MS's XP can be annoying, but overall works well 

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002
First published in Business in Vancouver,  Issue #647 March 19-25, 2002, High Tech Office column

When Microsoft's next generation operating system Windows XP was just released, I was grumpy. Yes, XP wedded the multimedia smarts of the earlier Windows ME with the robustness of Windows NT and 2000, giving home and office users a system that crashed less.

And yes, it provided a colourful new look and feel that many might find easier to use.

But it also bugs new users to sign up for a Microsoft Passport account and in many places, the interface included links to a variety of ways to get the user to open his or her wallet.

Since purchasing a new computer, though, I've lived and worked with XP more intensively. And I'm forced to admit that with this operating system, Microsoft did a number of things right. Among them:

  • I installed this operating system from scratch, and found it the quickest and smoothest installation of any Windows version yet.
  • It looks good, and has run without problem. No crashes, no downtime. The computer feels smoother than I've experienced before. Some of this, of course, may be from using a newer, more powerful computer than ever before.
  • The support for multiple users will be important for many home and work users. Each user gets his or her own desktop, Start Menu, and settings. The log-on screen is attractive and easy to use. (Users can change the pictures that appear beside their name from the user accounts control panel.)
  • The new interface is tidier, and tries to stay that way by automatically removing little-used desktop icons and the like. The new Start Menu makes it easy to get back to programs you use often (though it's a bit harder to find the programs you just use now and then). Tip: You can "pin" an icon to the top-left area of the Start Menu, by right-clicking it.
  • Plug and play works better. In some cases, it seems almost magical how quickly and easily it finds and installs the new hardware without any user intervention. Well done!

Now for the other side. My experience is with a fresh installation on new, virgin hardware. Updating existing installations and working with older hardware (even systems only a year or two old) can be more problematic. You may find there are no drivers for the computer accessories you currently own. My son's Agfa digital camera won't work with XP, and Agfa, which has left the digicam business, says it isn't going to bother writing drivers for the new operating system. The magically self-installing printing and scanning support offers fewer generic features compared to the customized drivers that manufacturers wrote for older operating systems. HP, for example, promises full-featured drivers sooner or later.

Most software plays nice with XP's multiple-user setup. But some programs don't. For example, you can install Corel Word Perfect Office 2002 for multiple users but only if you know a secret trick. (Setup from the RUN command, using the not-so-obvious "/NOMSI" switch. If you don't do this, only a single user can run the software.)

Many users will want to get the less expensive Home Edition. In most cases, this will be fine for home and small business users, at least until they need to connect to a network server. If you take a notebook computer from home to work or school, this could become a problem.

I still don't like the nags to get an MS Passport, but at least if you ignore it, it stops after a couple of days.

It runs smoothly on my fast new computer, but I know it takes a lot of computing power for XP's glossy look. (You can turn off the eye-candy to improve performance.) As has been said before, "Intel giveth, and Microsoft taketh away."

On new hardware, Windows XP has a lot going for it. But you might want to wait until you get a new computer.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan