But which version of Windows was the most impressive one ever–and which one was the most awe-inspiring fiasco? I have my theories. But I thought it would be more fun to let you make the call.
Hence this article. I’ll recap some of the essentials on twenty editions of Windows, from the prehistoric (version 1.01) to the futuristic (version 7, available today only in a pre-beta incarnation); you can click on the title of each listing for more information over at Wikipedia. Once you’ve read up, please vote on the best and worst, and use Comments to praise or rant at greater length if you choose. We’ll use this feedback as the basis of an article we’ll publish in the not-too-distant future.
This survey involves only desktop versions of the OS that ran on x86 CPUs–sorry, Windows NT for DEC Alpha and Windows CE buffs–and I haven’t included each and every version, just the major ones and some others with a reputation for being particularly outstanding or excruciating. You can also cast write-in votes if you’re an aficionado or enemy of Windows/286 or Windows XP SP1 or another version we skipped.
The rundown that follows includes pros and cons for each edition, but I won’t pretend it’s entirely dispassionate–it’s hard to write about Windows without expressing opinions. Don’t be swayed by my slant on things, though. Just vote honestly (hey, it’s anonymous). The list starts after the jump, but if you don’t need to brush up before voting, you can head straight for the poll. Oh, and please tell your friends about all this–the more opinions the merrier…
The Good: It provided a basic graphical front-end for the otherwise text-only world of MS-DOS–and you could drive it with that newfangled input device called a mouse.
The Bad: It bore about as much relation to the Mac as a Yugo does to a Mercedes: It was ugly as sin, and you couldn’t even overlap windows. And in a precedent-setting move, Microsoft started hyping it two years before it arrived.
The Good: You could overlap windows, and Word and Excel debuted in Windows versions, giving folks the first apps worth buying Windows to run.
The Bad: It was still pretty homely compared to the Mac and other graphical environments such as that of the Amiga. (Even so, it prompted Apple to sue Microsoft, in a long-running lawsuit that probably didn’t do anyone involved, including Mac and Windows users, any good.)
The Good: This version of Windows was designed to take advantage of the power of Intel’s potent 386 CPU–it could multitask DOS applications and featured better memory management than previous versions.
The Bad: It may have been a significant leap from a technical standpoint, but Windows still looked dowdy. And DOS was still beloved: The majority of PC users didn’t understand why you’d want to mess it up with needless complications like a graphical interface.
The Good: It was the first version of Windows that was…kind of slick, actually. Compared to DOS, anyhow. And for the first time, companies other than Microsoft started to write lots of Windows applications with real graphical interface. Consequently, it became the first version that was a hit. Oh, and it included Solitaire for the first time.
The Bad: The resemblance to the Mac was there, but it was barely even skin-deep: DOS’s eight-character file name limitation lived on, and you still had to wrangle with DOS’s memory limitations. Oh, and major software vendors such as Lotus still thought that IBM’S OS/2 would replace DOS, and therefore focused their energies on it.
The Good: Microsoft took the wildly popular Windows 3.0, added lots of fixes that made it more reliable–and introduced added TrueType, giving Windows built-in scalable font technology for the first time.
The Bad: Windows not only had never caught up with the Mac OS, it was falling behind: Apple’s System 7, released the year before, had file sharing, the first version of QuickTime, and lots of other features that left Windows looking like a relic of the 1980s.
The Good: The trendy concept of “workgroup computing” got its own edition of Windows, with built-in networking capabilities. But it was also the most highly-evolved, stable version of Windows 3.x, period–so much so that plenty of folks stuck with it even once Windows 95 arrived.
The Bad: Mac partisans were still entitled to mock the lack of long file names; devotees of IBM’s OS/2, which was still alive and kicking, also got to look down upon Windows users.
The Good: For the first and last time to date, Microsoft rewrote Windows from the ground up to make it more robust and modern–and for the first time, it turned it into a true 32-bit operating system rather than a front-end for for the 16-bit antique known as DOS. (Version 3.51, released in May 1995, added some minor fixes and features and was available in a version for Power PC-based computers.)
The Bad: This OS was stuck with the Windows 3.x user interface even after Windows 95 rendered it obsolete. And it wasn’t compatible with Windows 3.x drivers.
The Good: Long file names! The Start Button! The Taskbar! And no need for DOS! Windows 95 fixed most of Windows’ most glaring problems, and introduced most of the interface concepts that define the OS to this day. People were so eager to get their hands on it that they really did line up at CompUSA at midnight. And for once, a Microsoft ad campaign–complete with Rolling Stones soundtrack–was widely regarded as hip.
The Bad: Windows 95 may have been a full-blown OS in theory, but DOS, and some of its drawbacks, lurked under the surface–architecturally, this was no Windows NT. And Microsoft managed to ship an OS that arrived simultaneously with the birth of the consumer Internet without including a Web browser or the ability to connect to the Internet. (You had to buy the Windows 95 Plus Pack to get ’em.)
The Good: It took almost a year, but Windows NT finally got a Windows 95-style interface, with the Start Menu and Taskbar, and long file names.
The Bad: NT still lacked some of Windows 95’s key conveniences, including USB (added to Win 95 via an update) and Plug and Play peripheral setup.
The Good: Windows 98 wasn’t radically different from Windows 95, but it was the first version of the OS to include USB from the get-go and it introduced Windows Driver Model (WDM) drivers, which are still in use. It booted up and shut down faster, and supported multiple monitors for the first time.
The Bad: The OS also introduced the questionable Web-desktop integration known as Active Desktop and the dead-on-arrival, justly forgotten WebTV for Windows.