoenix's mobile software for NT.

Back to the Office

Besides being the system of choice for notebooks, Windows 95 is also the leading candidate for traditional desktop PCs. In addition to the latest Win32 software, it can run most DOS and Win16 legacy applications-unlike its NT counterpart. As one Microsoft insider puts it, Windows 95 is "pretty much miles ahead" of NT's Win16 support.

Why? For one thing, NT doesn't support virtual device drivers (VxDs). Applications that use VxDs, such as multimedia titles, games and memory management programs, won't run on NT. Also, NT won't launch DOS and Win16 apps that make direct calls to your underlying hardware. This ensures that a misbehaving application can't crash an entire NT system, but it also means a lot of applications won't run on NT.

Win95's Win16 support, while better than NT's, isn't perfect. For instance, Win 3.x utilities, such as backup and antivirus software, are useless under Windows 95 because they don't support long filenames. As you might have guessed, McAfee, Quarterdeck, Symantec and other utility vendors are eager to sell you new 32-bit utilities tailor-made for Windows 95.

Device Drivers

Windows 95 offers a vast library of 4,000 device drivers, compared with roughly 3,000 shipping for NT. If your printer or other peripheral doesn't have a Win95 driver, you can always stick with the 16-bit driver. That isn't the case on NT, which doesn't support legacy drivers. Complicating matters, many PC peripherals, including some consumer printers from Hewlett-Packard, don't support NT. (Ironically, HP has reportedly chosen NT Workstation as its internal corporate desktop standard.)

Eager to level the playing field, Microsoft is developing the Windows Driver Model. Using this specification, HP and other hardware makers could theoretically write a single device driver that supports both NT and Win95. Microsoft hopes to ship Win95 and NT service packs supporting this new specification either late this year or in early 1997. Also, Microsoft hopes to offer, in January, a single list identifying hardware that's compatible with both NT and Win95. In the meantime, approved hardware lists for Win95 and NT are available at and, respectively.

NT's Niche

Though Win95 is the obvious choice for most mainstream PCs, NT Workstation is gaining momentum on higher-end systems. If you've got plenty of RAM and processing power, and you're interested in running primarily 32-bit applications, NT offers four enticing reasons to switch: new Win32 applications, proven stability, robust security and impressive scalability.

NT Applications Arrive: Win95 runs more software, but NT's library of native Win32 applications is growing swiftly. NT supports more than 2,000 popular development tools and applications from the likes of Borland, Corel, IBM, Lotus Development and Starfish Software, to name just a few. These new 32-bit apps run in separate address spaces under Windows 95 and NT, meaning that one 32-bit application can't crash another. By contrast, Win16 apps can crash each other in Win95 because they run in the same memory space.

Even new 32-bit fax software is expected to run properly across Win95 and NT 4.0. That's because NT 4.0 supports the Telephony API (TAPI) 2.0 standard required by most fax and communications programs. Previously, many 32-bit comm packages didn't work under NT because the high-end OS lacked TAPI support.

Upping the NT application ante, Microsoft has introduced a new "Designed for Windows NT and Windows 95" logo. It identifies 32-bit applications that run across both Win95 and NT Workstation. Some critics consider the logo Microsoft's latest attempt to strong-arm independent software vendors (ISVs) into supporting both Win95 and NT. Game developers, for instance, have little interest in supporting NT, but will be forced to if they want to use the compatibility logo on their shrink-wrapped software.

Stability. Simply put, NT rarely crashes. There are several reasons for this. First, NT runs applications at Ring 3, rather than Ring 0. Think of Ring 0 as a nuclear power plant's foundation core, and Ring 3 as the plant's outer casing. Software offers scorching performance at Ring 0, but a single application error can cause a meltdown of the entire power plant-as in your entire workstation or server. When an app crashes while running in Ring 3, the damage is limited to that single application.

NT can also run applications (32-bit and 16-bit) in protected mode, a type of separate memory space that keeps one app from crashing another. This ensures that developers can safely debug 16- or 32-bit software on NT without crashing every application. Windows 95 offers protected mode support only for 32-bit applications.

Security. NT's file system, NTFS, easily outdistances Win95's. NTFS supports auditing and permits files, folders and applications to be hidden from unauthorized users. Its transaction-based design allows a system to restart and recover data cleanly after a power outage. NTFS even meets the government's rigorous C2 security standard. (One caveat: The C2 certification applies only to NT Workstation running in standalone mode.) Many government agencies, including certain groups in the Department of Defense, won't evaluate or purchase software that doesn't meet C2 requirements. Win95's less-advanced FAT and optional FAT32 file systems offer basic password protection but little other security.

Microsoft isn't done with its NT security work. With NT 4.0, the software titan has introduced a new "cryptography" API, which lets developers write secure applications for private and public networks, such as the Internet. Microsoft is also said to be enhancing NT to support Kerberos, a sophisticated client-server password scheme. Developed at MIT, Kerberos is traditionally found on bulletproof UNIX systems that support Distributed Computing Environment (DCE), a standard for directory, messaging and security services.

Scalability. NT, like many more mature UNIX offerings, supports SMP and is available for x86 and three powerful RISC architectures-Alpha, Mips and the PowerPC. (See sidebar "NT's Portable Power.")

NT's primary platform moving forward is expected to be Intel's Pentium Pro. When the Pentium Pro replaces the traditional Pentium as Intel's volume chip, NT will likely outsell Win95. While analysts say that could happen within two years, Intel wants it to happen even sooner. As of August, the company was selling Pentium Pro processors to PC makers at prices close to those of the traditional Pentium. For instance, Intel's 200MHz Pentium Pro chips cost PC vendors about $575 each-only about 10 percent more than the 200MHz Pentium.

Dell, Gateway 2000 and other PC makers were offering Pentium Pro desktops preloaded with NT 3.51 even before the highly anticipated release of NT 4.0. When Intel's engineers huddled to design the Pentium Pro, they assumed that 32-bit operating systems-as in NT-would be the desktop standard upon the new chip's release date. Hence, the processor giant made 32-bit performance its top priority, and Win95-which contains some 16-bit code for compatibility with legacy applications-lags behind NT on the Pentium Pro.

Only you can identify which Windows suits you best. If you've got deep pockets and want the latest Pentium Pro, don't be distracted by Win95-take the NT plunge. If you're upgrading a 486 or Pentium at home, Win95 will be the superior choice for at least one more year, thanks to its excellent support of games and legacy apps. Of course, the longer you delay an upgrade, the more likely you are to go directly to some form of NT.

As Microsoft chairman Bill Gates once said, when the majority of PCs installed in corporate America have 16MB of RAM, NT will replace Win95 as the world's leading 32-bit operating system. Judging from recent PC sales data, that day may arrive sooner than you think.

Which Windows? Don't Close Your Old Windows NT's Portable Power NT Storms the Server Mixing It Up:
Win95 Features In NT Workstation
One-on-One: Win95 and NT