Many years ago, I wrote about the disadvantages of Windows 3.1 because I started noticing people searching for that. Now, I see people asking the same question about Windows 98. I spent 9 months of my life ripping Windows 98 apart and putting it back together again and writing about it, so I know it well.
As much of an improvement as Windows 98 was over Windows 3.1 and even Windows 95, it, too, is feeling the effects of time. Windows 98SE was the best of the Windows 9x series (better than its successor, Windows ME), but there are better things to run today.
Plug and Play in Windows 98 still had some problems. You’d plug stuff in, find a conflict, and mess around for a few hours trying to eliminate the conflict. I never had that happen in Windows 2000 or Windows XP. Never. In 12 years of using Windows 2000 and XP, the only trouble I ever had was with a Firewire card, which I resolved by installing drivers for a different brand of Firewire card. Then it recognized the card with the correct drivers. I have no idea why that worked. But that’s the only problem I’ve had. In Windows 98, I had weird problems like that all the time.
And in Windows 98, USB just never completely worked right. Usually it did. But when it didn’t, it was hard to figure out why. In Windows 2000 and XP, USB devices just work. They may need a driver, but they’ll find the driver and then go.
Newer versions of Windows are a lot more stable. Windows 98 still has DOS at its core, and a badly behaved program can pull the rug out from under the whole operating system. Windows 2000 and later versions have memory protection, which keeps badly behaved programs from interfering with the operating system itself. I can run XP systems for months without rebooting them and they won’t crash.
A lot of newer software just doesn’t run on Windows 98 anymore. None of the new web browsers will–Firefox 2.00.20 is the newest browser that will run on it, and that’s 2006 technology. The current generation of web browsers is much faster, much more secure, and has more and more features that web designers are relying on. As time goes on, fewer and fewer web pages will display properly on Firefox 2 on Windows 98.
Most antivirus software won’t run anymore either. And you need antivirus software, because most viruses do run just fine on Windows 98. Needing protection and not being able to get it is a bad thing.
If that’s not bad enough, Microsoft hasn’t released security updates for Windows 98 or 98SE in many, many years. So old viruses and exploits that no longer have any effect on newer versions of Windows still work on Windows 98 and SE.
Similarly, a lot of newer hardware doesn’t have drivers for Windows 98. Windows Visa has been out for nearly 10 years now, and it’s the oldest thing most hardware manufacturers want to support. And frankly, if Vista drivers didn’t work in Windows 7, they wouldn’t even bother with Vista.
I know performance was a big concern, and part of the reason for people sticking with 98 back at the turn of the century. That’s not so big of a deal now. Yes, Windows 98 will run better on a 400 MHz PC than Windows 2000 or XP would. But faster computers are cheap now. You can get used PCs in the 2 GHz range, with Windows 7 installed on them, for $75-$100 rather easily. And a dual-core machine with 2 GB of RAM can easily outrun Windows 98 or SE. Bugs in Windows 98 make it impossible, without tweaking, to address more than 512 MB of RAM, and even with tweaks, it’s limited to 2 GB. Windows 7 can address multiple gigabytes. The exact amount depends on the computer’s hardware configuration.
I’ve heard Windows 98SE referred to as “tried and true” by adherents, but Windows 2000 and XP can legitimately make the same claim. The Windows NT kernel at the heart of newer Windows operating systems has been around since the early 1990s and it’s proven reliable. I’ll admit to not being all that impressed with XP when it came out, but it really came into its own with the service packs. When running legitimate, clean software–not pirated, and not spyware-infested freebies–I can go for years between system crashes. When I was running 98, I experienced system crashes a couple of times a week. I run my systems hard. Right at the moment, I have four different programs running, and that’s unusual for me. Usually I have more like 12 things running at once. A Win7 system with a couple of gigs of RAM won’t flinch at that load.
If you want to run late 1990s software on a late 1990s computer, then sure, Windows 98 or SE is a great choice for that. You’ll get a true to the era experience, and that’s precisely what some hobbyists want. Just keep the machine off the Internet.
But for general computing use, Windows 98’s time has passed. Especially considering the low cost of computers capable of running Windows 10. The same advice I give to XP holdouts applies to 98.
Frankly, if you can afford to do it, getting a new computer with more than 4 GB of RAM and 64-bit Windows 7 would be a good move. 64-bit computing offers better reliability, better security, and increased performance. There was a time when it was expensive, but off-lease business PCs cost $100 and provide a much better experience. My advice on building a $100 gaming computer works for general-purpose computing too.