When I got back in Boston I finally got to play with many of the goodies I got for Christmas. One of those goodies was a copy of Windows XP Professional (non-upgrade), which I have been dying to play with for some time. When I originally heard about WinXP, I shrugged it off as yet another bloated version of Windows (and to some degree, it most certainly is) and I really had no plan to let it replace Win2k on my Windows partition. But then my father had to go ahead and purchase a license for himself, and after going home for Thanksgiving, I found myself strangely excited about the new OS. Of course, we aren’t talking nipple-hardening excitement, but possibly “making my forced time in Windows suck much less”.
But those few days of playing with XP didn’t give me a real feel for the system, so I mentioned to my parents that a copy of XP Pro would make a dandy Christmas gift. :) Well, Santa came thru, and here I am running WinXP on my machine, and you know what? I really like it.
Let’s start with the basics; The reasons Microsoft has stirred up so much animosity in the past few months:
- Windows Activation – Despite all the nonsense FUD generated by people in the geek press, I totally support Microsoft’s copy protection scheme. True, it means that for the first time since owning a machine I had to purchase a valid license for Windows, but then again, it is also the first version of Windows that is remotely worthy of my money. Windows Activation seemed really anonymous, and was done without having to enter any personal information at all. One thing to keep in mind is that Windows Activation is completely separate from Registering your copy of WinXP. Sure, the Windows Activation doohickey asks you if you want to register at the time of Activation, but it was very clear how to activate without registration (which is what I did). This all occured in seconds, and I really haven’t thought about it much since.
- Microsoft Passport – I hate the idea of passport, but WinXP doesn’t force you to create one at all. While WinXP does start MSN Messenger as part of the default startup, and MSN Messenger does bug you to set up a Passport, once you disable MSN Messenger (as any right-thinking geek should) you aren’t pestered any longer. There are even tweaks out there to allow you to Uninstall Messenger. The only other place I have seen a mention of Passport has been in the Error Log Tracking section where you can log in with a passport to receive feedback on your submitted error logs, but again, the option to remain Anonymous is very clear. Passport is evil, but it doesn’t render XP evil by association.
Enough of that, here is a list (INPO) of what I think is cool about WinXP:
- Cleartype – This is by far the best improvement to Windows out of the bunch, giving Windows something it has been in desparate need for for some time: Anti-Aliased Fonts. Cleartype looks great on a CRT, but it really shines on an LCD panel. Hard to fully describe this, you kinda just have to see it. One of the nice things about Cleartype is that by visiting this page (using IE) you can tweak how Cleartype renders the text to your liking.
- Luna – Some people absolutely hate it, some people absolutely love it, and I am definately in the latter category. While I can’t stand all the animated doohickeys flying around the new UI introduced in XP, I really like the overall look and feel of it. After some tweaking (and disabling lots of animated shit) though, I was able to come up with something I feel is an improvement over the UI we have been dealing with since Win95. I have always been a vocal proponent that the Win95 UI was something special, so my love for Luna is surprising. Here is a screenshot of my desktop, and from that you can see that I am using the “Silver” color scheme and have also made the titlebars of windows significantly smaller than their default (they simply look better this way). In addition, that image shows you the new incarnation of the start menu. As you can see, it was easy for me to replace the IE/Outlook items with Mozilla (top left column), MS even provided a UI for changing them. Below them is the most recent apps I have used, and the right-hand column is pretty self explanatory. Both the Overall UI and the Start Menu can be reverted to the old-school, but I really like the new-school.
- Crash Detection – Much like the Talkback technology used in Mozilla and Netscape, Microsoft has included a Crash Detection system with XP that allows the user to send the crash log back to MS for analysis (and as I said earlier, if they supply a Passport, they can even get responses). I think this is a good idea, but the only time I see it is when my video card’s (TNT2 Ultra) driver flakes out on boot. Overall the stability of XP is fantastic, so I really haven’t seen much trouble. One annoying thing that this feature does introduce is that by default it is configured to capture all crashes, so when an application like Mozilla crashes, you see both the Talkback window appear and also MS’s crash handler…. I reconfigured it so it only intercepts Windows crashes and all is well…
- Boot Time – Windows XP boots really freaking fast. BeOS fast? No. But fast. From “end of BIOS” to having a mouse pointer on the screen takes about 15 seconds, and a login window is only a few seconds past that. If you only have one user (and therefore no login screen) you can get to desktop in about 30 seconds (from “end of BIOS”, assuming you don’t start alot of crap on login like me). Shutdown is very fast as well, taking about 10 seconds on my machine (depending on just how many applications are left running when I shutdown the machine). I played around with some different tweak tools to speed up boot time even more, but this only shaved a second or two, which wasn’t even worth the price of admission….
- Fast User Switching/New Login UI – The new UI for selecting users and logging them in is definately geared towards home usage, and I kinda like it. While it is definately “tarted up”, it isn’t ugly, and it is definately more comfortable than the sterile Win2k login window (which can return at your request). Another nice new feature is the ability to “Switch Users”, which means leaving one user logged in (and leaving all their applications running) while another user logs in and does whatever. In fact, you can have many users logged in at any given time. I imagine this is very useful in homes with children: You’re logged in, you step away. When the screensaver comes on, switch back to the logon screen, leaving my stuff running. When little pubey comes around wanting to play Super Ultra Mega Street Fighter SX14 Pro, he just logs in as himself and doesn’t affect your stuff. A nice feature, but obviously sucks down the virtual memory. :)
- System Restore – System Restore allows you to create restore points in your system’s configuration and revert back to them in case of malady. In fact, Windows does this automatically (creating of the point) when you install a new driver/new hardware. This seems terribly useful given the sometimes notoriously bad drivers that are available from some hardware manufacturers.
- Windows Update – Windows Update received an overhaul which removed many of the gripes I previously had with it (like I don’t seem to find any of those silly updates that are mutually exclusive, not allowing you to install any other updates if you were installing that one).
- Virtual Desktops – Ok, so this isn’t exactly part of XP OOTB, but it is part of the XP Powertoys. Right click on the taskbar, select toolbars, and then “Desktop Manager” and you get 4 virtual desktops. With some configuration you can even get them to be “real” virtual desktops (so the taskbar only shows entries from the current desktop, not all of them). There is also a “desktop manager” screen that has some really cheezy animation (that I turned off right away) that allows you to see the contents of all 4 desktops. Definately a much needed addition, but still feels clunky compared to BeOS.. Also, it appears that the desktops all share a common screen depth/resolution, another one of BeOS’ shining features
- Remote Assistance – A VNC/PC Anywhere dealie integrated into the system so you can help mom fix her machine when she can’t find the “Any Key”. I haven’t used this too much, but it seems like a good addition.
That list isn’t comprehensive, but it hits the “Big Wins” in my eye. I look forward to being able to use XP when I “need to use Windows”. If you “need to use Windows”, definately give it a shot.