Windows XP Reviewed

Microsoft has a new operating system, so we're all supposed to pay allegiance to the next wave in computing, right? Maybe not, but since Microsoft has a corner on about 90 percent of the PC market, we'll probably be encountering the new OS sometime soon, so it is definitely worth looking at.

The Good

With Windows XP, Microsoft merges its operating systems for home users (Me, 98, etc.) with its business versions (NT and 2000). The goal is a user-friendly OS with better reliability. If you use Windows 2000, you know how stable it is. Programs may crash, but the operating system rarely does. Because XP contains the 32-bit kernel and driver set from Windows 2000, it promises to incorporate this same stability.

While Windows 2000 is extremely reliable, it has compatibility issues with both hardware and software. The fact that XP has similar architecture might make you wary. However, Microsoft has worked hard to make XP snuggle right up to other components. While Win2000 worked with 6,000 hardware add-ons, Microsoft says XP works with 12,000. The company also says that more than 90 percent of Windows 2000/NT and Windows 9x applications distributed in North America in the past three years already work on XP. In situations in which a program isn't working with XP, a compatibility mode has been incorporated that allows users to run their system as though it was still on 95, 98 or other previous operating systems.

While the compatibility and reliability will win XP popularity in the long run, perhaps the first thing users will notice is the redesigned operating environment. Windows continues to look more like the Mac environment, and XP continues this trend with a backlighted blue taskbar and window borders and redesigned 3D shadowed icons. The start button is redesigned to have two columns, one for most frequently used programs, the other containing many things that used to clutter the desktop. That's right, My Computer and My Network Places, to name a few, are no longer on the desktop--in fact, the Recycle Bin is all most users will see on the desktop at startup.

There must have been a clean freak working on the XP design, as the system offers to sweep away rarely used desktop icons into a special folder every few weeks. Also working to keep things tidy is a new taskbar feature that automatically groups open files by application. So if you have six Word documents open, you might only see one icon on the taskbar. A new folder view in Windows Explorer is another big change, letting you view actual thumbnails of files, including those in subfolders.

Beyond improved looks, Windows XP promises lots of great new everyday features, especially in multimedia, such as the bundled Windows Media Player 8. New in WMP 8 is video playback support, so if you have a DVD decoder (XP doesn't), you can play DVD movies in full-screen mode with controls that fade into the background. Those with CD-R/RW drives can use the audio CD burner to make mixes or transfer music to the more than 60 portable players XP supports.

You can burn a CD by simply dragging files onto your CD burner's icon, and an E-mail This File button will shrink digital photos as you send them. A remote assistance feature lets help desk technicians get a bird's-eye view of your desktop over the Internet. Also, XP comes with Internet Explorer 6, sporting enhanced looks and better security features.

A lot more important to business users than audio and video capabilities is XP's networking, which is similar to Win2000. XP will recognize if you're at work or home and change settings, such as the IP address, automatically. Setting up a network should be easier thanks to XP's network setup wizard. An Internet connection firewall gives some basic protections against unauthorized access. Laptop users will like the fact that suspend-to-disk, or hibernate, is much faster in XP than it was in Windows 2000.

The Bad
The downside often comes in through the company's seemingly unquenchable thirst to rule the world. Windows XP carries on this tradition with "activation," Microsoft's controversial strategy to eradicate casual copying of software.

Activation means you can no longer buy one copy of Windows and install it on every machine you own. From the moment you first boot XP, you have 30 days to activate it before it will no longer launch. Activation involves reading and typing about 100 digits. Also, if you change too many hardware components later, you'll have to reactivate. Luckily, corporate users who need to install more than five versions of Windows XP can bypass the activation hassle, as Microsoft will provide a volume license product key.

Not only will personal users not be able to use one copy of XP for all their computers, the cost to outfit several PCs is not cheap. The upgrade version of XP will be $99, and the full version will be $199. If you need to outfit multiple machines, Microsoft will knock off only about 10 percent of the price of subsequent versions. The professional edition, which includes corporate security and network features as well as Remote Desktop, is even pricier, at $199 for an upgrade and $299 for the full version.

Assuming you've got the capital to purchase XP, the next thing you'll need to worry about is whether your PC has the specs to run it. While Microsoft says a 300MHz processor and 128 MB of memory will do, you'll actually want much better specs to make XP work. Gartner analysts have said that a more realistic minimum would be a 650 to 800MHz Pentium III, with more RAM if multiple users share the same machine. Also, if you've got an older machine, you may have to update your system BIOS, not a real user-friendly process.

XP also lacks support for cutting-edge standards such as Bluetooth and USB 2.0. Microsoft plans to support both through downloads after the official product launch. Support is also absent for Java, and this stems from Microsoft's long-standing feud with Sun Microsystems. So those Java applets common to many Web sites won't run with XP until you manually download the Java Virtual Machine. A minor inconvenience, but another part of Microsoft's petty politics. Finally, WMP 8, although it includes improvements, still won't play QuickTime or RealPlayer files, nor will it encode MP3 files.

Windows XP was scheduled to officially launch on October 25, 2001, and there's a good chance at the writing of this column in September that it will. However, if antitrust lawyers decide to go after XP, all bets are off.

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