Windows ME vs Windows XP isn’t much of a battle. You see, it’s a comparison of one of Microsoft’s most hated operating systems and one of its most beloved. XP, at the time of its release, was Microsoft’s best effort to date. But one reason it seemed so good was because it followed something so terrible.
The last 16/32-bit hybrid Microsoft OS
Windows ME was the last of its generation. Microsoft went out of its way to hide DOS in Windows ME, to the point where it took some serious hacking to expose it. But Windows ME was still a 32-bit GUI running on top of a 16-bit kernel. Windows ME was Windows 98 with better plug and play, better-hidden DOS roots, and a lot more bugs. But from a technology standpoint, it was pretty much just warmed-over Windows 95. There was as much difference, if not more, between Windows XP service packs as there was between Windows 95, 98, and ME.
Windows ME’s original plan
Microsoft intended for Windows ME to have a short shelf life. The goal all along was to get a consumer-oriented version of Windows based on Windows NT to market. But Windows ME was a bit of a rush job, and probably could have used at least another six months’ worth of testing and debugging. But if Microsoft had done that, then consumers would have just skipped Windows ME and waited for XP.
So Microsoft released a half-baked Windows ME, whose improvements over Windows 98SE were incremental at best, and in practice was less stable than its predecessor. And what happened? People figured out it was bad and they ignored it. Either they stuck with 98SE until Windows XP was ready, or they ran Windows 2000 and put up with its imperfect compatibility. Either option was better than running Windows ME.
I literally had a magazine editor contact me and ask me to figure out how to dual-boot ME with 98SE and then write an article about it for him to publish. He hated ME and figured his readers would too.
What was good about Windows ME
Windows ME was supposed to deliver a souped-up disk defragmenter, better plug and play, and better stability. The defragmenter was better. It had a bit more intelligence and was much more tolerant of multitasking. The plug and play was better too, especially with USB devices. With 95 and 98 and even 98SE, plug and play usually worked, but you’d occasionally get mysterious conflicts that could take all weekend to sort through. With ME, it pretty much worked as expected. You’d plug in the device, Windows would load a driver and configure it, and stuff just worked.
The better stability was more of a broken promise. If you ran well-behaved 32-bit applications, Windows ME may have been slightly more stable than 98SE. But most games ran much better on 98SE. And that was the target audience. The casual users who were more likely to notice a benefit to ME were the ones least likely to buy it. Gamers who wanted the latest and greatest bought ME, ran it a few weeks, then reinstalled 98SE and cursed Microsoft because they’d wasted 80 bucks.
Windows XP: A promise delivered
XP was a long time coming. Windows NT arrived in 1993 to great fanfare, but a lot more people talked about it than used it. It took eight years for Microsoft to deliver a version of Windows NT that had reasonable compatibility with Windows 95 and 98 games and plug and play that worked most of the time, on top of Windows NT stability.
XP was supposed to be all things to all people, and as long as you had a computer powerful enough to run it, it pretty much delivered. Windows XP did require more memory than Windows ME, and it helped if you had a faster CPU. But, for the first time, Microsoft had a consumer-oriented operating system that could use multiple CPU cores. That greatly increased XP’s scalability. As Microsoft released more service packs, its system requirements grew, but the cost of hardware came down considerably over XP’s extremely long lifespan. By 2014, when support for XP ended, dual-core CPUs and 4 GB of RAM was cheap.
The biggest difference in Windows XP vs Windows ME was that XP lived up to its immense promise and was good for Microsoft’s reputation. Windows ME soiled Microsoft’s reputation after a nearly 10-year run of successful products.
Why Windows XP was so popular for so long
Windows XP was showing its age by 2005 when Vista came out, but Vista was really bad. Vista runs fine on hardware from 2009. The problem was Vista came out in 2005. So Vista never caught on except with people who always want to run the newest thing. Everyone else stuck with XP. And the later service packs for Windows XP were very good. Windows XP Service Pack 2 was a very stable operating system, and Service Pack 3 dramatically improved its performance.
Windows 7 came out in 2009 and most power users migrated to it, especially those who wanted a 64-bit operating system. Microsoft did release a 64-bit version of XP but it had compatibility issues, so not a lot of people used it. But if your software ran fine in 4 GB of RAM or less, XP was more efficient. And not all software that ran on XP ran on newer versions, so some businesses had a very difficult time migrating everyone off XP.
So while Windows ME was one of Microsoft’s shortest-lived operating systems, Windows XP was one of its longest. If you slipstream drivers, you can run XP on surprisingly recent hardware.