Microsoft Windows 98, soon to be available at a store near you ($109 list price), or with nearly every new PC, is an upgrade of Windows 95, not a major new version of the Microsoft operating system.

Indeed, Windows 95 users who are already using version 4.0 of Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser may not notice any difference when they first start Windows 98.

There are some changes to the appearance of the Windows opening screen, the so-called "desktop," but those changes also occur in Windows 95 when you install Internet Explorer 4.0. They include a set of small icons on the "taskbar" next to the "start" button. The icons represent Internet Explorer itself, Outlook Express (a nice e-mail program), a button that allows the user to return to the desktop screen while doing something else and a button to display what Microsoft calls its "channels," which are a set of fancy Web sites with which Microsoft has made partnership deals.

These "channels," by the way, will be automatically displayed in a vertical toolbar on the desktop when you first boot Windows 98. You can turn it off, however, if you don't like it by going into the display utility in the Windows "control panel" and clicking a check box under the "Web tab."

You will also notice a difference in the way the "Programs" menu on the "Start" button appears. Instead of seeing all your program folders spread across the screen in as many columns as it takes to show them, there is now a single column with a down arrow at the bottom that allows you to scroll to see the icons and folders that won't fit in a single column.

This is a change that also occurs when Internet Explorer 4.0 is installed under Windows 95. Microsoft obviously thinks this is an improvement, but many users may not. Those who prefer to see their programs all displayed at once are likely to find it annoying. There seems no way to change it, however.

There are a few all-new features in this upgrade, but if you already have Internet Explorer 4.0 and its e-mail companion, Outlook Express, you may not find much exciting on the surface of Windows 98.

Windows pop open with a bit more snap and seem to jump into view at an angle, which is sort of fun the first few times you see it.

Microsoft has found a way to make frequently used programs load faster, which is certainly a welcome improvement, especially for users weary of what seemed the interminable time programs could take to load under Windows 95, even on systems with 32 megabytes or more of memory.

There are also some power management enhancements that many may find useful. For years, Windows 95 has had a "standby" or "hibernate" function for laptop computers that allowed the system to be restarted quickly without being fully powered down. Microsoft boasts that this feature, called "On Now," has been included for desktop models as well in Windows 98. Unfortunately, this appears only to be true with computers that have the most advanced power management technology.

For others, there is a more limited power management scheme that will allow your computer to be left on, with its hard disks and monitor automatically shut off after a given period of time (users can choose how long) to avoid wear and tear and use of electricity. This means that when you come back, it will spring to life quickly. This is not the full equivalent of a laptop's standby mode, but it's an improvement.

Microsoft is clearly trying for a more seamless integration of its Web browsing capability into its operating system. For example, it purports to allow the user to display what it now calls the "Active Desktop" as a Web page. After turning this option on and off several times, however, it was not at all clear what difference it made. The desktop still looked the same as it did under plain old Windows 95, and it certainly did not look like a Web page.

Microsoft boasts that Windows 98 makes your computer "more entertaining," but this appears principally to refer to some upgraded utilities for playing audio and video, nearly all of which are available separately. Windows 98 now also supports WebTV, a recent Microsoft acquisition which requires a special hardware board that lets your computer, monitor and speakers function as a TV set. WebTV then lets you view the Web through a TV set.

"More entertaining," alas, does not mean there are any new computer games in Windows 98. Too bad, considering how popular Solitaire, Free Cell and other Windows games have been.

T.R. Reid is London bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@twp.com and Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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