Windows 98 hits snags

As PC makers scramble to serve customers with older systems, it's unclear how significant are the problems with Windows 98.

4 min read
As PC manufacturers attend to customers facing Windows 98 upgrade problems with older PCs, two questions remain: How significant are these difficulties, and who is affected?

Computer makers assert that problems in upgrading to Microsoft's Windows 98 occur How easy is it to upgrade? mainly in older computers that do not meet the minimum system requirements for the new operating system. However, some newer computers will also have trouble installing the Windows upgrade because of hardware conflicts with some of the software's newer features.

"Basically, the BIOS doesn't recognize some of the new features of Windows 98," such as power management, said Bill Peterson, an IDC analyst. The BIOS is critical software that configures the computer during the start-up phase.

For example, Dell Computer systems that will encounter upgrade problems include everything from old Dimension 386 systems all the way to newer Latitude CPi notebooks. Although the Dell Dimension 386 is an ancient, pre-Pentium-era desktop that unsurprisingly cannot upgrade to Windows 98, the Latitude CPi--which Dell's Web site says is "upgradable, but not at this time"--is relatively new.

Reflecting problems that are common to many PC vendors, much of the Dimension line has been subject to snags, from desktops running old 60-MHz Pentium processors to some Pentium II machines, a Dell spokesman confirmed. Almost all Dell Dimensions running 486-compatible processors are not recommended to be upgraded to Windows 98, according to the Dell site.

Upgrade snags aren't specific to Dell, and the direct vendor appears to be going out of its way to help users deal with potential glitches. Other PC vendors have been less proactive--waiting for users to come to them with problems, instead of going on the public record.

For its part, Compaq Computer requires software updates in order for Windows 98 to work optimally on some newer systems. For example, the Compaq Presario 4808 notebook PC with a 200-MHz Pentium MMX processor requires that the user download new "drivers," software that enables hardware devices to "talk" to the operating system.

Regarding older systems, Compaq says a user should have at least a 486 processor, 195MB of hard drive space available, and 16MB of memory to successfully upgrade to Windows 98, according to its Web site.

But this can be deceiving, said Dan Kusnetsky, another IDC analyst. "Those requirements describe computers that only have room for the [operating system]," he noted. "And who has a configuration that only runs the OS? Obviously, this is an opportunity for people to be confused."

To run both Windows 98 and an office suite like Microsoft Office 97, a user should have at least 24MB of memory and 500MB of hard drive space available, Kusnetsky advised. "Why is this coming up now? Did the PC vendors test all the configurations that were likely to be found?"

Analysts agree that owners of older computers should check their PC makers' Web sites for upgrade information before attempting to install Windows 98. Unfortunately, many consumers don't even know what the BIOS is, let alone how to upgrade it.

"If you say, 'Do the BIOS upgrade,' you'll get a whole lot of blank faces," IDC's Peterson noted. "You've lost a fair amount of the home market right there. [The PC makers'] reaction would be: 'Buy a new machine.' This is a for-profit industry, after all."

Vendors like Dell, Compaq, and IBM are saying that any major software upgrade, especially a new operating system, naturally requires some tweaking.

"The difference between the customer experience with Windows 95 and the customer experience with Windows 98 is the assistance in knowing how upgradable their PCs are," the Dell spokesman added.

Using the Web, each of these PC companies are indicating which systems require software downloads to install Windows 98 while directing customers through the download process. Dell, for example, is redeploying its direct sales model by offering customized upgrade information to owners who type in the service number of their Dell PC.

"Because we know what is in our customers' systems, we can give them that information before the installation process begins to let them know if their systems are upgradable or if they need drivers to assist in the process," the Dell representative noted.

IBM and Compaq are walking their customers through the process of identifying and downloading the appropriate driver or BIOS upgrade to install Windows 98.

Similar upgrade problems occurred with Windows 95, according to Summit Strategies analyst Dwight Davis. "I don't think it was as widely reported. [PC makers] are always optimistic on the minimum requirements," he said.