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NT 3.51, the best thing MS ever had; even better than Warp because it was much friendlier to install and to use. It is a crying shame what MS did and did not do with it.
NT 3.51 was released in April 1995, but I don't know where you had to go to find and buy a copy of it. It was not pre-installed on home computers; it should have been. NT 3.51 was not promoted, there was no travelling road show --as was in the first half of 1995 to push Wind95. MS always wanted a monopoly, might as well used a good OS in the process.
In stead, in August 1995 MS unleashed DosWind '95 and led the computer world into a 6-year dead-end alley. In 1993-4 MS already said NT is the future and NT is what they are working on, but for some reason we had to be put through the DosWind95 wringer. I guess, it took them 7 years to work on the code and turn the 100mb (4-8mb ram) NT 3.51 into XP.
Obviously you never had to use NT back in the day. Switching to NT would have meant instant incompatibility with piles upon piles of existing application and driver software. NT 3.51 had very few 32-bit native applications. Take a look at Office 4.2 for NT – PowerPoint was still 16-bit! Don’t even get me started on the complete lack of Alpha, PPC, or MIPS CPU software. On hardware of the day NT 3.51 was slow as heck, if it even ran at all. Nobody took the program manager user interface seriously, especially after 95 was released. OS/2 was nice on the desktop but was not really a server oriented OS. All the real servers ran some form of Unix.
Windows NT 3.51 looks nice running in a VM because you can give it GHZ of CPU speed and tuckloads of RAM.
You could buy NT in higher end stores, or have them order it. Computer City (A chain) in the US at the time actually would stock it, but it was something you basically had to ask for, they didn't put it out as it was $300 for a full copy, $99 for the upgrade from 3.5.
That said machines were much slower back then, and having a good machine for NT was expensive. NT 3.1 was CRAZY slow. It was amazing how poor the performance was, although with SP3 it was pretty stable. And that was a new thing, service packs for OS's was something new and exciting for both NT & OS/2 2.0+ For the most part we never got such comprehensive updates to our existing OS's instead of patches for say Windows 3.0 we were expected to just upgrade to 3.1.
I ran then all at the time, and the difference of going from NT 3.1 to 3.5 was amazing as there really was a massive overall in the performance and memory footprint. 3.51 really is 3.5+LOTS OF BUG FIXES as Microsoft had been waiting for the completion of the PowerPC port by IBM.
At the time I was working for a major bank, and NT was at best a 'power user desktop' and we didn't really use the server. I was one of the rogue people that deployed MS SQL 6 on NT Server 3.5 for a custom app, and it was such a dream to work with compared to the hell that was trying to do an app server on Windows or OS/2 with an Oracle database on Netware (our old deployment standard).
NT 3.51 started to tip the iceburg of Novell's fortune with better server support the start of Exchange server, and of course the introduction of "Services for NetWare" where an NT server can emulate a 3.12 server and it was basically game over. Being able to address and actually use gigabytes of RAM, TB's of disk space (yes we had those, and yes it took up more than a 42u rack!! Imagine having 256x4gb disks!) and grow into things far bigger than NetWare 386 could ever hope for. NT really showed that it was the architecture of the future, and that despite the stumbling of 3.1/3.5 it was more so that machines of the era just weren't up to the task of running NT.
The full 32bit era didn't come into play until Windows 95 had launched, and then followed up with Windows NT 4.0.
As mentioned by SomeGuy the vast majority of things were 16bit. The only way to safely run them was to launch them in their own private address space, which of course ate TONNES of ram. It's trivial today, but when 16MB of ram cost a few grand it was a big deal.
OS/2 screwed up by not making the multimedia + networking as part of the OS. And the out of control config.sys just showed it's inherited MS-DOS legacy. Combine this with IBM's inability to actually do anything real with the kernel and it's kludgy 16bit device drivers, architecturally it was dead. Written in assembly made it fast, but as what had started out as OS/2 NT, the C re-write had wisely dumped the OS/2 and became Windows NT. And of course the vast improvements in HPFS vs NTFS. IBM really was out of their depth without MS to do things for them.
3.51 moved the print renderer and other stuff into kernel space so a printer fault could and would bluescreen a print server. Ive seen it happen.
If you want a 'pure' Win32 experience, stick with NT 3.5
But if you wanted speed, go with 3.51, and then with the release of 4.0 it was a no brainer as moving the full GDI into kernel space made it VERY responsive. Combine that with the release of Office 95, a finally native 32bit office suite, and life was GREAT!.
In 1994 I purchased an AST Adventure, 25mhz i486, 4mb ram. After much trying I managed to install and run OS/2 warp on it. NT 3.51 didn't need more hardware than Warp (or Wind95).
In August 1995 Wind95 upgrade was $99, same as NT 3.51 upgrade. MS could have put(forced) NT 3.51 on every desktop, instead of DosWind '95.
years later, NT 3.51 on a Compaq Armada, 166mhz pentium: