Windows 98 added numerous improvements over Windows 95. It was not a patch; it was a huge API improvement (addition), minor UI improvements, browser integration (for better or for worse), and many other things:
- Better Setup: Windows 98 Setup covers this one pretty well.
- Fat32 Native (almost mandatory): Windows 98 wanted to be installed on a FAT32 partition (and even came with a really slick drive upgrade utility). You could install it on a pre-existing FAT16 partition, or use Partition Magic to split it down afterwards *shudder*, if you were really desperate. This was a good move since by 1998, drives were starting to get bigger than what FAT16 could handle, and FAT32 systems are considerably faster.
- DirectX installed by default While DirectX was initially an addition to Windows 95, it increased its acceptance by coming installed by default on Windows 98. It really helped Windows gaming a lot, and got a lot of developers to finally move off of developing old DOS and VGA games. Getting past legacy hangups helped gaming greatly.
- Many API changes In the Win32 API reference, you will notice that many many handy functions are Windows 98 and above. This is because Win98 is Windows 4.1, and very much added to the API set with which programmers had to choose from. Unfortunately, this did not help many complex programming needs, as 95 was still abundant, and had to be supported.
- It was the last Microsoft OS to support 386/486 machines: If you had an older processor, then Windows 98 is the top of the line for you. Windows Millennium (and basically all of the NTs) need a Pentium/equivalent or better processor.
- Native USB support Windows 95 OSR 2.5 included USB support for that OS, but Windows 98 came with it standard, thankfully, and thus allowed device makers to help increase the acceptance of the standard.
- Better driver support: Windows 98 could add a good deal of new hardware without rebooting. This was a blessing as 95 was the king of rebooting, oftentimes several times for certain devices (network cards come to mind).
- Animated menus: Windows 98 could animate its menus (they had a drawer pull-out animation). This was a minor effect that in retrospect made the interaction a lot more crisp than 95.
- Active Desktop and web-enhancements on by default: Explorer generated "web views" for everything in 98 by default. You could of course shut this feature off if you really wanted to.
- Better management software: Memphis came packaged with things such as hard drive cleanup wizard and other improvements that allowed it to be more easily maintained and managed. The Win95 suite of tools was not as good, and accomplished tasks poorly, such as the Windows Defrag tool, or ScanDisk. Also the utilities such as Windows Notepad, Wordpad, etc all got their round of updates.
- Increased Stability and Speed: Windows 98 was a HUGE improvement in stability and speed over its predecessors. The boot time of Windows 98 is impressive on my 75 Mhtz 486 for what it does.*
The first run of Windows 98 was out for only a year before Windows 98, Second Edition was released and shortly phased into main use. Hands down Win98 SE is clearly better than Windows 98, which many people feel was a rushed product. I was a beta-tester for 98, and it seems that during the last few weeks of beta testing, the OS fell apart; with increasingly less and less stability. It was quite unfortunate. Now 98 stands as the major install base for Windows machines, more than 95 or Windows ME. The next Microsoft offering, due out in late 2001, Windows XP (based on NT), is poised to be the next consumer operating system.
* Windows 98 was not very stable on the first release. OSR2 (SE) fared considerably better