Windows XP Inside & Out
"Should I get it?" That's what everyone wants to know 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.
Due to ship October 25 (barring unlikely last-minute court orders
stemming from the still-pending antitrust wrangling), 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 9
For users who upgrade, initial reports are mostly positive. Microsoft
has improved the installation experience greatly from Windows 2000's
incompatibility nightmare. Of the
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 "
And everyone was favorably impressed by the new OS's reliability. If
you're coming from the crash-prone 9
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 antipiracy mechanism would
be a burdensome inconvenience. But the copy-control scheme likely won't affect
most license-abiding Windows users (see "
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.
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 color the windows and icons display. On the whole, the changes are good; the ones you don't like, you can disable 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 antagonized 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 color 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 colored 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: ClearType. This font-smoothing technology is
turned off by default; you can find it by clicking Control Panel's Display
icon, selecting the
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 emphasize 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. (See "
The CD-burning speed boost is a real improvement, but two other major differences are noncritical. 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 noncompatible 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 $10 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 lite, 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 by 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 49 cents 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.
If you're unfamiliar with Windows 2000 and its predecessor, Windows NT,
get ready for changes in the way you access your PC and its contents. In
In contrast, Windows XP maintains tight control over who is who and who does what. You can require users to log in, so that only authorized users can access files. This is good, not only for protecting your data, but for preserving settings and preferences.
Windows XP recognizes three kinds of users. Administrators have full control over all aspects of system configuration; the other two categories, Limited and Guest, have curtailed capabilities. You'll want to pay attention during installation, when both the Home Edition 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 your data and identity are secure, make yourself 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, you should try a new feature called Fast User Switching, which 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 multiuser loads.
And since Windows XP resists crashing much better than Windows 9
Remote Desktop, a related feature, uses some of the same underlying multiuser technology as Fast User Switching to allow you to connect to and control your 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 dialing 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 56-kbps modem.
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.
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 (see
What else does IE 6 offer? A snazzy look for navigation icons, and a new Explorer bar (called Media) that puts Microsoft's WindowsMedia.com 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 nonproprietary 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.
We may be unimpressed with some XP features, but don't let that
obscure the big picture. With security and stability that far surpass Windows 9
Windows Product Activation, which is designed to enforce Microsoft's
license terms by preventing users from running one copy of Windows XP on
several PCs, has alarmed people who fear it will hamper legitimate hardware
upgrades. But Microsoft appears to have listened to the complaints (see "
Within 30 days of installing the OS, you must activate it with
Microsoft, a process every participating
If you try to install Windows XP on a different computer, producing a new hardware identifier, a dialog box will pop up asking you to call a Microsoft operator (Microsoft says operators will be available around the clock) and explain the discrepancy. If satisfied with your response (and Microsoft says it will always give users the benefit of the doubt), the operator will issue you a new certificate, which you'll type into a dialog box to complete the boot process.
If you have a network card and leave it alone, you should be able to remove or replace up to six other signature elements (including the display and IDE adapters, the CPU, the amount of installed RAM, the hard drive, and the CD-ROM/RW or DVD drive) without triggering activation, Microsoft says. Otherwise, you can still change up to four other elements before having to contact Microsoft. Adding components never triggers a challenge.
More importantly, WPA resets after 120 days, considering whatever you have to be the activated configuration. That means that after four months you can install XP on a second PC, activate it, and keep the first one operating without running afoul of WPA.
Doing so would violate the software license, but Microsoft is probably wise to cut us all some slack here.
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.
The PC World Test Center compared XP Home Edition and Professional with Windows Me and 2000 by putting all of the OSs through a battery of hand-timed application performance tests (see "How We Test," below). The XP-compatible version of PC WorldBench wasn't ready in time for use in this story.
We used two PCs representing the low and medium-high ends of the current market: an 800-MHz Celeron PC and a 1.4-GHz Athlon model. We tested them both with Microsoft's recommended minimum of 128MB of RAM and with 256MB. Since the difference in the two systems' results reflected only the Athlon's faster speed, we omitted the Celeron figures here. 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 optimizations 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 the same Word 2000, Access 2000, Notes 5, and Photoshop 6 tests shown in the chart, but 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.
We tested each OS by hand-timing boot-up, shutdown, and common tasks in Microsoft Office 2000, Adobe Photoshop 6.0, Lotus Notes Release 5, and Netscape Navigator 4.08.
We also conducted a multitasking test which consisted of timing the download of a large file with Netscape Navigator 4.08 in the background while separately timing three of the Access tasks (Import, Create Form, and Run Report) in the foreground.
To test Fast User Switching, we logged in as one user, started up Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Movie Maker, and Microsoft Word. We then used Fast User Switching to log in as another user, and ran our hand-timed application tests as previously described.
We ran all tests on two PCs: a Micron Millennia Max XP2 with a 1.4-GHz Athlon, GeForce3 graphics card, and a 60GB hard disk, and an EMachines T1801 with a Celeron-800, integrated Intel i810 graphics, and a 20GB hard disk.
Testing on each system was done first with 128MB of RAM, then with 256MB.
Thinking about upgrading to Windows XP? Here's what you'll need, and what to expect.
Windows XP requires more memory, processor might, and hard disk space
than any previous Windows version (see "
Even if your system's hardware passes muster, your applications and
peripherals may not.
One of the quickest ways to tell whether your computer's setup will
work with XP is to take PCWorld.com's Web-based at
For a more thorough analysis, use Microsoft's Windows XP Upgrade
Advisor, which will be available on the installation CD-ROM, as a free 35MB
download from Microsoft's
Don't take the Upgrade Advisor's warnings as gospel, however.
We also found that some settings--in particular, the video refresh rates and network connections--needed a little tweaking after we upgraded our systems to Windows XP.
Before you upgrade, you must also decide which version of Windows XP you need. At $99, the Windows XP Home Edition upgrade is the least expensive option, but don't let the name fool you: Home Edition has 98 percent of the business-oriented features found in Professional.
If your business uses Windows NT or 2000 server domains to manage network resources and user accounts, however, you'll need Professional. Similarly, you'll need Professional if you have a multiprocessor PC, if you want Windows to encrypt the files on your hard disk, or if you want to use the OS's new Remote Desktop feature.
But while Windows 98, Me, NT 4.0, and 2000 users can all use the $199 XP Professional upgrade, only Windows 98 and Windows Me users can use the cheaper Home Edition upgrade. If you still use Windows 95, you'll have to wipe your hard drive clean and install the full version of either Home Edition ($199) or Professional ($299)--assuming your computer can run Windows XP at all. Expect to spend at least an hour upgrading, and be prepared to answer the occasional configuration question.
If your current OS qualifies for an upgrade, you can use the upgrade versions to perform what XP calls a new installation (a clean install), which lets you put XP on a bare hard drive, or you can place it on a separate partition so you can boot up either XP or your current Windows version.
A new installation is likely to generate fewer compatibility problems, but it also requires reinstalling all your applications and configuration settings. Installing Office XP on a dual-boot machine will also trigger the suite's product activation feature: You'll have to get an additional confirmation number from Microsoft.
You may find dual-booting worthwhile, though, not just to reduce compatibility hassles, but to gauge performance, and to run applications or games that don't play well with XP.
If it turns out that Windows XP isn't for you, you can uninstall it by using Control Panel's Add or Remove Programs applet (unless you upgraded from Windows NT or 2000, or chose to convert the hard disk partition from FAT32 to NTFS). And if XP suits you just fine, you can regain disk space by deleting the uninstall data.
With Windows XP out the door, Microsoft can focus on its ambitious plan to change computing as we know it.
The latest versions of Windows, Pocket PC, and Office are part of the company's vision of a universal computing network that reaches across all kinds of devices: PCs, handhelds, servers, and even household appliances. In Microsoft's scheme, these devices are all connected in a digital weave known as .Net.
Though details are sketchy, .Net shapes up as a collection of products, services, and technologies all designed to further the goal of universal connectivity via the Net. Though third-party firms are also developing .Net products, Microsoft is leading the way with development tools, server products, and client software. Everything will be based on the industry-standard Extensible Markup Language (XML), which, unlike the Web-pioneering HTML language, can present structured data (such as databases and spreadsheets) and is more similar to traditional software development languages.
The first major .Net component most of us will encounter is a suite of services, called .Net My Services, that Microsoft hopes to launch by next year.
The suite will link the company's Passport authentication system with instant messaging and mail applications, so users of .Net-enabled operating systems (including Windows XP and Pocket PC) can retrieve calendars, contacts, e-mail, voice mail, and other personal information wherever they are, whenever they want.
The company is making Passport available to other services that authenticate users. But will you be comfortable with Microsoft holding all the keys?