Windows XP: A tempting offer

Remember several years ago when Microsoft Corp. released Windows NT and announced that it was the "future" of Windows? Well, it took longer than anyone thought, but the future is finally here.

The new Windows XP is the first version of Windows marketed to general consumers that uses the 32-bit core that previously was only available in Windows NT and its successor, Windows 2000. As a result, users will find Windows XP to be both faster and more stable than Windows 98 and Windows Me.

At the same time, XP is more user-friendly than NT or 2000, with an interface that does a better job of guiding novice users through features. The new operating system also makes it easier to set up user profiles and offers better support for digital audio and video devices.

Does Windows XP make sense as an upgrade for most agencies and departments? That depends mostly on what operating system your users work on. If you've already standardized on Windows 2000, XP does not offer enough to lure most information systems administrators into an upgrade. But if your users work on Windows 98 or Me, moving to XP probably makes more sense than moving to 2000.

Just a Pretty Interface?

Windows XP offers a glitzy new interface that experienced users may find more distracting than helpful. Fortunately, it only takes a mouse click or two to switch back to the classic Windows interface.

Novice users, however, may find Windows XP more accessible than other versions of Windows. The Start button, for example, features two columns of icons, with the left column displaying the applications most frequently used by the logged-on user. The right column displays icons that used to be on the desktop, such as My Computer and My Documents, as well as some items that used to be difficult to locate, such as the Control Panel.

Windows XP also offers a new folder view in Windows Explorer that displays thumbnails of files, a feature that comes in handy for image files.

Some folders, such as the Control Panel, offer an alternate category view that helps lead novice users to the utility or control they seek. We also like the way inactive icons are now hidden in the desktop's system tray.

Another welcome feature is the new ClearType, a Microsoft utility that displays fonts more clearly on LCD displays, such as those on laptop computers.

Multimedia Muscle

There's no question that Windows XP offers the strongest set of multimedia utilities and the strongest support for audio and video devices of any version of Windows.

For starters, the operating system now includes a built-in CD burner that — assuming you have the appropriate hardware — allows you to copy files to a CD using simple drag-and-drop techniques in Windows Explorer. You can also transfer music directly to more than 60 brands of portable audio devices.

And Windows XP comes with a new version of Windows Media Player that offers enhanced support for audio and DVD playback, though you'll still need to acquire a DVD decoder separately.

Finally, the new operating system includes an enhanced version of the Movie Maker video-editing program that was introduced in Windows Me.

These new multimedia capabilities may be a draw for home users, but it isn't clear how big a priority burning CDs and stitching together videos will be for most agencies and departments.

Networking

Of far greater interest to the IS department than a better Media Player is Windows XP's stronger network support, though you'll have to use the Professional version to get most of the new tools and capabilities.

The networking features in Windows XP are similar to those in Windows 2000, with each connection configuration and each user profile being independent and "hot-swappable," meaning you can change both without having to reboot the computer. Windows XP also makes it easy to set up network connections, thanks to help from a wizard.

The operating system also offers support that home users will welcome, as well as systems administrators supporting users on the road. The new Internet Connection Firewall, for example, won't replace a real firewall in an agency or a department, but it may be all a home user needs and will provide extra protection for those connecting to the Internet while on the road.

Also, administrators familiar with the client management features of Windows 2000 — including centralized administration and roaming user profiles — will also find them in XP.

What's more, you'll find a new Network Troubleshooter that can actually help users solve basic network connection problems without having to start a trouble ticket with your department's help desk. There's also a Network Diagnostics utility that will automatically scan your system and report back on the status of more than a dozen network configuration options.

Windows XP also includes a built-in remote-control feature that allows you to take control of another computer remotely. And yes, there are security measures to ensure that the channel isn't abused. Users can set time limits for access to their computers, and the user must be at the remote computer to authorize the connection before it is made.

Performance

In our testing, we found Windows XP to be decidedly more stable than Windows 98. That's not surprising because, as with NT and 2000, each application runs in its own memory space. So if an application crashes or a driver conflicts, it does not bring down the operating system.

Windows XP also allows multiple versions of a Dynamic-Link Library on one system. DLLs provide basic functions that support Windows applications. Supporting multiple DLLs solves the common problem of a newly installed application writing over a DLL with its own newer version that may conflict with the DLL needed by an older application. With Windows XP, each application can interact with the version of the DLL it requires.

Microsoft has made a number of other changes under the hood, such as enhancing the Windows Registry, which results in fewer glitches for end users.

We also found the operating system's performance to be about the same as Windows 2000's, though boot times were noticeably faster. The improvement in boot times will, of course, vary depending on the equipment attached and the numbers of drivers being loaded. In general, however, we found boot times to be about 20 percent faster than with Windows 2000.

To Buy or Not to Buy

The Home version of Windows XP is clearly not suitable for most agencies and departments because it lacks such features as domain-level security, roaming user profiles and group administration policies, an encrypted file system, off-line files and folders, and remote-desktop tools. And the Professional version offers multiprocessor support.

The idea of upgrading to Windows XP will be of greatest interest to agencies and departments that have many users working with Windows 98 or Me, because XP offers a more stable operating system. If your users are already standardized on Windows 2000, however, there are few advantages in moving to XP.

What's more, Windows XP comes with some controversial strings attached. Unless you're in a position to buy an unrestricted site license for the operating system, you'll find that any installation of the operating system requires connecting to Microsoft for activation, via telephone or Internet. That will prevent users from using the same copy of the operating system on a desktop and a laptop, for example, even if only one computer is being used at a time.

Even worse, however, if you change the BIOS on a computer or make other significant changes in configuration, reactivation may be required for the operating system to work. This new activation feature alone may give pause to support staff.

***

XP prerequisites

Microsoft Corp. Windows XP Professional and Home system requirements:

* PC with 300 MHz or higher processor clock speed recommended; 233 MHz minimum required.

* An Intel Corp. Pentium or Celeron family processor, an Advanced Micro Devices Inc. K6, Athlon or Duron family processor, or a compatible processor recommended.

* 128M of RAM or higher recommended (64M minimum supported; may limit performance and some features).

* 1.5G of available hard disk space.

* Super VGA (800x600) or higher-resolution video adapter and monitor.

* CD-ROM or DVD drive.

* Keyboard and Microsoft mouse or compatible pointing device.

REPORT CARD

Windows XP

Score: B+

Microsoft Corp.

(888) 218-5617

www.microsoft.com

Windows XP Home costs $199 ($99 upgrade), and Windows XP Professional

costs $299 ($199 upgrade). Volume licensing is available.

Windows XP offers the greater stability and security features of Windows

NT and 2000 along with multimedia capabilities and a friendlier interface

designed for general consumer markets. Although XP is a decided winner for

home users, the advantages for professional users are not so clear. For

Professional users who already have Windows 2000, there's no real draw to

move to XP. And many users will find the new product activation requirements

a drawback.

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