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  PC-Net's PC News - December, 2001
 
Don Watkins

A Quick Peek at Windows XP

By Don Watkins

 
 
 

 

December 2001--As I recounted in my "long strange trip" article I was suddenly faced with having to install XP. I usually hang back from new releases of Windows at least until the second service release. Oh, I might do a quick install on a test machine and I had done that with XP early on and wasn't all that impressed, in fact I was a little depressed by the look and feel which struck me as cartoonish but what the heck, I figured I'd toss it on my production machine and see if it solved my weird printer problem.

The Hardware

I'm currently using a server as a my workstation. A long story, but it's a low end Dell server (the 1400SC) with dual processors and 512Mb of memory. A reasonably good machine it doesn't have anything all that fancy on it; a Creative Lab sound card, a SCSI tape drive, a Matrox dual head video card and all the rest is standard come with stuff; network cards, modem, CD-ROM, etc. Nothing that I would consider exotic. I was previously running Windows 2000 Professional.

I run the Pro version because I use the machine for development stuff and run Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) on an Intranet. I assume that the "home" version pretty much runs the same, just without those parts, but I've not yet used it.

The Install

The install went easier than any Windows install I can remember. Either because I don't have a lot of weird stuff kludged to this machine or because the XP install database of hardware is so complete. I didn't have to feed the install program any supplemental vendor driver disks or anything, it recognized everything and never even asked me about it.

Compatibility

I don't run anything too weird in the way of software. I was a little concerned about ActivePerl, the Perl software that allows me to run Perl programs in IIS. I don't know why, perhaps because I equate Perl to Unix, but it and all my Perl CGI programs continued to perform flawlessly (well, with the exception of programmer errors, which no operating system seems to cure!).

The only program that burped was my Trend PC-Cillin real time virus scanner which refused to run. I'm not surprised, virus scanners seem to be very Windows version dependent and Trend had worked for me through 98, 98SE, ME and 2k so I guess I should feel lucky.

Otherwise all my old programs and tools continued to work just fine.

Look and Feel

I was immediately put off by the look of XP. Here's a quick glimpse of the standard start menu/program bar:

Obviously this is personal taste but I didn't like it. I quickly found an option to use Windows classic mode. In addition I used video properties to switch back to San Serif font from Tahoma and I immediately felt more at home.

The start menu has changed a great deal:

The programs you see in the top left block can be changed and those in the lower left block are based on the most frequently used. These can be changed as well if you want to override the frequently used method.

Clicking on the "All programs" entry expands to show you all programs installed just as it did in previous versions of Windows automatically. I like the new way of presenting things.

It's a small feature but one that I really like and that's "stacking" items on the program bar. In the past if you had a bunch of browser windows open they'd each shrink down in the program bar so you couldn't tell what was what. XP combines these guys and allows you to expand them to see what's there:

This is a feature I've found incredibly helpful, no more hunting around when I have a zillion browser or explorer windows open, just expand the entry in the program bar and select it from there. Optionally you can right click on the program bar entry and close the entire group with one click.

It may seem like a small thing but I've found it has saved me a bunch of time and frustration.

The biggest change I found in look and feel was the ability to use clear text. Wow, what a difference. My eyes may actually start to recover. The quality of text in both applications and browser is much clearer and easier to read and I seem to spend half my time say "wow, I can't believe this" staring at the screen in disbelief.

Stability

Probably too early for me to say and I had good luck with Windows 98 and 2000 but so far the few programs I've had crash XP handled with good grace and simply told me that the program wasn't responding and did I want to end it. Doing so didn't cause any problems with any other running processes. XP seems to manage memory just fine and system resources far better than previous versions; I've never dropped below 90% free system resources.

Learning Curve

I found a lot in XP that was a holdover from NT and 2k, I don't know know if that's attributable to the Professional version or not and there are things missing; msconfig and sfc for two that I found invaluable in 98. Perhaps they're not here because they're not needed and/or there's some other, easier way to do those things. If there are I haven't found them yet, but that's often the part of a new OS that I enjoy, poking around the nooks and crannies to see what sort of stuff is lurking behind the curtains for someone willing to look.

Bottom Line

I like it and I recommend it. It's far more solid than the first release of an OS that I've ever used, going back to DOS 1.0 and given that I can configure it to look like something I'm used to I feel like I'm getting the benefit of the new Windows code without any pain. Not only that but tricks and tips are already starting to appear and many more are sure to come. For a quick look at a couple of early fixes click here.

Until next time best in computing.

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