To XP or not to XP

Microsoft, a company not known for its modesty, has certainly kept its bold tone with the launch of its newest operating platform, Windows XP. The company went a little far referring to XP as Great XPectations. On behalf of everyone, please accept my apologies, Mr. Dickens.

ComputerWorld Canada reviewed Windows XP Professional. Unlike most testing facilities which take a new product and place it on the newest technology, we decided to put it on the slowest machine XP is slated to run on. Part of this was out of necessity (it was the only extra machine lying around since our test machine was being upgraded) and part out of it was self preservation (cold day in hell I was going to wipe the hard drives on one of my machines, at least not yet).

We installed it on an Intel 233 MMX, with 256MB of RAM (no point in skimping here) with a 3GB hard drive.

The big change with XP is that both versions (professional and home) are running on a combination of the NT and 9x kernel, according to Microsoft.

In my experience Windows 9x typically has problems when many applications are running simultaneously. You might not necessarily get a blue screen but your machine would often lock up.

So I started surfing some movie preview sites, opened up another browser to listen to Internet radio and then loaded Adobe PhotoShop at the same time. All performed without a glitch. Then I tried running a series of Internet radio stations simultaneously while working in PhotoShop. Other than an incredibly interesting aural experience, think free jazz meets early Clash, it was smooth sailing – none of the station’s signals were dropped . Though not entirely a Windows issue, it was nice nonetheless. I even managed to create a PowerPoint presentation while surfing, and at the same time use a PhotoShop image filter (a huge power consumer) on a large file. I tried this with Windows 98 on my home machine (an almost identical configuration), and it froze like a Popsicle.

Yet none of this should come as a surprise since Microsoft has always been claiming the NT kernel is stable.

pretty new face

A lot has been made of the new look and feel of XP and, to give Microsoft credit, the change is as big as Windows 3.1 to 95. For those of you who made that migration, you probably remember it took some getting used to.

My reaction to XP was much the same. Since I am accustomed to Windows Explorer, locating some files and applications took a little practice. Explorer, per se, does not exist. You have to click on folders in “my computer” for individual files to appear.

Like many, I refused to take the XP tour. I take that back. I did start the tour but once I was told XP was “the new version that brings your PC to life” I clicked cancel. No need for a reviewer to be more prone to bias than is already inherent.

The first thing you notice is a clutter-free desktop. In fact, except for the recycle bin, there is nothing. This is a nice treat and might also explain why Microsoft has finally included some new default photographs you can install as wallpaper. Let’s be serious, did anybody ever use straw mat or pin stripe as a background?

I also like the fact the task bar disappears when not in use. It gives the user a little more space to work with and minimizes visual distraction.

The new start screen is also quite different, with recently opened programs automatically appearing on the left. I often get tired of searching through my programs to find one I recently opened, especially if it didn’t merit a desktop shortcut.

There is an obvious move to make life easier for the inexperienced user with “my pictures,” “my music” and “my documents” right on the start screen. But be forewarned, you had best store your photos and music where Microsoft suggests otherwise the search engine will give you a rude shock.

The new search engine is unquestionably better but does have drawbacks. If you are a new user and search with the easy “search photos” and have not stored the photographs in a folder that is part of the default search, they will not be found. On the upside, if you search for photographs and use advanced search options the engine will find all photographs. To give you an idea of the difference, with basic search the engine found five photos, with the advanced it found 1,633. Before you had to use *.jpg, *.tiff and *.bmp to find all of your photographs, now you can just use the advanced option and they all come up. Another nice touch is the ability to have search results shown as thumbnails. This is particularly nice if you have forgotten the name of your photograph.

For those more interested in the administrative aspects of XP, there are a few additions which stand out. In the device manager, you finally have the option to roll back to a previous hardware driver. This is extremely beneficial for an installation gone awry. In addition, according to Microsoft, the home version allows for multiple user interfaces thus allowing a parent to be able to control software access policies. No need for the kids to get into MS Money.

On the other hand, with all of the changes in XP, I would have liked an application akin to Norton Utilities to help me diagnose potential problems.

to buy or not to buy

Everything aside, let’s make one thing perfectly clear. If I buy a new machine and my choices are Me or XP, it is a no-brainer. XP in a landslide. But what about upgrading? For those home users with a fairly decent machine, say Plll 700 or higher, it is probably worth it. The added stability will be a blessing as more and more users move to digital music and video. On the downside, if you want to reinstall, you have to phone Microsoft for a new product key since the one on the CD is valid only once. You also have to register your copy with Microsoft, something you never had to do in the past. If I count all of my reinstalls over the past ten years and add a pain in the ass phone call to the fray, I wouldn’t have exactly been a happy customer. I guess Microsoft is betting a reinstall won’t be necessary.

For the NT user, the issue is a little clearer. If NT was crashing before, you have probably moved on to Linux or Unix by now, and if not, why go for the upgrade?

Essentially, Microsoft is finally giving the consumer market a platform it deserved to have had five years ago. It’s about time.