Older PCs snarled by Windows 98

Owners of older computers looking to enhance their PCs by upgrading to Windows 98 may run into a host of problems.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
4 min read
Owners of older computers upgrading to Windows 98 may run into a host of problems, according to a deluge of postings from users and PC vendors, as well as an advisory from Microsoft.

The software giant is posting a document on its Web site allowing that "not all third-party vendors have had a chance to update [old] hardware drivers. Some existing machines may require updated [software] to fully support Windows 98, as is the case with any new operating system upgrade.

"Microsoft and the manufacturers are working together to ensure that BIOS and driver updates will be available soon for these systems," according to the site.

But most of the burden to warn users is falling on the shoulders of PC manufacturers. Several computer makers are continuing to warn owners of older computers to make sure they have necessary system requirements, software drivers, and patches before beginning the upgrade process.

PC vendors received the final version of the Windows 98 code just weeks before its June 25 launch date, seemingly too short a time to iron out the glitches. But Microsoft worked "very closely with the [PC vendors], to make sure that the majority of computers can be upgraded without any modification," according to Kim Akers, group product manager for Windows 98.

The BIOS is software that configures the computer in the starting, or "boot-up," sequence that takes place immediately after the PC is turned on. A driver is software that lets hardware "talk" to the operating system.

Most of the problems will hit owners of older computers, Akers said, because "the BIOS in Windows 98 has new power management functionality." Older computers "need to be updated to take advantage of that," she added.

IBM has posted a list of its systems that will hit upgrade snags. The PC giant will also release a CD-ROM with similar information.

"We have a very close working relationship with Microsoft in terms of testing and certification," said an IBM spokesman. "Throughout the testing process, it's not difficult to figure out what's not going to work on an older model."

But certainly not everyone is complaining or blaming Microsoft. Many, if not most, upgrades proceed smoothly and some users believe that hardware vendors are more to blame than Microsoft. "In spite of what some people believe, Microsoft does not control the world, and the hardware manufacturers...implement proprietary components and use BIOS manipulation to cover up design flaws...at the expense of an unknowing public," according to one independent consultant.

Microsoft is recommending that users contact their PC maker before upgrading and is not currently planning to issue any patches or service packs to address the upgrade issues, Akers noted.

Nevertheless, the software giant is releasing a beta version of an update to its DirectX gaming technology and the electronic programming guide for WebTV for Windows 98. The updates will be available, for free, via the Windows Update for Windows 98 users.

"These things are going into beta testing and will be able to be downloaded for free from the Windows Update site. When other issues arise we will continue to do the right thing for the customers," Akers added.

Dell Computer, Compaq Computer, and others have joined IBM in posting workarounds, fixes, and warnings on their Web sites about upgrading to the Windows 98. The glitches aren't specific to any of these but affect all vendors in some way, but top-tier makers such as these have been proactively putting users on notice about potential snags.

As an example, Dell's Web site says: "Please be advised that the new features in Windows 98 will require a new set of system drivers in order for the operating system to function properly. In some cases, an update to your system BIOS may also be required."

This is not out of the ordinary, according to Rob Bennett, group product manager for Windows 98 at Microsoft. "This is nothing new. There were the same [kind of] issues with Windows 95 when it came out," he said.

Like other vendors, Dell also is issuing some rather dire warnings, including the following: "According to the Microsoft hardware specification requirements...your system...can be upgraded to Windows 98...However, due to the non-optimal performance of Windows 98 on your system, we do not recommend upgrading."

"There are a small set of machines that require [software] updates," Bennett added.

Dell said systems affected include notebook models such as the Latitude CP/CPi, Latitude XPiCD, Latitude XPi, and Latitude LM systems. "If you have purchased a retail upgrade, Dell recommends that you wait to complete this upgrade until those files are available from our Web site." Those files may be available as early as today from Dell, Microsoft said.

Compaq also issued warnings for a number of models.

For example, there is no support for CD-ROM drives when using DOS, according to one notice. "After Windows 98 setup has finished upgrading, the system will report that there is no support in DOS mode. At this point, the CD-ROM drive will not operate. This is a known Windows 98 issue at Microsoft," the Compaq site says.

For its part, Toshiba said that Windows 98 problems are only occurring on corporate laptops and not on any retail laptops. Essentially, some power management functions are curtailed when users try to install Windows 98 on top of Windows 95.

The problem exists in the BIOS, a spokeswoman said. A software fix will be issued in August.