by June 16, 2001 0 comments



Ever since Windows 3.1 came out, computing for the masses took off on a large scale. Later Windows 95 with its new UI (User Interface) became the standard OS with its UI being ported to Windows 98/NT/Me/2000. Windows XP is the latest version in the Windows NT path, which aims to combine the ease of use of the 9x series with the power and stability of the NT series.

The first beta release of XP put me off with its instability and crawling speed. However, my experience with the Windows XP Beta 2 release was better. I tested it on a HP Brio with a Celeron 433 on an Intel 810 motherboard, 64 MB RAM (with 1 MB shared for video), 40x CD drive and 4.3 GB hard disk. 

Installation

The initial installation process is quite similar to Windows NT/2000. The few changes include an option to quick-format a new partition in NTFS or FAT32 thus lessening the installation time. Part two of the installation is mostly hands-free, except for entering the computer name, registration key, and time zone, and goes on smoothly for about 30 minutes. I found the lack of a ‘Custom’ install option a bit disturbing, as I like to tweak my system and not install stuff that I’d never use. Windows 2000 also had a similar problem, but this was rectified by a small ‘hack’. I haven’t tried this out on XP yet and will wait for the final release before I do.

Once the install is over, XP boots up in a similar manner as Windows 2000, but much faster. The main login screen, which appeared in a few seconds, is the first major change offered by XP. The full-screen login window lists the names of users on the system. Once you click a name, it shows a password prompt. 

Interface

After logging in, you’ll see a very different user interface. The desktop has only one icon by default–the Recycle Bin–a la Mac. You can however add icons like My Computer, My Documents, and My Network Places. Another surprise is the taskbar and the Start menu. The button has changed to a bright green and is larger. Clicking this shows a new style Start menu–having two columns of items instead of the regular single column. The first one contains common and frequently used shortcuts. Internet Explorer and Outlook Express are there by default. Below them user-defined shortcuts are maintained for the most frequently used programs. If you use MS Word, Photoshop, WinAmp and WinZip most often, these will appear here, circumventing the need to browse for them in the menu. 

The second column contains a list of common places–My Computer, My Documents, My Pictures, and My Music–plus shortcuts to the Help, Run and Logoff links. Below these two columns is a ‘More programs’ link that displays applications and short cuts in the old style. You can revert to this old classic Start menu if you’re not comfortable with the new view. Though it took me a while to get used to this, I would recommend the new style. 

The taskbar and Notification area (formerly system tray) have also received a lot of attention. If you open too many windows of the same program say, Internet Explorer, the system groups them all under one taskbar button. Clicking this pops up a menu with titles of the different instances, and you can open any instance by clicking on it. The notification area has also been cleaned up. Instead of having tons of small icons taking valuable screen estate, all icons are hidden by default and are revealed only by clicking a small arrow-button near the time display. You can however set any icon to be always visible if you wish.

Fast user switching

Another new and very useful feature in XP is called ‘Fast user switching’. This allows multiple users to log on to the machine while preserving sessions of previous users. This way, an existing user’s session doesn’t get disturbed if another user has to use the system urgently. XP maintains all open programs, documents and Internet connections–a very useful feature especially in a home or small office environment. 

User-accounts management

Creating and maintaining user accounts is now much easier. A simple wizard lets you create a user by asking for the required information like the level of access and username. You can customize the user login by providing a password and password hint, change access levels, and even change the picture or icon that represents the user. You can even scan a photo of a user and assign it as an icon.

Interface changes

The default new look of XP carries on to all applications installed in it. That is, if you are using the default theme of XP, the title bar, control menu, Maximize, minimize, and close buttons for all applications appear in the same way. There are also small but significant changes in common dialog boxes like File Open and Save, Print, and most importantly the User Access Rights box that allows the administrator to assign rights to specific users to files and folders. Unfortunately, this last dialog seems a bad change. You need to manually type in the name of the user you wish to include in the access list, unlike earlier versions of Windows, which would provide you with a list of users if you wished. Hopefully, this should change. Other interface changes include an ability to customize your display for best performance or best visual effects, a new screensaver that lets you point to a folder on your drive containing images that it cycles through with transition effects, and the ability to run at a high resolution and colors even with low
VRAM. 

All folder windows have an enhanced version of the Web View that was introduced in Windows 98. It is quite useful and surprisingly intuitive. This is divided into sections containing everyday tasks like moving or deleting files, creating folders, and special tasks such as playing the MP3 or WMA files in a folder.

Integrated applications

Some of the new features in Windows XP blatantly disregard the ongoing court battle regarding the integration of IE into the OS. However, some of the features are pretty nifty including the way Windows Media Player has been tied-in, and the built-in Zip/UnZip functionality which does away with the need of third party applications like WinZip.

Windows XP also introduces a controversial feature called ‘Windows Product Activation’ (WPA). The WPA requires a user to register his copy of XP within 14 days of installing it. This can be done through the Internet by following a small two-step wizard that asks you for some information and sends it along with a hash of the hardware on your system to the Microsoft database. There, the product key you entered is checked to see if it exists. If it does not, the hash and registration information are stored. The catch, as many put it, is that even after a legal install, if you change the hardware significantly on your system, the activation will fail since the new hash will not match the one in Microsoft’s database. 

IE 6

Internet Explorer 6 makes its debut in Windows XP. It is fast to load and renders pages quickly. New features in this release include the ‘Personal toolbar’. You can change the middle box to contain your MSN contacts, favorites, and history. Neither the Media Player nor the search box can be customized or removed. However, with a little digging in the registry, I was able to change the MSN search box to point to Google instead and have the results appear in the search pane itself instead of the main screen. Hopefully, the final release will allow the user to choose the search engine. 

The Search bar now has an animated character to ‘guide’ you through searches. So now we know where the code from Office 2000 went after being dropped from Office XP. My recommendation–turn it off as soon as you see it. There is nothing more irritating than a patronizing pup telling you how to search. An image toolbar is supposed to exist that pops up near any image you move your mouse over and allows you to print, e-mail, save or set it as wallpaper. However, despite repeated tries, I was unable to get this toolbar to appear. 

Other features

Other improvements in XP deserve a brief mention. XP now requires that any device driver you install be digitally signed by either Microsoft or the driver manufacturer–the biggest cause for Windows being termed unstable is faulty drivers. Another new tool allows you to quickly migrate your system settings to another machine using a wizard. An automatic update feature checks for critical updates for XP whenever you are connected to the Net and can download and install it transparently if you so wish, making sure that your system is always up-to-date. 

Quirks

This release does have its quirks. The name of the product is inconsistent across the board. In some places, it is called Whistler and in others, it’s called Windows XP. The release notes talk
about Internet Information Server (IIS) 6 being part of the product, but upon installation I found only IIS 5.1. I did not comprehensively test its use in a network environment, although I got it into my company’s network without any problem by following a simple networking wizard. Remote Desktop Administration using Terminal server is a bit flaky although it does work. I faced unexplainable connection losses even when working from a machine right next to my test machine. 

Bugs not withstanding, Windows XP might be Microsoft’s biggest gamble since Windows 95. Critics have already poured their traditional vitriol on these initial releases–mostly concentrated on its product Activation feature. It is important to keep in mind that this is not a final product and many changes are still possible. Overall it seems to have good potential, and I for one, am eagerly awaiting its final release. 

Vinod Unny
is a technology consultant at iSquare Technologies

No Comments so far

Jump into a conversation

No Comments Yet!

You can be the one to start a conversation.

<