Friday, 13 April 2012

Online with Windows ME in 2012

Earlier this week, I made the rather inexplicable decision that I was going back to the dawn of the millennium, for a trip down memory lane with Windows ME. The plan was simply to install Windows ME on a PC with sufficient power for the modern Internet, and see how the old operating system coped. And before I'd managed to work out what I was really trying to prove, the whole thing was in motion and there I was, logging into Blogger courtesy of an MS-DOS-based Windows system...

My Windows ME setup. At the top right is the BitMeter usage display mentioned in the text. My security programs (all of them free) can be seen on the Start menu.


SO WAS WINDOWS ME REALLY RUBBISH?

I remember being very reticent to get Windows ME back in 2000, what with so many people slating it and vowing to stick with Windows 98. But the much criticised Millennium Edition did have some important improvements over 98. Having dropped 98’s real mode DOS boot-up and background presence, ME loaded very quickly, and was extremely light on resources considering its complexity and capabilities. It pioneered ‘modern day’ features like System Restore and Windows Movie Maker for the home Windows user, and had much improved support for image management as compared with its immediate predecessor Win98SE. ME also introduced native support for USB mass storage disks, affording them plug and play recognition without any software installation. Today, you probably won’t be able to use your external hard drive with Win 98, but it’s likely to work with ME.

After I originally installed ME I was really quite baffled as to why it had provoked such disdain. I thought it was by far the best DOS-based Windows system, and it easily out-performed Windows 98SE, whilst providing a very noticeably better and richer user experience. Maybe the reason Windows ME failed to shrug off its reputation as a ‘load of rubbish’ was its short lifespan as the premier Microsoft home user operating system. All Windows versions tended to get stick from ‘traditionalists’ in their early months, but because ME was superseded by XP less than a year after introduction, it didn’t really have time for the more balanced evaluations to establish themselves, and people only remember the flak. There were problems with ME, but nothing, in my experience, like the catastrophically crash-ridden circus of the original Windows 98.

SETTING UP FOR THE WEB OF 2012 

Getting Windows ME set up to go online in 2012 was not going to be easy. The first problem was even finding a way to connect it to the web. I use wireless, even for my desktop machines, and finding a USB dongle which will actually install itself on something older than Windows XP is a challenge. There are still the odd few around which support back to Windows ME or even 98, but I’m guessing the majority are from old stock. They’re certainly not something which can, any longer, be described as readily available. I’m using a Netgear WG111v3. There appear to be some compatible Belkin products around too, but you have to hunt.

This Netgear WG111v3 USB wirless dongle supports Windows ME
Finding drivers for the system I’m using was also a pain. The computer was designed in the era of Windows XP, so it was touch and go getting ME compatible drivers. I’ve had to do a fair amount of digging and a bit of jiggery-pokery with the driver updates here and there, but Windows Device Manager has accepted that everything’s okay in the end.

The next major hurdle was security. The only anti-virus utility I could find which still fully updates its database with Windows ME was ClamWin. ClamWin is quite different from the likes of Avast!, AVG, Panda, Avira, Microsoft Security Essentials, etc, in that it doesn’t offer real time protection. You have to scan files in order for ClamWin to detect viruses or malware. That’s the bad news. The good news is that ClamWin places a hell of a lot less demand on resources than the better known AV programs, and it doesn’t bog down the boot process.

Admittedly, in itself, ClamWin is not much of a defence, so I added in my good old trusty Zone Alarm 3.7 – free on a magazine cover disc nearly a decade ago, and still a brilliant firewall today. You should be able to get Zone Alarm 3.7 from the fantastic site Old Apps. If you Google the software version you’re after with the words ‘old apps’, and the version is still available, you should find a reliable download. Zone Alarm gives you full control over what you’re letting into or, importantly, out of your PC, and by default, all programs on your system are blocked from accessing the Internet until you’ve given them permission. I love that system. It’s shocking how many programs you download that want to faff about on the Internet without any need. Unlike Windows Firewall, Zone Alarm blocks and reports all of these surreptious and sneaky Internet access attempts, giving you the option to approve access for one occasion only, or permanently. You can still go into Zone Alarm’s settings and re-block access at any time in future if you change your mind.

Zone Alarm 3.7 is a great firewall for Windows ME. This capture of the main interface shows which programs I'm allowing to access the web (green tick), which ones I've blocked (red cross), and which ones have to ask permission each time they require access (blue question mark). All programs have a blue question mark by default and are blocked until they've asked permission.
There’s also an instant Internet lock which you can click to engage as soon as you see any inexplicable or suspicious movements taking place. How d’you see those naughty background downloads and uploads in progress? Simple: use BitMeter – or an equivalent Internet usage monitor. BitMeter adds to your screen a small visual display (a live graph) of all traffic going in and out. If you see something downloading or uploading without invitation, you click on Zone Alarm’s lock, stop the process, and find out what’s going on.

The combination of Zone Alarm 3.7 and BitMeter makes it very hard for malware to function or establish itself without your knowledge. You may not block the threat before it enters your system, but at least you can see see what a rogue program is trying to do, then stop it, perform a system scan, and get rid of the danger before it gets itself entrenched. A botnet implant, for example, could not possibly go undetected with Zone Alarm and BitMeter active on your system. You’d spot what was happening straight away.

With my setup, ClamWin is used to carry out the security scans (which can be automated to run regularly – like every day), as well as scanning any file(s) I download. Remember though, you have to scan the files you download manually. ClamWin doesn’t monitor or auto-scan downloads.

So, all ready then?… No. Windows ME’s default version of Internet Explorer (IE 5.5) is rejected as a valid browser by so many sites these days that it would be untenable even if you considered it sufficiently secure. Further, Windows ME only upgrades as far as Internet Explorer 6, so Microsoft’s own browsers can’t provide anything remotely modern. Firefox seems the obvious alternative, but as you can probably guess… current versions of Firefox don’t support Windows ME. After Firefox 2, Mozilla dropped support for DOS Windows systems, so the most recent incarnation of Firefox compatible with ME is version 2.0.0.20, as released at the end of 2008. Sadly, this version predates the built-in virus scan for downloads, and worse still, there are a hell of a lot of modern sites it doesn’t render properly. Most of the sites I actively use display a ‘browser out of date’ warning message, and there’s a wide array of problems.

The most usable browser I could find in the end was Opera version 10.10 – the most recent Opera to support Windows ME. There are some limitations, but coming from 2009 the browser is at least on the doorstep of the right decade. I could do most of the things I wanted to do, but admittedly not all, and there were a few hoops to jump through along the way.

Opera 10.10 Browser with Bing running in Windows ME
Looks modern enough, doesn't it? This is a Bing search, run with the Opera 10.10 browser, in Microsoft Windows ME. No problems at all with this kind of standard surfing.
Unfortunately, this is something which is only going to get worse. Even if you find the connection, the drivers, the security and the browser to make Windows ME viable for online use in 2012, the web itself is constantly evolving, and sites are indirectly (through their browser compatibility) dropping support for Windows ME. The more this happens, the less feasible it will become to use Windows ME on the modern Internet. It’s bearable (just) at present, but in five or so years’ time the old DOS-based Windows system may well have become incompatible with the web, full stop. 

DOES THE ABOVE COMBINATION MAKE WINDOWS ME SUFFICIENTLY SECURE ON THE WEB OF 2012? 

In a word, no. You need to have your wits about you. If you’re going to click links which promise to make you a £million in about three months, or you let unknown entities do ‘free scans’ on your system, or you regard the word ‘toolbar’ as anything other than pure evil, or you install software without reading and paying attention to the installation routines, or you let someone persuade you that a ‘download manager’ is necessary for the installation of an idiotically simple 5MB app… then you’ll almost certainly at some stage face the consequences. Most probably sooner rather than later. Browsing and using the web with a level of common sense does go a long way towards keeping your system clean. It’s no guarantee, of course, but over the past twelve months I’ve only had Avast! block one attempted breach on my main system, and I’ve never had a virus or even an adware prog on any drive.

Because my ‘new’ Windows ME system isn’t 100% safe in itself, my action has been to image the whole installation once ready to use. Copying the whole drive image onto another drive as a sort of infallible ‘restore point’ means that if something does go wrong and I do get invaded by nasties, I can simply wipe the corrupt drive and copy back the good version in less than half an hour.

IN USE 

With everything set up and ready to go (well, as ready as is possible in 2012), the first thing I noticed was how amazingly fast everything runs without the humungous bloat of a newer Windows system. Windows ME hardly takes any time at all to boot and shut down, and it almost feels like the applications start before you’ve clicked their icons. It really is lightning fast. Helping further is the fact that the anti-virus and a pile of Windows processes are not constantly gobbling your RAM and CPU resources. You genuinely get a sense of how ridiculously bloated Windows has become over the years, and you feel quite liberated from the characteristic ‘nannying’ of newer Windows versions when using ME.

It doesn’t feel dramatically different from using an original release of Windows XP on a FAT 32 partition. Windows ME, like all the DOS versions of Windows, was incompatible with NTFS, so it had to run on a FAT-formatted drive. Windows XP was more robust and intuitive than ME, but you can tell ME is a very close ancestor. In fact, if it wasn’t for the ‘progress’ which has placed some of the current web tools beyond the reach of Windows ME, that final installment in the Windows 4 series would still stand today as a fully usable and not in any way inhibiting operating system. Of course, there are security issues, but drive imaging, combined with the daily backing up of user files (which we should all do anyway) provides the ultimate solution to any security breach.

I’ve enjoyed rolling back the years for this rather nostalgic experiment. I can’t really claim that Windows ME is any longer equipped for the rigours of the contemporary web, but it’s been a good insight into how quickly, in the world of technology, the ‘system of the future’ can become the system of the past.

Posted by: Bob Leggitt