Versions of Windows 9x
Windows 9x comes in various editions...
As long as you stay away from "bland lame" systems that fob you off with license-only, "instant restore", "companion CD" or proprietary-modified OEM mutations, it doesn't matter which edition you have - but it's often crucial to know which version you have.
Windows 95 (original)
This shattered the Windows 3.yuk mold, and wild horses would not drive me back!
Great new features included ability to run Win32 applications, better driver support for DOS applications, better integration of DOS and Windows environments, better multitasking, Plug-n-Play sanity-checking before use of driver code, Long File Names, built-in Internet connectivity, non-default actions for file associations, better user interface that uses both mouse buttons, and a better DOS Edit program.
When moving from DOS or Windows 3.yuk to Windows 9x, you should abandon the old ways of doing things. Remember what you learned in the older OSs, but don't expect it to be directly applicable! This applies to managing the startup axis and performance tweaking in particular. There are few things more pathetic than a Windows 9x system set up as if it was a DOS/Win3.yuk system.
New compatibility and security issues were Long File Names and the registry Run keys, respectively.
Windows 95 SP1
This was mainly a bug fix revision of the original Windows, and I don't have it running anywhere (hence vagueness about the version reporting). All editions switched to this version after release, and the additions and patches were available as free downloads.
No major new features or risks here.
Windows 95 SR2
This milestone revision of Windows 95 was never made available in retail editions, much to their chagrin. All but the core features (FAT32 and NTKern) can be downloaded and retrofitted, but not those two.
Great new features were the ability to control monitor refresh rates, FAT32 to allow hard drive volume sizes over 2G, and the downloadable "USB Supplement" (NTKern) that added support not only for USB, but is needed for AGP as well. It's the minimum version you need for AGP and USB support.
Some new compatibility issues introduced with FAT32, if you were dual-booting NT, DOS, or using pre-FAT32 low-level file system utilities such as Norton DiskEdit etc. (FAT32 doesn't have to be used; it's an option). The device driver model had changed somewhat, so some driver revisions may be required.
Windows 95 SR2.1
Exactly the same as Windows 95 SR2, except that the USB Supplement was included on the CD (though not in the Windows installation process - you'd have to locate and install it afterwards). They missed the opportunity to upgrade the bundled MSIE 3.00 to bug-fixed 3.01
Windows 95 SR2.5
"My Computer" properties reports as: Windows 95 4.00.950c
The same as Windows 95 SR2.1, except that a second CD containing MS Internet Explorer 4 was included. If you didn't install this CD, you'd have an MSIE that looked like MSIE 2 but reported the version as 4 - weird.
New escalation risks came with MSIE 4 that brought the risk of embedded HTML scripts to the active desktop, and Outlook Express that will process HTML scripts embedded within email message text (a risk that can be controlled). The browser's HTML engine is also broken for MIME handling or attachments.
Windows 98 (original)
This is the version that brought AGP, USB and FAT32 to the retail market.
Main new malware risk was the "View as Web Page" feature that processes HTML for every folder view - allowing embedded scripts to be run in local hard drive security zone. The problem is that even if you turn off this folder view everywhere, it still spontaneously returns, especially when showing newly-created menu folders after an install. Windows 98 also includes Windows Scripting Host, and thus "support" for stand-alone script malware such as LoveLetter, and Outlook Express introduces uncontrolled (but not uncontrollable) auto-running of scripts embedded within HTML email messages. The browser's HTML engine is also broken for MIME handling or attachments.
New safety risk is that auto-running ScanDisk default behavior is more aggressive; all problems are "fixed" without prompts and all traces of recovered data is discarded. One wonders if some reports of the "better reliability" of Windows 98 are merely because it is papering over file system damage in this way.
Windows 98 Second Edition
The one non-downloadable core feature added in this version was Internet Connection Sharing, which allows multiple PCs on a TCP/IP LAN to share Internet access through a single modem. Once again, the browser's HTML engine is broken for MIME handling or attachments.
Windows Millennium Edition
New core features are of dubious value and are badly-behaved, namely; System Restore, Windows Media Player 7 and Movie Maker (neither of which can be left out or removed from an installation, and both of which insist on dumping their files within My Documents). Some useful functionality has been stripped out; there's no hard drive based DOS mode (there are fixes for that), you can no longer control auto-running Scandisk on a per-risk basis, and there's no Resource Kit (either as a sampler, or as a pay-for add-on). The last is a major problem, as there is much that has changed under the hood in WinME as well as new and hard-to-avoid core features that have never been documented in a Resource Kit.
Some genuine (rather than eye-candy) user interface improvements have been made, and some annoyances fixed; CD-ROM drives no longer throw up errors because the disk hasn't spun up yet, and you can get "View as Web Page" to go away and stay away.
New compatibility risks are from yet another driver model tweak, new lack of access to the real mode part of the startup axis, new TCP/IP stack from NT that breaks some firewall software, and the relocation of HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT to a new CLASSES.DAT registry file that may break unaware registry backups and utilities.
New safety risks are that SR will write to every hard drive volume it sees (making WinME unusable for pulling data from at-risk hard drives - the behavior persists even if SR is disabled); ScanDisk now ignores ScanDisk.ini (which still exists as a red herring) and is controlled through an Advanced button within the ScanDisk user interface itself, and still defaults to "fixing" everything and leaving no bodies behind.
New malware risks include that of malware harbored within System Restore data, lack of a proper DOS mode from which to conveniently manage Windows-level malware, and an unwanted side-effect of a bolder System File Protection; this undoes (in real time) attempts to risk-manage through renaming away system components such as WSH. Some risks are partially closed; Web View can be effectively disabled, and Outlook Express isn't quite as naked to the world as it was (Active Scripting now disabled in 'Restricted Zone' and the EyeDog patch is applied). The browser's HTML engine is still broken for MIME handling or attachments.
(C) Chris Quirke, all rights reserved - January 2001, link massage April 2003
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