Love it or loath it Microsoft Windows has made the fantastically complicated lump of technology that is the modern PC, accessible and relatively easy to use. Windows has just undergone one of its semi-regular transformations with the launch of the Millennium Edition or ‘ME’ so the question is, should you upgrade, or stick with what you’ve got? Unlike Windows 2000 – launched earlier this year  -- which is designed mainly for business users, Windows ME is aimed squarely at the home PC owner, and to save you the bother of skipping to the end our verdict this time  -- on the evidence so far – is that it is definitely worth considering!


However, before you do you anything you should make sure you system is up to it. The minimum system specification for ME is a Pentium or Pentium class processor running at 166MHz or faster with at least 32Mb or RAM (64Mb is recommended) and between 200Mb and 600Mb of free hard disc space.


Windows ME is available in full-install and Windows 95/98 upgrade versions costing £170.50 and £67.50 respectively (Microsoft anticipated selling prices). However, there are some enticing promotional prices on offer at the moment for the upgrade product and PC World is currently selling it for just £39.99.


Installation over an earlier version of Windows is, or should be painless, in fact for most users the only things to do are enter the product registration code, select the option to make a backup of the previous system (recommended) and insert a floppy to make an emergency recovery disc. After that you can go and make a cup of tea or find something else to do for the 40 minutes or so it takes to install. When it has finished your PC’s desktop should look pretty much as before, indeed Windows ME is firmly rooted in Windows 95/98 and good old MS-DOS is still lurking in the background. There are no nasty surprises or new things to learn, if anything it’s even easier to use than its predecessors, though on the evidence of the four PCs we’ve tried it on so far, performance gains and any decrease in start up or shut down times are marginal.


However, there are lots of small and mostly worthwhile changes in layout, design and functionality, in place like Windows Explorer, Control Panel and Find on the Start menu, and Windows Help looks completely different. There are extra options to change the way the Start menu and the Taskbar look, drop-down menus behave and you get the latest versions of Internet Explorer and Outlook Express.


In my opinion the most important new feature is System Restore. It should prove a godsend to those with troublesome PCs, anyone having problems installing new hardware or software and tinkerers, who can’t resist having a fiddle with their computer’s settings (with predictable consequences…). System Restore lives in System Tools (Start > Programs > Accessories) and gives you the opportunity to save a known good configuration, so that if anything goes wrong you can return your PC to its former healthy condition. Backups can be made once or at regular intervals. It’s going to be a boon for service engineers, a lot of the time they will be able to help novice users get a ‘dead’ PC back up and running over the phone.


The headline feature in Windows ME is undoubtedly Media Player 7, which replaces the old Media Player and CD player, but with vastly increased functionality. In addition to audio CDs and video clips it replays MP3 music files and copies audio CD tracks to the PC’s hard disc, however, my favourite feature is the Radio Tuner. It makes listening to Internet radio as easy as tuning a normal radio, with the added bonus that you can hear thousands of radio stations from all around the world, live. There is something decidedly surreal about listening to 2am phone-in from a rural Alaskan township or a Chinese station playing non-stop Elvis…


Microsoft has included a lot of customisation into the new Media Player, this includes a set of ‘skins’ which basically dresses the program up in various different ways, and there are lots of toys to play with, including light shows, wave forms and dancing patterns that move in time with the music, some of which can be quite diverting.


Another wholly new feature is Windows Movie Maker. This is a video-editing program that works in conjunction with a video capture card. It’s not as sophisticated as some of the offerings on the market but it does allow you to put together a tidy-looking presentation, or lick your holiday movie into shape, for sending to relatives over the Internet. 


Home Networking is another major new feature in Windows ME. It’s aimed at home users, many of whom have two or more PCs in the house, and this will allow them all to share resources, such as an Internet connection or printer, or swap files. The PCs in question have to be fitted with suitable network cards or adaptors but they are neither expensive nor difficult to install these days, the setup wizard helps design the system and simplify configuration.


Millennium Edition also has its playful side. In addition to all of the classic Windows 95/98 games (Hearts, Solitaire, FreeCell, & Minesweeper) ME comes with some new ones, there’s four games that can be played with opponents over the Internet (Backgammon, Checkers, Hearts, Reversi & Spades), plus Spider Solitaire and Pinball, old favourites from the Microsoft  ‘Plus Packs’. 


Windows ME is easier to use than its predecessors with some impressive new features; it should also be more reliable and easier to fix when things do go wrong. It’s not as revolutionary as the change from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95, or as mundane as the move from 95 to 98. ME is probably the last version to support DOS and the best Windows yet for home users. If you can make use of the new features this could be a very worthwhile upgrade.


Next week – trouncing Trojans, protect your PC





Motion Picture Experts Group audio layer 3 -- digital audio compression system commonly used to send files containing audio and music over the Internet



Microsoft Disc Operating System, program that works beside Windows to control the way disc drives handle and process information 



PC expansion card that converts analogue video -- from a camcorder, TV tuner, VCR etc – into digital data, that can be processed on a PC. Some cards also convert PC video back to analogue, for recording on a VCR or display on a TV. Digital video capture cards are also available for digital camcorders with FireWire digital video connections.



If you like the sound of the Windows Media Player 7 you can try it for yourself, without having to upgrade to Millennium Edition. It’s available as a free download from the Microsoft web site. The only points to watch out for are that it only works with Windows 98 and 2000, and the file is quite large – a little over 9.5Mb – so it can take quite a while to download; reckon on between 30 to 40 minutes on a 56Kbs modem. You can find it at the Microsoft download search page at: Click on Keyword Search, type Media Player 7 in the Search field and follow the instructions.

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