Six years ago, Microsoft unveiled a new operating system that it promised would work faster, more reliably and more simply than anything it had ever made before. Now it's about to make the same offer.
Windows 95 never quite lived up to that billing, but Windows XP -- short for "experience" -- just might. Whether it's worthy of today's hype is another question.
The best reason to pay XP's $99 upgrade price ($199 for Windows 95 users) is its stability. The three weeks I've tested this system -- which started shipping with new PCs on Sept. 24 and arrives in stores Oct. 25 -- have been almost free of system crashes and hangs.
Where Windows 95, 98 and Millennium Edition ran atop aging, unstable DOS code, XP relies on the newer, crash-resistant foundation of Windows NT and Windows 2000. This ancestry also means that XP easily handles multiple user accounts, each with their own settings and data.
If individual applications derail, XP stops them from locking up other programs. It even apologizes -- "We are sorry for the inconvenience" -- and asks if it can send a bug report back to the Microsoft mothership.
That's not to say it's crash-proof. I've seen one Toshiba laptop get hung up overnight by a cranky video-card driver. After running a large file search, the same laptop suffered a bizarre interface meltdown that forced another restart.
XP demands considerably more hardware than Win 95, 98 or Me. Microsoft advises 128 megabytes of memory, but avid users should double that figure. You'll also need at least a 4-gigabyte hard drive and a 300-MHz or faster processor.
Some hardware and software may no longer work with XP. Microsoft plans to list compatible products on its Web site by Oct. 25 "or earlier," a spokesman said.
This new system scraps much of the traditional look of Windows, repainting it with neon-blue menu bars and garish green, red and orange accents. If, like me, you find it a bit loud, you can switch to more restrained interface themes.
XP valiantly attempts to clean up the traditional clutter of Windows, but introduces new disarray of its own. It sweeps unused icons off the desktop and hides inactive icons from the "tray" at the right end of the task bar. The Start menu displays commonly opened programs and folders in separate sections; its lengthy programs sub-menu is still around, but now highlights newly installed software.
Each XP file-management window also lists frequently used commands in a left-hand frame, and the commands change as you select folders and files. But this effort to bring everyday tasks to the surface of the interface goes a bit too far, clogging up windows with entries for chores as basic as deleting files.
Navigating around your PC is also harder than before. XP warns you not to browse through your hard drive, instead encouraging you to stick to the Start menu and desktop shortcuts.
As part of a sharper focus on multimedia, XP includes dedicated folders for audio and images, with the vaguely Fisher-Price names of "My Music" and "My Pictures." Each comes with context-sensitive commands to, for instance, display your photo collection as a slide show or order prints online.
But XP leaves out some vital capabilities, too. XP's Windows Media Player omits an MP3 encoder, so users who don't like Microsoft's Windows Media format will need to pay $10 or so to add one. With no built-in DVD-decoding software, XP must rely on whatever code manufacturers have loaded on their PCs. On the Toshiba, things went awry, and Windows Media Player played only the audio in DVD movies. (XP's system-repair tools, which can undo driver installations, didn't help.)
And XP lacks a "virtual machine" to run Java programs. Some manufacturers will include one with XP PCs, but others, such as Gateway, plan to leave it to users to download this free, 5-megabyte addition.
Tinkerers should be aware of how XP tries to stop software piracy. After you install XP, it must be "activated" over the Internet or the phone or it will stop running after 30 days. This activation then binds that copy of XP to that computer-as XP sees it. Replacing as few as four components within 120 days could cause XP to think it's on a new machine, requiring a call to Microsoft to get the computer out of the impound lot.
The ugliest part of XP, though, is Microsoft's self-promotion -- of its MSN Internet service, its Windows Media format and its ".Net" initiative. The last is an ambitious program to provide users with a single Passport sign-on-stored by Microsoft itself-to multiple Web sites and services, starting with Microsoft's Hotmail and Windows Messenger. Before you sign up, please ponder this: Do we need to cede yet another quadrant of the computing universe to Microsoft?
If you buy a new computer, you'll probably be content with XP on it -- for one thing, most manufacturers will take care of the activation for you. If Windows 98 or Me drives you crazy with crashes, you might also find XP worth the price. Otherwise, you might as well wait for the inevitable bug-fix release.
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