INSIDE & OUT: Windows XP dissected

INSIDE & OUT: Windows XP dissected

Should I get it?" That's what everyone wants to now about Windows XP. We won't keep you in suspense: for most Windows 98 and Windows Me users whose systems can handle it, the answer is yes.

Windows XP could be the most stable version of Windows yet: it's at least as stable as Windows 2000, Microsoft claims. It's also the most feature-laden. Thank its dual bloodlines for that happy combination. From Windows NT and 2000, it inherits a secure, stable core. From Windows 9x and Me, it inherits compatibility with hardware and software, as well as tools for working with digital images, video, and audio. And in either of its two flavours - Home Edition or Professional - it's a great match for the latest PCs with their fast processors, capacious hard drives, and speedy CD burners.

For users who upgrade, initial reports are mostly positive. Microsoft has improved the installation experience greatly from Windows 2000's incompatibility nightmare. Of our editors and associates who installed both pre-release and final shipping versions of Windows XP, most reported only minor incompatibilities.

Most, but not all. As with any upgrade, you might run into a problem with a key application or peripheral that renders the upgrade undesirable. We won't know the complete story on compatibility until millions have tried XP, and until software and hardware vendors have had a few months to roll out updates.

Once beyond the upgrade process, people liked the way Windows XP booted up swiftly. Only a few who upgraded old machines at or below Microsoft's minimum requirements noticed even a small slowdown in performance (see "XP performance: satisfactory, not stellar", p30).

And everyone was favourably impressed by the new OS's reliability. If you're coming from the crash-prone 9x/Me camp, this is the single best reason to upgrade. Based on the same core operating system as Windows 2000 and NT, both versions of this new OS pay much closer attention to how applications, drivers, and Windows itself use your system's memory, normally preventing one bit of code from affecting another. Even if an application is incredibly buggy, XP can usually prevent it from crashing Windows or other applications.

One potential upgrade concern may turn out to be no big deal. Some PC users accustomed to installing Windows wherever and whenever they feel like it feared that Windows XP's Windows Product Activation anti-piracy mechanism would be a burdensome inconvenience. But the copy-control scheme won't affect most licence-abiding Windows users (see "Product Activation: not so bad after all", p26).

Because Windows XP unites so many features - new and old - into a single product family, we've grouped them into five major areas: user interface, digital media tools, user security features, maintenance and help, and Internet tools.

New look & feel

Windows XP's interface is nothing revolutionary. You get more control over how the OS looks and works, including whether icons appear on the desktop, how system folders such as the Control Panel appear, and what texture and colour the windows and icons display. On the whole, the changes are good; the ones you don't like can be disabled in most cases. One annoying feature you can't shut off at will is the balloon text that pops up periodically from several icons in the notification area (the system tray). We were particularly antagonised by one rather intrusive pitch to sign on to Microsoft's Passport authentication system, which you need only to log in to the Windows Messenger or MSN services. Be patient: it eventually fades away.

Windows XP includes new themes - collections of colour settings and background images for windows - that have rounded corners, shading, and textured window frames and buttons. If you don't like Windows XP's blue, blobby windows (you can opt for olive green or silver, too), other themes should be available through a forthcoming Plus add-on pack, or from Microsoft's Web site. You can also revert to a classic look similar to that of Windows 98 or 2000.

The most significant interface changes are in the Start menu and the taskbar. The revised Start menu displays links to frequently used applications, essential system folders, and common tasks. It acts as a good personal portal to Windows XP, but if you dislike it, you can revert to the classic Start menu. The taskbar sports two new space-saving features. Links to documents or windows for the same application (multiple Web browser windows or Word documents, for instance) now pop up vertically from a single taskbar button. And system tray icons that you seldom use disappear after a while (but you can locate them by clicking a button that expands the area).

Other changes in appearance - including drop shadows, richly coloured see-through icons, and animated cursors and window movements - may tax your graphics board and CPU, but you can turn them off. We found them helpful in more easily differentiating one window from another, simplifying work with on-screen objects.

One screen innovation you'll want to try out if you have a portable computer or a desktop LCD monitor is ClearType. This font-smoothing technology is turned off by default; you can find it by clicking Control Panel's Display icon, selecting the Appearance tab, and then choosing Effects. ClearType refines your LCD's jagged pixels and makes the display easier on the eyes. Amen to that.

Sound & vision

Windows XP inherits many of Windows Me's digital media features. If you download digital audio files, copy CD tracks to a portable digital audio player, or use a webcam, a digital camcorder, or a digital still camera, Windows XP can help. Sometimes, though, it forces you to do things Microsoft's way.

Microsoft tirelessly promotes its

latest media player, called Windows Media Player for Windows XP - undoubtedly to emphasise this version's exclusive availability in the new OS. The differences between it and Media Player 7.1 (a free download for users of previous versions of Windows), however, are few. If you have a CD-R/RW drive, the XP player lets you burn CDs at your recorder's highest rate; Media Player 7.1 limits you to 2X speeds.

The CD-burning speed boost is a real improvement, but two other major differences are non-critical. If your system has a Windows Media Player-compatible DVD decoder application installed, you can watch DVDs in Media Player as well as in the decoder's own interface. (Windows XP's setup program will detect your existing non-compatible decoder app and attempt to download a free update automatically.)As before, you can convert audio CD tracks to Microsoft's WMA format. But if you want to turn them into MP3s, you'll have to use a third-party plug-in. And unlike the DVD decoder, this update isn't free: Microsoft says several offerings will be available online for about $US10 each by the time Windows XP ships. It's no bargain, considering you can do the job for free with software from MusicMatch and others.

Windows Movie Maker is basically the same throwaway video transfer and editing utility included in Windows Me. Its biggest weakness: since there's no option for output to standard video devices such as VCRs, you can watch videos only on a PC.

Microsoft did add some higher-resolution video-capture modes (previous versions of Movie Maker were limited to 320 x 240 resolution). But Movie Maker remains best suited for grabbing brief, low-resolution clips to e-mail to grandma (assuming she's okay with downloading 1MB or more per minute of video).

Finally, XP gives digital photography aficionados a camera-friendly download, viewing, and printing interface. Windows XP's My Pictures folder presents links to specific tasks related to the folder's content: viewing a photo slide show, printing photos, ordering prints online, and uploading photos to a Web site. As we went to press, the Online Print Ordering Wizard listed two services, from Fujicolor and Kodak, both offering 4-by-6 prints for the going rate of $US0.49 each. Web publishing options were still limited to MSN and Xdrive. Microsoft says other services will appear later this year.

The Scanner and Camera Wizard lets you download, view, and delete images stored on an attached digital camera, as well as take photos from the computer screen - if your camera complies with Microsoft's Windows Image Acquisition specification. It's all good, although these features may be a subset of the capabilities your camera's own software already offers - if it is compatible with Windows XP. Microsoft says most Windows 2000 versions of digital camera software will work with Windows XP.

Security & sharing

If you're unfamiliar with Windows 2000 and its predecessor, Windows NT, get ready for changes in the way one accesses their PC and its contents. In Windows 9x, security was an easy-to-bypass afterthought. Anyone could read, edit, or delete any file on the hard disk, since neither the MS-DOS operating system underlying Windows 9x/Me nor the FAT and FAT32 file systems have any mechanism for controlling file access, other than the simple read-only flag. That's a problem for anybody whose computer is accessible to co-workers, kids, roommates, or others.

In contrast, Windows XP maintains tight control over who's who and who does what. XP allows one to require users to log in, so that only authorised users can access files. This is good not only for protecting data, but for preserving settings and preferences.

Windows XP recognises three kinds of users. Administrators have full control over all aspects of system configuration; the other two categories, Limited and Guest, have curtailed capabilities. Pay attention during installation, when both the Home and Professional versions prompt you to create user accounts: by default they make everyone on board an administrator - a recipe for disaster if any of the users are inquisitive children or unhappy employees. Administrators are able to create and delete accounts, override passwords on accounts, and tinker with other users' files and settings. To ensure that data and identity information are secure, individual users should make themselves the only administrator on the system.

If multiple people do use the computer, and the PC isn't at the low end of Windows XP's system requirements, a new feature called Fast User Switching allows one user to remain logged in - programs running and all - while another user takes over and launches other programs. Switching between two logged-in user accounts takes only seconds, as long as the machine has sufficient RAM; in our testing, 128MB was plenty for moderate multi-user loads. And since Windows XP resists crashing much better than Windows 9x/Me, the new feature could change the way families and offices share a computer. For example, you could leave your QuickBooks file open for weeks, while the kids play games, download files, and surf the Internet.

Remote Desktop, a related feature, uses some of the same underlying multi-user technology as Fast User Switching to allow one to connect to and control a PC over a phone line or the Internet. Competing with third-party remote-control applications like Symantec's PC Anywhere, Remote Desktop is exclusive to Windows XP Professional, so the PC you wish to control must run that version of the OS. The system dialling in from afar, however, needs only a Windows Terminal Services client (some are included on the Windows XP CD-ROM or are available for download - there's even one for Pocket PCs). If you forget to load up your documents and e-mail before a trip, this feature puts them just a dial-up connection away. Performance for word processing and similar tasks is good, even over a 56Kbps modem.

Help is here

Windows XP's revamped Help system simplifies troubleshooting and configuring your PC - and asking another human being for assistance. From a new Web-page-like Help and Support Center on the Start menu, you can browse standard static help content, jump over to Microsoft product newsgroups, check for fixes on Windows Update, and launch any of the troubleshooting tools pioneered in earlier Windows versions.

A couple of new tools could make Windows XP a must-have upgrade for some. If you've ever donated an aging PC to a friend or relative, you know what happens next: they need help, usually by long-distance. Remote Assistance, also based on Windows Terminal Services, allows one Windows XP user to request help from another, either via e-mail or through the Windows Messenger instant-messaging client. Depending on which level of control the person requesting help allows, the respondent can view the remote computer while chatting over Windows Messenger - the equivalent of looking over someone's shoulder while they explain what's wrong with the computer - or take complete command of the computer remotely. The only drawback: both systems must be running Windows XP.

System Restore, which debuted in Windows Me, is another terrific help tool. Like Roxio's GoBack, System Restore lets you take your system's configuration back to a specific point in time - uninstalling applications and drivers, and reversing settings. System Restore monitors your activity and creates restore points automatically at sensible moments, such as just before you install new drivers. You can set your own restore points, too. And XP introduces a related feature: driver rollback. When you install a new driver, the OS retains a copy of the old one as a backup in case the new one causes problems.

A nod to the Net

Like Windows 98 and Me, XP introduces a new version of Internet Explorer. But Internet Explorer 6 delivers almost as few new features as, well, Internet Explorer 5.5. Most bolster support for Web standards, including a new privacy spec called P3P. P3P, and hence IE 6, will play a major role in Microsoft's .Net effort, through the Passport authentication system (see "The road ahead: .Net on the horizon?", p28).

What else does IE 6 offer? A snazzy look for navigation icons, and a new Explorer bar (called Media) that puts Microsoft's site a little closer to your face than it would otherwise be. One slight inconvenience: Windows XP doesn't include Java support. If your system doesn't have the necessary Java software and you visit a game site or another Web site that demands it, you'll be prompted to download the 5MB Java Virtual Machine from Microsoft's site.

More interesting than IE 6 is the Windows Messenger application. Not just a rewrite of earlier Microsoft efforts (MSN Messenger and Netmeeting), Messenger lets webcam-equipped Windows XP users videoconference with each other. Messenger users can also text-chat with MSN Messenger users. Microsoft says the program could interact with other clients - including AOL's - in the future, since Messenger is based on the non-proprietary Session Initiation Protocol standard.

In a nod to the growth of broadband access, XP contains a firewall - software that protects your PC against attempts by hackers to access it through your Net connection. It's no-frills, but it does its job well. Enabling Internet Connection Sharing automatically enables the firewall.

The firewall's default settings suffice to deter incoming probes. XP's firewall is a one-way affair, however: if a virus slides through in an e-mail attachment (as Trojan horses do), it's free to upload your data or perform other harmful outgoing tasks.

Finally, Windows XP includes support for the increasingly popular 802.11b wireless ethernet standard as well, automatically integrating it into your other network connections.

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