Microsoft touts XP as the fastest incarnation of Windows ever. But in our tests, we found its performance generally on a par with that of other recent Windows versions. It may not be a reason to upgrade, but neither is it a reason not to.
Our test centre compared XP Home and Professional editions with Windows Me and 2000 by putting all of the OSes through a battery of hand-timed application performance tests.
We used two PCs representing the lower and higher ends of the current market: an 800MHz Celeron PC and a 1.4GHz Athlon model. We tested them both with Microsoft's recommended minimum of 128MB of RAM and with 256MB. The difference in the two systems' results reflected only the Athlon's faster speed. We also found no performance difference between the two versions of Windows XP.
Memory, generally considered a low-cost performance pick-me-up, had little impact except in the memory-intensive Photoshop 6 tests. If you spend a lot of time using Photoshop or other RAM-hungry applications - or if you typically run many active applications at once - upgrading to 256MB of RAM should help regardless of which Windows you use.
One place where our testing revealed a perceptible performance difference was in start-up and shutdown times. Windows 2000 took more than 20 seconds longer to boot, because it's much larger than Windows Me, and because XP uses new optimisations for reading and loading OS code into memory. Windows 98 users may see a marked improvement in boot-up times, too, since that OS doesn't support Fast Boot BIOSs as the three later Windows do.
At shutdown, Windows Me outperforms the others by unceremoniously dropping network connections.
To test how Windows XP's Fast User Switching - its ability to let one user's apps run in the background when one or more other users log in - affects performance, we ran Word 2000, Access 2000, Notes 5, and Photoshop 6, with a second user logged in and with Netscape Navigator, Lotus Notes, and Windows Movie Maker still running. Though we anticipated that this might degrade performance, and that additional RAM might restore the lost performance, we were wrong: we got virtually the same results with both 128MB and 256MB, whether a second user was logged in or not.
Still, your use of Fast User Switching may tax your system more severely. If you plan to keep more users logged in or to run more apps, extra RAM may keep your foreground user accounts running faster. And if you plan to use Fast User Switching on less-powerful systems with less RAM, be prepared for slowdowns.