Summary of the Technical Differences Between Windows 95 and Windows NT Workstation 4.0

The differences between Windows 95 and Windows NT Workstation 4.0 fall into eight main areas which an IT manager should review before committing to an operating system standard across their organization. The long term goal is to address these differences by sharing more technologies across both products. The following page has a summary of the relative differences to consider.

Technical Area Windows 95 Windows NT Workstation 4.0

Hardware Minimums

Lower: 386/486 with 8+MB of RAM Higher: Pentium with 16+MB of RAM
Software Compatibility Higher: Supports most Windows and MS-DOS applications. Lower: No support for applications which breach Windows NT security (any application which directly accesses hardware)
Hardware and Device Compatibility Higher: Supports more than 4,000 devices Lower: Supports approx. 3,000 devices
Installation & Deployment Comprehensive detection code and dynamic device configuration support accurately recognizes, configures, and supports hardware. Less Comprehensive detection code and static device driver support.
Power Management and Plug and Play Built-in APM support for laptops and Plug and Play for both mobile and desktop systems. None (until Cairo release)
Performance Robust: Preemptive multitasking for 32-bit applications. Slightly greater performance on 16MB systems. High Performance: Preemptive multitasking for all applications. Significantly greater performance on 32MB systems.
Reliability/Stability Better: Vastly improved over Windows 3.11 and Windows for Workgroups 3.11 Industrial Strength: All applications run in protected memory space.
Network Integration Higher: Integrates into existing network operating systems very well. High: High degree of connectivity to existing network operating systems. To fully leverage the management and control capabilities we recommend Windows NT Server.
Security Robust: Support for server-based validated logon. Industrial Strength: Complete protection down to the file level.

Key Decision Criteria:

  1. Does Windows NT Workstation support all of your existing hardware and applications?
  2. Do you have the necessary hardware for Windows NT?
  3. If you answered yes to both of the above, we recommend that you examine Windows NT Workstation for your environment. If you answered no to either of the above, we recommend that you examine Windows 95 for your environment.
  4. If, which is often the case, you deploy a mixture of both, then we will provide you with the tools and information to help manage your mixed environment and the transition to that environment.

Windows 95: The Easiest Way to a 32-bit Desktop

Windows 95, with reduced systems requirements, great application and device compatibility, and easy installation, is the easiest way to get to a 32-bit desktop. Windows 95 offers improved stability over 16-bit Windows (Windows 3.1 and Windows for Workgroups 3.1), robust multitasking, and great mobile support through Advanced Power Management and Plug and Play.

Windows NT Workstation 4.0: The Most Powerful 32-bit Desktop

Alternatively, Windows NT Workstation 4.0, with high performance, industrial strength reliability and security, is the most powerful 32-bit desktop. Customers who have the necessary hardware and required application and device compatibility should look at Windows NT Workstation 4.0 as their standard 32-bit desktop.

The Facts Regarding Hardware and Software Compatibility

Because it is compatible with a wider range of hardware and software and offers additional functionality, such as Plug and Play and Advanced Power Management, Microsoft estimates that Windows 95 will continue to be the significantly higher volume product for the foreseeable future.

Windows 95 supports one-third more device drivers than does Windows NT Workstation (approximately 1,000 more drivers). Windows NT Workstation does a capable job of supporting a wide array of device drivers. However, certain types of devices, such as video, audio, and PCMCIA are areas where Windows NT Workstation support falls short of Windows 95. Microsoft is particularly focused on working with third parties to develop Windows NT Workstation drivers for these devices.

In terms of application support, Windows 95 was designed to be compatible with the vast majority of MS-DOS and Windows-based applications. Windows NT, however, has certain architectural differences which means that certain types of applications that run on Windows 95 do not run on Windows NT.

There are several reasons why an application that runs on Windows 95 may not run on the Windows NT platform:

  1. Windows NT was designed to be a more robust and secure operating system, so applications are not allowed to directly access the hardware. There are two cases where this can be a problem:
    • Current applications that need to communicate directly to hardware devices, such as sound cards, video, scanners, hard disk, and so on, where the application vendor has not provided the necessary driver for Windows NT. Customers should ask the vendor when their application will support Windows NT.
    • Older MS-DOS based multimedia applications or games, where the developer has chosen to access the hardware directly for performance reasons.
  2. Windows NT does not support VxD's (Virtual Device Drivers). Some applications that require VxD's, such as memory management, and certain classes of communications applications (remote control, fax) won't run on Windows NT.
  3. In testing Win32 applications on Windows NT 4.0, we have found a few problems with applications incorrectly detecting Windows NT or version 4.0 which cause installation and/or run-time problems. We have notified the application vendors and they will update their applications to detect the correct platform.

In each of the above instances, we are working hard to improve Windows NT's hardware and software compatibility. Customers considering a move to Windows NT Workstation 4.0 should first ensure that all of their key devices and applications are supported in version 4.0.

The Realities of a Mixed Desktop Environment

No single operating system can satisfy the broad range of needs of all users today. Mobile users, legacy applications, and older hardware often require environments with mixed operating systems. For many customers, a mixed environment of Windows 95 and Windows NT Workstation is most appropriate to address their needs, and Microsoft provides information to enable customers to choose the right mix. See the document titled Windows 32 bit Deployment Guide at Microsoft's web site for more details.

One Example of a Mixed Environment: Mobile Computer Users

Many companies have employees who spend a significant fraction of their working hours away from their office, whether they're at a customer site, in a hotel, or in remote locations, and rely on notebook computers to help them perform their jobs.

These mobile computer users need integrated features, such as electronic mail, fax, and remote networking, which ease information access from whatever location. They need a high level of compatibility with their current devices and applications, and an operating system which places moderate demands on the system (RAM, disk space, battery power) and provides Plug and Play device configuration capabilities.

Since Windows NT Workstation will not provide Plug and Play and Advanced Power Management capabilities until the Windows NT "Cairo" release, Windows 95 may be the best choice today, even if Windows NT Workstation 4.0 is selected for deployment to non-mobile users.

Migrating to Windows NT Workstation 4.0

Windows NT Workstation 4.0 will provide robust and automated upgrade paths for MS-DOS 6.x, Windows 3.x, Windows for Workgroups 3.x and Windows NT Workstation 3.x operating systems. Windows 95, due to the differences in registry architectures, will not have an automated upgrade to Windows NT Workstation 4.0 (this will be addressed in the next major release of Windows NT Workstation).

Microsoft provides extensive migration information to help IT managers plan, deploy, and manage an operating system upgrade. This information is available in a document titled Windows 32-bit Deployment Guide. This guide details how an IT manager can use "push" and "pull" installation options for the above operating systems.

Upgrading Windows 95-the Manual Upgrade Path

  1. Check to see if all Windows 95 devices and applications are supported by Windows NT Workstation 4.0.
  2. Install Windows NT Workstation 4.0 into a separate directory, creating a dual boot system.
  3. Reinstall all applications.
  4. (optional) Manually delete the Windows 95 directory.

Microsoft's Long Term Operating System Strategy

Customers demand compatibility with their installed environments, but they also want state of the art advancements in the systems they use. Microsoft's strategy is to provide customers with the best possible operating systems which provide new features and support for advanced 32-bit applications, but are also appropriately tailored to certain usage requirements, and that offer maximum compatibility with older drivers, older applications, and older computer equipment.

Remaining compatible with the installed base of hardware and software is Microsoft's biggest challenge when we release new versions of our operating systems. Given this challenge, we have developed two desktop operating systems, one of which is designed specifically to be compatible with the great majority of MS-DOS and Windows-based applications, as well as the bulk of hardware devices. Windows 95 has done very well in this regard, with tens of thousands of MS-DOS and Windows-based applications, as well as 4,000 device drivers supported today. Windows NT Workstation was designed from the ground up specifically to provide greater security, robustness and portability. Given this optimization, Windows NT Workstation can not be as compatible with as many legacy applications and device drivers as Windows 95. Customers need to consider this carefully when making operating system decisions. The attached comparison chart provides more detail of the strengths and weaknesses of both desktop operating systems.

Our goal for the Windows family of operating system products is to share as many common components as possible. To date, we have been able to share the application programming and user interfaces, OLE object model, and MAPI, all of which were built upon an open architecture. Within the next six months we are taking the next step in sharing code across the family by moving to a common device driver model, known as the Windows Driver Model (WDM). This will help to eliminate today's device driver compatibility issues for Windows NT.

Microsoft will continue to enhance and optimize all three members of the family, Windows 95, Windows NT Workstation, and Windows NT Server, based on customer feedback and customer requirements.

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