Windows XP imperfect but much improved
|||Observers praise new Windows, but differ about upgrading|
By John Yaukey
Gannett News Service
Unless you're stranded on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific, you're not going to escape the billion-dollar, superlative-laden, coming-out blitz planned for the Oct. 25 release of Microsoft's latest version of the Windows operating system, dubbed XP.
Windows XP provides step-by-step instructions for almost anything you want to do with your computer. Here it explains how to create a photo album for the Web.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates later chimed in, explaining that it was "the culmination of more than 15 years of research, development and customer feedback."
In a clearly visceral appeal to Gen-Xers, Microsoft vice president Jim Allchin proclaimed simply, "XP rocks!"
Company hype aside, the XP release is a major event for a couple of reasons.
First, the Windows operating system is the most financially successful software ever written used by 90 percent of all PCs and XP is considered by even its harshest critics the most important release since Windows 95, which played a pivotal role in bringing the Internet into the living room.
Second, XP is not just the most recent iteration of Windows (following Windows Me and Windows 2000), it also marks an aggressive commitment by Microsoft to support the new "digital lifestyle," where the computer becomes a household hub for developing and e-mailing digital photos and streaming video, and ripping music from the Internet and sending instant messages around the world in other words, the modern Internet.
Indeed, by all accounts, XP is the hippest Windows to date.
"XP is a whole new animal," said Windows product manager Tom Laemmel. "We've combined the dependability of our business systems with the usability of our home systems. It's meant to take what's possible with a computer and make it a cinch from start to finish."
The critics and users ultimately will decide if Microsoft has succeeded in that.
Aside from a few assorted peeves, commentary thus far on the beta or preview versions of XP has largely been quite favorable. Reviewers generally agree the look of XP is clean and functional, the code is fairly stable so it doesn't crash as much as some other Windows systems and it's a lot more versatile than previous iterations, especially with the fun stuff like digital photography, video and music.
"I think they finally got the right mix between usability and stability," said beta tester Neil Randall, who lives near Toronto. "I think techies and home users generally will be fairly pleased with it."
If you're using Windows 95, 98 or Me, you're probably wondering if you should upgrade to XP Home Edition (there's also a Professional edition). What follows should help with that decision.
Those familiar with Windows will notice that many of XP's innovations are readily apparent.
The new brightly hued but streamlined interface called Luna is clearly intended to create an atmosphere of functionality and simplicity with its large icons, rounded dialogue boxes and cheerful backdrops. It all starts with the simplified welcome screen that contains only the names of the various user accounts, which can be configured so each user has a customized desktop and start menu.
For security, user accounts can easily be programmed to limit access to the system. An "owner" designation provides full access, while the "limited user" and "guest" designations permit others such as children and friends to use the system on a limited basis so private information remains protected.
Touted as an especially Internet friendly system, XP is designed to exploit the increasingly sophisticated multimedia content on the Web and in the home.
"With XP, Microsoft is clearly trying to create a much more robust experience especially with images, music and video," said Chris LeTocq, an analyst with the Gartner Dataquest research firm.
XP builds on Me's strong support for handling digital images, so users should find it effective for working with digital cameras and scanners. The new My Pictures folder, for example, makes it easy to handle and manipulate digital snapshots, while the Web Publishing Wizard allows users to create Web sites for sharing their favorite photos.
XP also includes the new Windows Media Player 8 for easy CD burning and DVD playing.
Windows Movie Maker, which first appeared in Me, has been simplified for XP so when you attach a camcorder to your PC, XP should automatically recognize and launch the movie software, making it easy to download and edit video.
XP also will ship with Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6 Web browser, although it can be removed and replaced with other browsers.
One of IE's most notable features lets you control "cookies," files that marketers use to track your Web surfing. With IE 6, users will be able to choose from five privacy settings. The lowest, which is also the default configuration, will allow all cookies to be accepted. Intermediate levels will allow users to reject cookies based on various criteria. For example, it would be possible to configure the browser to accept a cookie if it comes from the site directly accessed by a browser, but reject a third-party cookie that comes from an outside source such as an advertiser that has an agreement with the host site. The highest setting rejects all cookies.
For those who own more than one PC, XP was configured for easy home networking. The My Network feature makes sharing printers, files and Internet connections over a home computer network much simpler than it was with previous operating systems by automatically identifying the network type and configuring the computers accordingly.
To make sure all these applications run dependably, the XP code was based on the stable Windows 2000 business system rather than on Windows Me or 98, which are notorious for crashing.
All that said, XP has not passed through the gantlet of critics and beta testers unscathed.
XP's new copyright protection feature, euphemistically dubbed "product activation," has raised the hackles of many early adopters. As an anti-piracy measure, Microsoft requires you to activate XP with a special code you get from the company via the Web or a toll-free number. Once activated, the program "marries" itself to the hardware on your system so it can only be copied one additional time, presumably onto a second household computer.
Microsoft's critics are already attacking it as an overzealous attempt by the Redmond leviathan to squeeze every last dollar out of its customers.
"I like XP, but product activation was a bad idea," said Long Islander Serdar Yegulalp, who has tested several beta versions of XP. "I appreciate their concerns about piracy, but this is not going to be very difficult to circumvent so all it's really going to do is leave a bad taste in people's mouths."
The software has tools for organizing and recording digital music, and software to make digital videos. Some of these features were in Windows ME but have been improved in XP.
A 300 megahertz (MHz) Pentium II class processor or higher.
An absolute minimum of 64 megabytes (MB) of memory.
1.5 gigabytes (GB) of free hard drive space.
Beta testers, however, have different recommendations. Perhaps the most important surround memory.
"Realistically, you can forget about running XP on anything less than 128 MB of memory," said Al Gillen, an analyst with market researchers IDC.
Processor speed isn't quite as important as memory, although it's never fun to wait while your computer struggles with a top-heavy application. XP reviewers have been recommending a processor with a minimum speed of 500 MHz rather than 300.
The rule of thumb is that if your computer was made after January 2000 and has at least 128 megabytes of memory, then it should be OK.
You can upgrade existing Windows software to XP from Windows 95, 98 or Me. But if you're running 95, the odds are your hardware is probably too old to support XP.
Should you upgrade?
This is the $64,000 question, and the answer is going to differ from person to person.
If you've got a computer that can handle the operating system, but aren't sure it's going to be worth the effort and expense to upgrade, product reviewers recommend that you carefully assess your usage.
People who use their computers the same way they use their toasters simply as a tool to do a job probably don't need XP. These are users who spend most of their time doing fairly simple tasks such as Web surfing or sending e-mail. Some are still using Windows 95 and are perfectly happy with it.
But if you like having fun with your computer and want to experiment with multimedia on the Internet, you'll probably want to upgrade.