WindowsXP: Is the XPerience Worth It?

By Joel

Date: August 22, 2001

Whenever Microsoft releases a new OS, the market is flooded with a huge amount of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt).  Champions of the new product (many of them from Redmond) tend to hail the unveiling of the product as the greatest event in computer history, while others sneer at the new product as a $300 GUI upgrade or attack it as "just another patch." 

This is particularly true with WindowsXP, the latest OS from Microsoft, due to officially launch in a little over two months.  Doubts have been swirling around this new product practically since it was announced.  While Microsoft touts its stability, web integration, and enhanced multimedia capabilities, continuing questions about 'features' such as Product Activation, Microsoft .NET,  and product integration have kept debate raging over whether or not Microsoft is abusing its monopoly position--and where the customer's right to privacy begins, and the company's right to monitor the use of its product, stops. 

The goal of this article is to provide an overview of WindowsXP and the functionality of its controversial feature sets, with the goal of helping you, the end user, make an informed decision on whether or not this OS is one you'll want to be running--in any form.


The Test Bed

Notes:  This article is written on WindowsXP Professional, RC2, build 2526.  The Duron 750, although not the fastest chip available, represents a 'solid' mid-range configuration and is likely indicative of what the average computer user that would be interested in upgrading to XP would be using.  

CPU   AMD Duron 750
Motherboard   IWILL KK266, using Onboard Sound
RAM   256 meg Crucial PC133
Video Card   3dfx Voodoo5 5500
Hard Drive   Maxtor 30 gig 7200 RPM


Installation, Product Activation, and Configuration

Installation went smoothly, with no errors or problems.  It isn't fast, though--the entire process took a little over an hour.  After auto-detecting all of my components, WindowsXP automatically configured my network settings and NIC card, then asked for permission to activate itself.  Product Activation is done by transmission of the CD-Key combined with hardware information unique to my computer.  Based on this information, Microsoft then generates a forty-four digit key that is used to fully enable WindowsXP.   

The process itself was painless.  Once I gave XP permission, it activated itself in under five seconds, then asked me if I wished to Register.  Product Activation itself can be done without registering or giving Microsoft any personal information.  I declined Registration, and was dropped to the desktop. 

WindowsXP definitely has superior hardware detection and driver support than any other OS Microsoft has released.  My entire system was properly configured, save for my onboard C-Media sound card.  A simple install of the Win2K C-Media drivers fixed this problem, without requiring a reboot. 

Similarly, when I swapped video cards, XP detected the new card upon boot-up, installed its drivers, and reset my former display and color depth settings, then dropped me to desktop without requiring a reboot or even asking me to hit 'Next.'  The process was fully automatic--a nice change for anyone used to the usual 'two-to-three' reboots required to clear drivers from a system, swap a video card, and load new drivers. 


Driver Functionality

Its one thing for an OS to install drivers upon boot-up--its another for those drivers to function well.  This is particularly true of VIA motherboards, who historically have had problems running Windows without repeated 4-in-1 driver upgrades.  I was pleasantly suprised, however, to note that WindowsXP seems to have none of the performance issues on VIA chipsets that other versions of Windows have had. 

My one exception to this was drivers for my Voodoo5.  Although Microsoft included drivers for both the GeForce and the Voodoo4/5, only the GeForce cards have their Advanced Properties installed--in order to gain access to 3dfx Tools, I was forced to install the Win2K drivers as well. 


3dfx and WindowsXP

Unfortunately, WindowsXP incorporates NO support for Glide or OpenGL when using a 3dfx card.  Voodoo2 and Voodoo3 are not supported at all, while Voodoo4 and Voodoo5 are only supported in D3D.  Even after several hours of fiddling, I've been unable to load a single Glide or OpenGL game, while every D3D game or benchmark has run perfectly.  Owners of 3dfx cards beware--unless you plan not to use your Glide/OpenGL capabilities, or Microsoft changes its policy, WindowsXP is not for you. 


Stability, Performance, and Ease-of-Use

WindowsXP, in RC2, already feels more stable than WindowsME--by a LONG shot.  The gaming benchmarks I've run all work perfectly, with no compatibility issues--I tested 3DMark 2000, Red Faction, and the D3D mode of Diablo II--all ran perfectly .  I've also had no trouble running office applications or Photoshop / Paintshop editing programs. 

I did have one very interesting occurence with EasyCD Creator 4.0.  When I loaded EasyCD Creator 4 on the system, WindowsXP refused to activate it or allow the product to function--citing that it had known issues with this version of Windows and would not be allowed to start.

On the one hand, this is quite a nice feature--massive software incompatibilities are thankfully rare, but having an intelligent OS that detects when an incompatible version of a piece of software has been installed and prevents it from crashing the machine is quite nice.  On the other hand, its a feature that could conceivably be used to block competitor's products from even running. 

The new GUI is clearly designed for novice computer users, with an emphasis on larger icons, 'friendlier' looking menus and buttons, and bright colors used to convey a more simplistic design.  For power users, however, the 'classic' Windows Start menu and Folder options can be re-enabled in just a click. 


The Bad

WindowsXP isn't without its issues, however--and while these do not affect day-to-day use of the operating system, they are likely to be concerns for a number of people. 

First off, we have Product Activation.  While the version in RC2 is simple and painless to use, the final shipping version of XP will have considerably more draconian security measures--the RC2 disks allow for multiple installs on different machines, something Microsoft has sworn won't be possible once the full version ships. 

Although MS has made allowances for customers who upgrade hardware, (you will be allowed to switch a certain number of devices out over a certain amount of time), change too much about the machine's configuration, and you'll be on the phone with Microsoft to reactivate your OS.   


Music Licensing (More Bad)

Because the latest Media Player version that ships with WindowsXP has a great deal of new licensing features, its important to cover them in this overview.  By default, Windows Media Player is enabled to create licenses for any music you create, and to download licenses for music you acquire over the net.  What this means, essentially, is that when you copy a CD-track to your machine, a license will be created for that song.  You may only play the song so long as the license is present and active on your system. 

If you should lose your licenses, or have to reinstall your OS, they must also be reinstalled.  Licenses for a given song or program only allow up to FOUR copies to be issued--and reactivating a license involves sending information to Microsoft that personally identifies your computer for "internal tracking purposes" according to Microsoft's help file.

In a sense, this is worse than Product Activation.  In this case, MS is explicitly monitoring the use of digital content on your system and limiting your access to it.  The accidental loss of a license can be recovered from, but at the cost of transmitting personal information to Microsoft, and asking them to reactivate your music. 

Now, at present, many of these features, such as automatic licensing for CD audio YOU create can be turned off--but all of them are enabled by default.  The Media Player automatically assigns and creates licenses for music you create or copy using it, without asking you or telling you its doing so.


Microsoft's Deployment of Dot-Net (.Net) (Even More Bad) 

.NET is Microsoft's next move towards their goal of becoming a subscription based content provider, rather than a traditional marketer of software.  As soon as WindowsXP is installed, a MSN Messenger Box appears, offering the customer a chance to sign up for Passport.  According to the .Net Passport Wizard, Passport allows you too::

This feature would simply be annoying...if it could be shut off.  Unfortunately, it can't be.  Although I have repeatedly deactivated the Windows Messenger program and removed it from the Start Menu, it immediately activates and replaces itself any time you log into a Microsoft service, such as Hotmail--even with the 'Keep me Logged Into This Service' box unchecked.  Windows Messenger (suprise, suprise) also requires a Microsoft Passport, which--you guessed it--is needed to enable .Net services and content.  While its never made quite clear what .Net services and content ARE, from the way Microsoft uses the phrase, its clear they obviously want the buyer to think its a good thing. Its obvious that Microsoft is attempting to slip the phrase ".Net services" into the public's collective unconsciousness without anyone realizing it.  MS wants people using Passport, using Messenger, and using the amorphous '.Net services and content' without even realizing what they are. 

This is actually similar to the confusion among many new Internet users who choose AOL as a service provider--never realizing that AOL, in fact, is more than just an Internet Service Provider--but is also an Internet Content Provider.  A person surfing on AOL's service is not truly accessing the Web, but is accessing a large variety of content AOL has made accessible. 

.Net seems to be built on an expansion of this strategy.  By integrating a huge variety of features into this idea, Microsoft is pushing ahead with its goal of making the transition from desktop to Internet a seamless experience.


Pushing out The Competition

 It's no wonder that MS didn't want AOL icons on XP.  With its Instant Messenging software and fledgling .Net services, MS is taking direct aim at AOL's main market.  With Hotmail and Windows Messenger, Microsoft attempts to set the new XP user up with Internet email and Instant Messenging within seconds of installing the OS for the first time--locking them in as a .Net subscriber literally as soon as the box is turned on. 

Microsoft may have seemed to bow to pressure to include MP3 ripping ability by creating an add-on package that will enable it (for a price) but in the end, it looks like more of the same tactics from the Redmond company.  If you click on the 'MP3 Information' link inside the Media Player browser, you are taken to a page that shows the upcoming abilities of the MPXP (Media Player for Windows XP) package vs. RealJukeBox, MusicMatch Jukebox, and Apple iTunes.  Not suprisingly, MPXP comes out on top--as does WMA. 


The Future is... Microsoft?

It's not too hard to see where this is going--or where Microsoft wants it to go.  What MS obviously wants--and is pushing towards--is all of us running Windows boxes, using Windows IM, with .Net-provided email, and simple, Passport controlled web-surfing, while we listen to our digital library of music using Windows Media Player, playing Windows Media Audio files.  Meanwhile, thanks to advanced licensing technology, Microsoft can monitor your digital library and ensure nothing against their best interests (however loosely those happen to be defined) is happening.


Is XP Worth it? 

Technologically, XP is honestly an excellent product.  It's a stable, fast, and powerful operating system that maintains backward compatibility with legacy software from the Win9xx era.  The GUI is easier for novice users to operate, the OS is more customizable in its look and feel, and the lack of reboots needed for new drivers is a very nice touch.  From a technical standpoint, I've been extremely impressed by Microsoft's latest offering.

XP also raises some very serious questions, however, in its handling of personal information, its limited-install capability (and even more limited-backup capability) its willingness to send personal and unique information to Microsoft to monitor a consumer's use of MP3s, and its attempts to shove competitive products off the desktop.

Our goal in this article was not to present any final judgment on Microsoft's business strategy or future products, but to make you aware of the current situation and hopefully shed some light on some of WindowsXP's less-understood features.  Whether consumers are troubled by a feature or not, they deserve the right to accurate information--which is what we strive to provide.


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