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Software Review of:
Windows XP
Home Edition


Vade Forrester has been a member of Alamo PC since 1988, and a frequent contributor to the PC Alamode. He also shares teaching duties for the Windows 98 class (confusingly known as the Windows SIG), and endured three terms on the Board of Directors. He's looking forward to offering a Windows XP class now that the Alamo PC lab is upgraded. Vade owns no Microsoft stock, does not particularly admire their business practices, and finds their customer relations occasionally tinged with arrogance. However, he also recognizes that Microsoft is the preeminent software company in the world, and realizes that proficiency with Microsoft products is needed to be productive in virtually all today's business environments.

From the February, 2002 issue of PC Alamode Magazine

Windows XP is Microsoftís newest operating system; the XP stands for eXPerience. It comes in two flavors: a Home Edition, which is designed for the typical consumer computer; and a Professional Edition, designed for the office. Both come in Upgrade versions, which upgrade recent versions of previous operating systems; and Full versions, which install on a blank disk drive. Upgrade versions are priced $100 less than their corresponding Full versions.

Microsoft touts Windows XP as the most significant Windows update since Windows 95, and theyíre right. However, upgrading to Windows XP is not a no-brain decision. If you have a computer which is satisfactorily running Windows Me or Windows 2000, think twice about making the upgrade to Windows XP. But do think about it.

That said, Windows XP offers some serious attractions. 

*It is much more stable, i.e., doesnít crash as often as Windows 98 or Windows Me. In fact, my home system has only crashed once since I installed Windows XP on October 25th, the day it went on sale. Windows Me, on my system, crashed at least every other day.
*It is somewhat easier to use because itís better organized, has better help, and many features are simpler and more logical. And its Wizards are better.
*It is arguably prettier than any other version of Windows.
*It has several new features not available in any earlier version, and several older features have been improved.
*It starts faster than Windows 98 and Windows Me. I would not expect it to be faster than Windows 2000, but I lack first-hand experience with that operating system. On my computer, Windows XP takes considerably longer to shut down, however.
*It is the easiest Microsoft operating system to install, ever.
*It has excellent hardware support, unlike Windows NT and 2000.
Letís explore each of the above factors in greater detail.

Windows XP uses the Windows 2000 kernel, or basic program, which is very crash-proof. I would not expect it to be more stable than one of the NT-based systems, but my experience shows much greater crash-resistance than Windows Me or Windows 98. That doesnít mean that programs canít crash, however, just the operating system itself. Like Windows NT and Windows 2000, Windows XP lets you shut down a program that has crashed without having to restart the computer.

Easier to use
Is it just my impression, or is this is the area where PCs are still woefully inadequate? Windows XP doesnít change that. Although itís significantly easier than other versions of Windows, itís still not really easy. Why is it easier? Itís more task-oriented than icon-oriented. That means its design focuses on helping you perform a given task, rather than just organizing the icons into functional groups. That makes it easier to learn, though not necessarily easier to use.

Windows XP has a different structure from previous Windows. It depends more on the Start menu  to start things up, and shows a dynamic list of the six programs you use the most (you can customize it to show other numbers of programs, including none). By dynamic, I mean the list changes as you use the computer. There is also a static, unchanging section of the menu above the dynamic section, where you can place shortcuts to programs of your choice, and have them stay put.

Other parts of the Start menu have also changed. There are two columns; in the center of the left column is the aforementioned list of six favorite programs, and above those is a section where your browser and e-mail programs are listed (even if they arenít Microsoft programs). The bottom of the left column is an icon titled All Programs. If you click on that, you will see a Windows Me-style Programs menu. In the right column, you see several file categories: My Documents, My Pictures, My Music, My Network Places, and, of course, My Computer. Beneath those items is the Control Panel, which Iíll describe later. 

Help is no longer just an indexed database with limited smart queries that never seemed to produce answers to the simplest questions. Now Help also accesses the Web, where you can read the Microsoft Knowledge Base, the information source used by Microsoftís tech supporters (usually for a fee). That doesnít guarantee answers, just more information to sift through. The overall Help feature still needs lots of, um, help. Microsoftís Help is no worse than most, but still, it did replace the printed manual, so really should be more useful.

More/Better Wizards
Weíre not talking about Harry Potter here; Wizards are small programs that help you through a complex operation. They are useful when you first undertake such an operation, but may get in the way after youíre experienced with it. Windows XP wizards include an improved network installation wizard, a wizard to let you send picture files to companies which will print them for you professionally, and a better camera and scanner wizard. These are only a few of many new wizards that pop up as you use Windows XP.

In designing Windows XP, Microsoft made an important discovery: it doesnít have to be ugly! I realize concern about Windowsí appearance is unmanly, but letís face it ó earlier versions of Windows ranged from drab to nauseous. Windows XP screens are colorful and have attractive backgrounds that are more inviting to the novice, as well as the aesthete. And itís somewhat easier to change the appearance of Windows XP. The manly sort can still revert to ugly screens if all that beauty repulses them. I must acknowledge, however, that some will find the vibrant, juicy colors of the Windows XP Luna interface a bit overdone. 

Easy installation
Lee Besing and I have both written articles describing installation of Windows XP, so we donít need to re-plough this ground. For those who may have temporarily forgotten our lucid descriptions, let me just recap that in my system, there was really very little for me to do during the installation processóI actually went to lunch while the upgrade process ran. Beginning with a system scan to identify incompatible software and unsupported hardware, Windows XPís installation may recommend you remove or upgrade some software before installation. If you have peripheral equipment items connected during installation, Windows XP will recognize and install the necessary drivers. Itís also good to be connected to the Internet, so Windows XP can determine the proper Internet setting and make sure your Internet connection is ready to go when installation is complete. During installation, there are a couple of dialog boxes youíll need to respond to, when Windows XP tells itís activating Windows XP, and then when it offers to register your copy with Microsoft.

There is an urban legend that says the best way to upgrade to a new operating system is to format your hard drive and install the new operating system on the freshly emptied drive. That approach rids your drive of extraneous old files that have accumulated over time; but formatting your drive will wipe out all your data, Internet settings, and addresses, so youíll have to do a thorough backup first, and then reinstall your software and settings. I always forget something, no matter how well I plan; so for me, a clean installation represents at least a weekís work. On the other hand, you can just tell Windows XP to upgrade the current operating system without formatting the hard drive, and it will transfer all your Internet settings and addresses, and leave all your software and data files installed just like you wanted. It even keeps a copy of the previous version of Windows available in case you want to switch back to the previous version. My personal experience was that Windows XP installed over Windows Me flawlessly, with no problems during or after the installation. I would recommend you first try an upgrade installation over your existing operating system, and see how well it works. If there are problems, you can always format the drive and install Windows XP on the blank drive later. Why make more work for yourself than is absolutely necessary, and risk losing some important data you may need? My Windows teaching partner Don Rist tells me the uninstall process for Windows XP works flawlessly, returning you to your previous operating system without a hitch.

Hardware support
Windows XP employs a new concept called signed hardware drivers. That means Microsoft evaluates a driver in its laboratory, and when it finds the driver wonít cause any damage to Windows XP, signs it (electronically, of course). Some conspiracy theorists suspect that procedure gives Microsoft too much control over competitorsí hardware, but from my perspective as a user, I welcome the freedom from trouble this testing should produce. I still get cold chills when I recall installing a new driver for a video card, and then restarting my computer only to find that it produced only a blank screen. That makes it pretty hard to fix the problem if all you can see is a blank screen.

The Windows XP CD has tons of signed drivers that should support a very wide range of hardware. But itís still a good idea to check the Windows Update site, or the manufacturerís web site to be sure you have the latest drivers. 

New Features

Emulation of previous Windows versions
Although this is the first consumer version of the NT-based Windows, it does not assume that you will have only full 32-bit programs. So that you can continue to use favorite older programs, Windows XP provides a compatibility mode, which tries to fool older programs into thinking theyíre running on an older version of Windows. It even works with DOS sometimes, even though there is no residual DOS code anywhere. This may be the most backward-compatible version of Windows ever.

Multiple user accounts
When you first start Windows XP, youíll see a user account screen, which lists all the user accounts that have been established. All you have to do at that point is click on your user name, and enter a password if the accounts are passworded (they donít have to be). Windows XP asks you to list those people who will be using a computer during the installation process, and creates user accounts for each person you name. You can also establish a guest account, so someone who doesnít normally use a computer can logon and use that account. Windows has always let you set up different user interfaces, with different icons, desktop themes and programs. But up to now, it has been a posterior pain to switch between users; you had to log off and let another user logon, which meant both users had to remember and type in a password. Windows XP lets you switch users simply by pressing the Fast User Switching key combination (-L), then clicking on a user account listed on the screen. You donít even have to shut down the programs you are running before you switch to another user; and when you switch back, youíll find your programs still running! 

CD-ROM burning software
Licensed from Roxio, this bare-bones featureís main attraction is its integration into file management menus. Serious CD creators will want a more advanced program, like the latest Roxioís Easy CD Creator, or Nero Burning ROM from ahead software gmbh, a German company. Still, the integration of CD writing features into the operating system is a distinct convenience for simple file management tasks, particularly those associated with pictures and music files.

Internet Firewall
To protect the computer from the terrorists (itís time we called them what they really are) who would inflict harm over the Internet, Windows XP now includes a firewall program. However, itís only a one-way firewall, and does nothing to restrict programs on your computer from accessing the Internet. I elected to continue using the latest version of Zone Alarm, a two-way firewall, which is free and Windows XP-compatible. Presumably, other firewalls are, or soon will be, Windows XP-compatible. 

If you install a home network, Microsoftís firewall is installed automatically; otherwise, youíll have to install it manually (easily done). Anyone with a high-speed Internet service which is always on needs to use some form of firewall. Youíll be surprised at how many probes you will get from the Internet, some with malicious intent. A firewall is second only to an antivirus program in importance to your computerís security. 

ClearType makes screen fonts more readable on LCD monitors, like the one on the laptop Iím using to write this article. Its improvements should be equally noticeable on a desktop LCD screen. On a normal CRT monitor, ClearType may not make an improvement. Youíll need to enable ClearType through the Display Properties screen.

Windows Messenger
Messenger is really a type of online chat service provided by Microsoft. It does not use a conventional chat room for its service; rather, it displays a list of your contacts who are online and available for chats. You can see whoís online with Messenger, send instant messages via the keyboard, or voice, or TV camera if you have one of those set-top cameras. You can also invite another user to provide remote assistance, as described below. You can also block Messenger access from someone you donít want to hear from. Messenger also provides a collection of full graphic emoticons you can include in a message.

Remote Assistance
If you have a special friend who helps you with computer operations, and you need help with a particular problem, you can invite the friend to view your computer screen and chat with you to help solve the problem. This type of service is only available by invitation, so there is no danger of anyone using the service to take unauthorized control of your computer. 

Improved Features

Internet Explorer 6.0
Yeah, I know you can download this for free and use it with previous versions of Windows, but it ships with Windows XP, and has a few new useful features.

Windows Media Player 8.0
Windows XP has a new media player called WMP-XP (Windows Media Player for XP). It adds several new features, like the ability to play DVDs and improved handling of audio files. You can use WMP-XP to create audio CDs, although it makes it hard to create MP3-format files. You see, Microsoft has a competitive format called WMA (Windows Media Audio) that competes with the vastly more popular MP3 format. WMA audio files tend to be much more compact than MP3 files, so from that standpoint, they are an improvement, but the general lack of WMA players puts that format at a distinct disadvantage. Depending on your point of view, the fact that WMA files can be copy protected may also be a disadvantage. MP3 files canít. You can add an MP3 recorder to WMP-XP, but it will cost extra. I suggest you try some of the free MP3 creation software before investing in an MP3 add-on for Windows XP. Although WMP-XP wonít record MP3 files, it will play them back. Even Microsoft couldnít get away with ignoring MP3 playback.

While playing an audio CD, WMP-XP searches for a listing of that CD in some web site, and if it finds it, displays the tracks and the cover art. I tried several CDs to see how well this feature worked, and found it to be only fair. It recognized the tracks of the soundtrack from the movie Titanic, but failed to recognize a recording of Berliozí Symphonie Fantastique on the Deutsche Gramaphon label, a popular classical label. If WMP-XP doesnít recognize your CD, you have to type in the title and tracks.

System Restore
Windows Me has a similar feature, but Windows XPís version is more stable. If you install a new program or hardware driver, and it doesnít work or causes problems, you can restore your computer back to the way it was before the new installation. It operates only on Windows system files and program files, not data files. That means it will never erase or change files that you have created, a worthwhile safety feature. However, it also means that System Restore canít be used to revert to an earlier version of a data or document file, which may be handy if you mess up a document or if the document file becomes corrupted. System Restore can restore the effects of some viruses, but is not a substitute for a real virus-checker.

My Pictures
The My Pictures folder has been enhanced considerably. It now enables you to view thumbnails (small pictures) of each picture, and even shows thumbnails of the contents of each folder. It also provides a filmstrip view, which shows you a line of thumbnail views, with an enlarged view of any picture you select. Additionally, a separate Picture and Fax Viewer program lets you take an even closer look at a picture or fax without having to launch a separate program. If you use JPG files and your operating system launches Internet Explorer as your JPG viewer, youíll appreciate how the Picture and Fax Viewer lets you view the whole image without having to scroll around to see the entire picture.

My Music
Computer have become popular tools for recording and playing back music. Most professional music recorders now use hard drives to record music, so they are really just special-purpose computer with hardware rather than software controls. Two things contributed to the popularity of computers for musical storage and playback: the ready availability of music files (songs) on the Internet and the development of offline storage and playback devices which let you download songs from your computer and then play them back whenever you want to hear them, like when you exercise.

To help you manage the music files you have downloaded or created, Windows XP provides a special My Music folder, where you can store the files and which makes special music-oriented tasks available. When you copy the contents of a CD onto your hard drive, Windows XP stores it in the My Music folder in a subfolder for the particular artist. Double-clicking on a song file will play that song, or using a folder-specific task, you can play all the songs in a folder.

Disk Defrag
In our recent Utilities issue, I raved about the Diskeeper defragmenter, noting that it was much faster than Windows Meís native defragmenter. Microsoft must have read my article, since they licensed Diskeeper from Executive Software and included it as Windows XPís standard defragmenter. The old version of Diskeeper wonít work, but a new version has been released that is compatible with Windows XP. It is normal to have to upgrade utility software when a new operating system comes out. 

ScanDisk is gone as a separate program; however, Windows XP calls an equivalent function by a more accurate name: error checking. To get to the error checking function, click on My Computer, then right-click on the drive letter you want to scan. Select the Tools tab. One of the tools available is called Error Checking. Click on its Check Now button to get the Check Disk dialog box. Be sure both boxes are checked, then click Start. Windows XP will restart and run the error checking program as Windows restarts, before other programs seize control of essential files.

Windows Update
This feature began with Windows 98, and is a great idea. Basically, it provides updates to Windows files and programs to fix security problems, provide improved functionality, and fix bugs found in the software. Windows XP automates the update process, with options for Windows to download and install new files with your approval or even without your knowledge. I am leery of a process that doesnít ask my approval first, so I chose the option that has Windows XP notify me of critical updates and get my approval to download and install them. 

The above process works for critical updates only; but there are other files that get updated also. These optional updates require you to visit the Windows Update site, view optional updates and driver updates, and if you want them, download and install them. Unlike Windows 98, Windows XP driver updates really has some drivers updates. After downloading several driver updates, I tried to download a new driver for my ATI video card. The driver update procedure failed to install the driver after several attempts. I communicated with the Windows Update web site managers, who told me that it would cost me money for them to fix their defective download file, or at least would be credited against the two ďfreeĒ consultations you are authorized when you install Windows XP. I advised the Microsoft folks I thought this was kinda chinchy, and they said they would take it under advisement. This is not, in my view, a mark of a healthy customer support system. The 

Microsoft solution: the driver update file was removed from their web site.

Windows Imaging Architecture
This feature appeared with Windows Me, and has undergone a few changes. The Camera and Scanning Wizard is still there, but now you can actually view pictures in a camera as if it were a separate drive; you no longer have to download them to the hard drive first. A camera listed under My Computer as if it were a drive shows the pictures in the camera, which can be used like any graphics file on your drive.

NT File System (NTFS)
This file system has been around a long time in the Windows NT family, but is new to consumer systems. It offers improved file management, and enable some advanced features like file encryption. If you upgrade to Windows XP from Windows Me or Windows 98, your file system wonít be automatically changed to NTFS. Such a change is one-way, and canít be reversed; therefore, it eliminates your ability to uninstall Windows XP. You can change the file system manually once you decide to keep Windows XP, although that requires running a conversion program from the command line.

Windows XP Issues
As mentioned earlier, itís normal to have to upgrade utility software for compatibility with new operating systems. That includes virus protection software, firewalls, and other utilities like Norton Utilities and PowerQuest programs. However, the utilities that come with Windows XP are good enough that you may find it unnecessary to use external utility programs, except for virus checkers, which Microsoft does not provide. 

Product Activation
Microsoft uses a scheme called product activation to prevent someone from buying a single copy of Windows XP and installing it on several computersóin other words, to prevent software piracy. Activation takes a snapshot of your computerís hardware during installation, and generates an activation code. If you donít activate a copy of Windows XP within 30 days of installation, Windows XP will cease to work. Activate the software over the Internet or via phone. Internet is better, since it saves you from having to type in the 50-digit code. After activation, if you make major changes to your computer hardware (such as installing a new motherboard), you may have to activate again. Other changes are permissible, up to four items of equipment. Then the computer looks like a different machine, and youíll have to reactivate by calling Microsoft and explaining the changes. Some folks see a draconian evil lurking in the activation process, but Microsoft claims otherwise. 

Product activation is not the same as registration. Activation is almost transparent and doesnít require you to send Microsoft any personal data. Registration of the software does require you to provide some personal data, so Microsoft can contact you if necessary, and at your option, send you product announcements (advertisements). It also entitles you to two free contacts with technical support. Windows XP will work without registration.

I had problems with Windows Explorer crashing when I tried to view Thumbnail images of a folder with several different types of files. When I viewed a folder with only graphics files, the Thumbnail View worked fine.

Should you upgrade?
The real decision about Windows XP is for users of previous versions. If you buy a new computer, chances are very strong that it will come with Windows XP preinstalled. If your system hardware is capable of running Windows XP, and if the features described above appeal to you, think about it seriously. If you are running Windows 98, Windows Me, Windows NT, or Windows 2000 and itís working fine, there is no earth-shattering reason to upgrade, especially if you buy a new computer in the next year. Itís probably obvious that I have become a big fan of Windows XP. For me, its advantages far outweigh its disadvantages. Your situation may be different.

Test system. Windows XP was installed and evaluated on a Dell computer with a 1 GHz Pentium III, 512 MB of RAM, 30 and 40 GB hard drives, a CD-RW drive, and a DVD drive. Peripheral devices included a Hewlett-Packard inkjet printer, a UMAX scanner, and a Kodak digital camera. By current standards, this system is fairly average.

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