By Matt Lake
Product activation and interface
Installing Windows XP will involve less guesswork than previous versions.
Microsoft plans to release a compatibility checker called Upgrade Advisor that you
can download or get on CD from computer retailers. The Advisor
checks system-level software and hardware drivers against a database
of compatible products and warns you of any possible problems with your
configuration. This is a handy feature, and one that can download an
updated list of compatible products when you run it, if you allow it to. In addition, when you buy an XP retail CD, it comes with a Compatibility Checker that performs essentially the same function as the Upgrade Advisor.
We did encounter some compatibility problems with standard-configuration
Dell and Gateway PCs only a couple of months old (modem enumerator
software, virus checkers, and Roxio's DirectCD and rollback software
GoBack were all flagged as problems). But after uninstalling some
apps and getting updated versions of others, the operating system
did install OK. (While this was a nuisance, it beat the Windows 2000
experience of installing an operating system and losing hardware
If you've ever upgraded a Windows OS, you're probably used to entering a lengthy CD key, or code, to install new Microsoft software. But if you buy XP off the shelf, you'll go through another compulsory step called activation. Most PC vendors who preinstall XP will have completed this task for you. Activation isn't the same as registration (which asks you to provide personal info to Microsoft), but you must complete activation within 30 days of installation, or the OS will stop working. While we understand the intent, it's a slightly annoying roadblock.
Expensive extra licenses
The activation antipiracy step prevents you from installing XP on more than one computer, and it's a bit of a nuisance, especially if you don't have an Internet connection set up. Online activation is painless, but the telephone method takes 10 minutes or longer and involves reading and typing about 100 digits. The activation scheme checks the IDs of 10 different hardware components to create a special code for your PC. If your hard drive dies or you change your network interface card or reconfigure more than 5 of these components in your system, you'll have to reactivate your copy of XP. Reactivation is a relatively painless process in which you must call Microsoft, explain your situation, and get a new activation number--not difficult, but it could prove annoying.
Since product activation means you can install XP on only one PC, households with lots of computers are out of luck. Microsoft makes a licensing concession to such home users, but it's a small one. You can buy additional XP licenses at a discount: a paltry 10 percent or so, depending on the retailer ($8 to $12). You'll still pay about $80 each time you want to add XP to another computer. Stingy Microsoft!
Once activated, however, Windows XP looks a lot better than--and very different from--any previous Windows version. From the outset, XP presents login buttons for each of your PC's users--a look that owes a lot to MSN Explorer's interface. Click your name (and enter an optional password), and XP whisks you off to a screen with rounded, 3D-looking taskbar and dialog boxes. By default, only the Recycle Bin icon shows up on the clean desktop. (You can, however, elect to view a 95-style desktop if you switch to the Windows Classic view.)
The enhancements aren't just visual; some of them make XP easier to use than previous Windows versions. For example, if you open four or five Microsoft Word or Explorer windows, XP groups all the windows for each application under a single button. Click the Word button, for instance, and you'll see a pop-up window with a list of all your open documents.
Click to open any folder, and you'll see that XP boasts all-new Explorer windows. Each folder window contains a left-hand bar full of links to common tasks. The My Computer folder, for example, sports links in three categories--System Tasks, Other Places, and Details--that let you access the Control Panel, My Documents, the Add/Remove Programs utility, and additional settings. In other folder windows, you'll see options for sharing the folder on a network, publishing it to the Web, or making a new subfolder. As far as convenience goes, this feature is a winner. We like having important options in obvious places.
A fresh Start
XP's new Start menu looks completely different, too. The two-column affair links to the usual desktop suspects: My Documents, My Computer, and program folders in the left panel and
programs and documents in the right panel. The first time you run Windows XP, the Start menu lists a few preset Microsoft favorites, including Media Player, MSN Explorer, and Windows Movie Maker, with an additional link to your installed programs. As you run software, Windows adds your most recently used apps to the list and drops others as you go. If, however, you want a permanent link, you can right-click a program item to "pin" it to the Start menu. To access the rest of your programs, Windows XP provides an All Programs cascading menu that sorts programs and program folders alphabetically.
The new Start menu arrangement takes getting used to, but, with a little judicious rearrangement, you can quickly get your work space up to peak efficiency. You can still, for example, drag a favorite program or file from Explorer onto the Start button to put a shortcut into the Start menu, and there's nothing stopping you from dragging My Documents or My Computer from the Start menu to the desktop to make shortcuts.
Also in the Start menu, XP renames the Windows 95/98 Find feature Search (as it's called in Windows Me). The new version, thankfully, has evolved. Those who understand wildcard searching can still use it, but Search serves up many new hand-holding tricks. It asks a question ("What do you want to search for?") and lets you search under plain-English categories such as "Pictures, music, or video" and "Documents (Word, Excel, etc.)." And you can now search the Web using the Start menu's search form, too--dandy, although the default engine is MSN Search. Happily, you can change the default engine to one
of a fistful of options, including Google, Yahoo, AskJeeves, Excite, and more. Nice. For real technophobes, Microsoft also throws in a cartoon doggie to wag its tail underneath the search box, but lets you switch it off, thankfully.
Under the hood
Under XP's prettier face, the new OS sports a set of godsends that Microsoft calls PC Health features, rewritten since their Windows Me introduction. In addition to a rollback feature called System Restore that takes XP's system state back to a previous date in the event of some catastrophic problem (akin to, but not as thorough as, Roxio GoBack), there's a driver rollback feature, too, that undoes disastrous driver upgrades.
XP's new Help And Support feature is easier to navigate. It features shorter topic lists that expand as you click them, instead of reams of task-driven help topics, and includes close links to the Microsoft Knowledge Base and online support, Windows Update, and other tools. We put three questions to three versions of Windows--Me, 2000, and XP--and found that XP's help was generally easier to understand, especially compared to Windows 2000's.