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Feature Article
Living With Windows XP

March 1, 2002
By Scott Lewis

I installed Windows XP when I moved into my new house at the end of December. It seemed like a good time to make the switch. The computer had been turned off for over a month, and all the critical programs we use were on our laptop. 

What I would like to do is tell you what it was like to live with Windows XP. Every review I have read about Windows XP has always talked about its features and problems that are obvious when you first try them. This is typical of a reviewer's job. He will have a checklist of items to test and report on them. But I think this misses some critical points about USING an operating system in a normal daily manner.

Windows XP is a fine operating system. It has proven to be more stable for me than Windows 98 was on the same machine. But there are many quirks that need to be considered before making the switch. I will go over those here, and hope to provide you with a little more than a standard review that should help you decide if you really want to upgrade to Windows XP yourself. (Note: I said upgrade. This report is based on upgrading a computer. If you get a new computer you will have little choice in the OS installed.)

Installing Windows XP

Installing Windows XP proved to be a bit of a challenge for me, but this is probably my own fault. I was having trouble with my network card. A problem I assumed was driver related. I was unable to install Win XP from a DOS prompt booting from a floppy. This is my normal procedure... to boot from a floppy, reformat the C drive and install. However, I did a couple of things wrong and it is possible that this might have worked if I had more time. But that is probably more time than most would have. So let's say installing Windows XP will be a unique experience for everyone.

In the end I installed Windows 98, got my network card working and connected to the Internet and installed Windows XP as an upgrade, overwriting the Windows 98 installation. I was informed by the Upgrade Advisor that the only software on the machine incompatible with Windows XP was Easy CD Creator (I only installed the minimum software I needed at this point under Win 98). I uninstalled this prior to the Windows XP installation, just to be safe.

The upgrade went flawlessly. This is why I think I could have done a clean install given a little more time to sort out my network card problems. (I performed the first install on the idea XP might solve the problem, but the problem was not with the OS & drivers, rather it was with my cable modem.)

Stability

You all want to know how stable Windows XP is. In my usage it has been very stable. I have installed a fair amount of software. However, I have not installed a ton of software for testing. I only installed the software I need to be productive as well as a few games. I plan to build a new computer in the near future and didn't want to load this machine down with a ton of software since it will just be going to my kids. In the end I only had to reboot the computer one time in the 5 - 6 weeks I used Windows XP, unless of course installing software or drivers asked me to reboot.

Windows XP is not without its faults in stability. I installed Plus! for Windows XP. This is the first (and currently only) piece of software I have that is exclusively written for Win XP. The screen saver in Plus! crashed my machine to hardware reset. It only happened once, but you would think Microsoft would have spent some extra care in making this product super stable. It is times like this I wish I had a utility that could tell me how long the system has been up... similar to the UNIX command uptime.

Windows XP has been VERY stable for me. However, you should realize that with the proper care, I was running Windows 98 pretty stable. I leave my computer on all the time. I share many folders on its D drive for my laptop. I was doing this with Windows 98 and it was necessary to have stability. I have gone many days without a reboot under Windows 98. However this has been possible because I reformat the drive once a year or so to get Win 98 running smoothly. Only time will tell if Windows XP is more immune from Windowsitis.

Digital Images

One of the key selling points of Windows XP is it ability to work very easily with multi-media. Music, digital pictures & movies, etc. I don't do movie editing so I cannot report on that. However, I am an avid digital photographer. I have taken over 2000 pictures with my Kodak DC280 camera to date. I don't know how many of those pictures are still around, but I do have many pictures on my hard drive. I was very curious how XP would work with my digital camera.

Overall I was disappointed in the way Windows XP worked with my digital camera. For a total newbie the hand holding that XP does with its wizard will be welcome, but even after a little time I think a novice would grow to hate XP's wizard. The primary problem with Windows XP is that it thinks it knows what you want to do better than you could. The wizard starts up when you attach your camera (turned on and in "connect" mode). The wizard takes you through a couple of steps to help you preview and copy pictures from your camera. If you take a lot of pictures like me, maybe you put your pictures into a single directory on your computer so you can sort them later. I do this because I could have pictures from many events that I would not leave in one place. I keep a sub-directory called "Working" where I initially put all my pictures.

I fully intending to let XP do its thing, and was willing to adjust my behavior to it. I told XP I wanted to put my pictures in a folder called Working. Win XP put my pictures in the directory C:\Documents and Settings\Scott & Laura\My Pictures\Working. (The Scott & Laura is the ID my wife and I use on XP.) But here's where things went wrong. Instead of using the numbering system in the camera (pictures are named DCP_XXXX.jpg, where XXXX is a four digit number from 0001 to currently over 2000) it just started from 1, and named all the pictures Working001 through WorkingXXX. Good bye to the 4 digit numbering. The bigger problem comes when I move the pictures into other directories. XP doesn't know where it left off. The next time I put pictures into the Working folder there is the potential for overlap, and re-using filenames.

This will become a nightmare to keep organized. I rarely change the names of the files in my picture collection since I do a very good job keeping them in folders. With Win XP's wizard I will be forced to rename files after they are copied among various sub-directories.

However, there is one glimmer of light in this digital tunnel. If I use Explorer to copy pictures from the camera it uses the 4 digit number, and I have no trouble. In fact it is a little easier than under Windows 98. With Win XP the camera is listed with all the drives and such on the left. Simply clicking on the camera shows the pictures stored. Under Win 98 I had to drill down three levels to where the pictures were under the camera icon. Explorer in Windows XP will make it much easier for me to teach my wife to use the camera and the computer. This functionality is similar to the way my camera works with my laptop running Windows ME, so it is not unique to Windows XP.

More Digital Picture Issues

So... I do not use the wizards in Win XP for pictures, but it has been easier to get pictures from my camera than Win 98. But there is more to digital pictures than just getting them from the camera to the computer.

Windows XP does not MOVE pictures from the camera. When I used Explorer to MOVE the pictures, instead of copy, Windows XP copied the pictures and left them on the camera. So it still takes two steps to get pictures from the camera. First copy the pictures then delete them.

While I was trying to use the wizard, I noticed that Win XP would beep when I attached my camera, but sometimes that's all it would do. One time it beeped then told be that it could not find my digital camera. That was funny since the beep and the message were cause by attaching the camera. Other times Win XP would beep and then do nothing.

Another nuisance with Windows XP is with the Save As dialog box. When it opens and it is showing a directory with pictures in it it defaults to thumbnail view. It even defaults to thumbnail view if it opens on a directory full of sub-directories, if those sub-directories have pictures in them. This is very annoying when saving pictures. I don't need to see what is already saved when I save a picture. I wish I could get it to default to the List View.

One thing that was much improved over Windows 98 was when I selected a bunch of pictures from the camera (as I always do) and copied them to a directory. The status showed how long it would take for all the pictures to copy. This is the way Windows 98 works with regular files, but it insisted on showing the status of one picture at a time when dealing with my digital camera. A big plus here for Windows XP.

Games

I bought Plus! for Windows XP. I was taken by the reviews as much as anything. The reviews said it was best if all you wanted was some nice games, themes and screen savers. I did. I was disappointed in it. The Fish screen savers was amazing. But it only had three fish. If you wanted more you had to buy an upgrade for 20 bucks. So you get the same rock and plant arrangement with only three fish. The same can be said of the Bowling game. I was expecting a game that enables you to set up the bowler with the power of the throw, the starting position in the lane, the type of curve and how much spin on the ball. Nope. You continually work the mouse forward to maintain ball speed, and you can adjust its direction continually down the lane... except for the last few feet. You also only get two lanes (Classic and Roman). You have to (can you guess) buy extra lanes. The Roman lane is not straight, but has curves and such that require you to make "course corrections" as the ball goes down the lane. This is not bowling. I was disappointed. The Labyrinth game was similar, you had a to buy extra "boards."

Overall I feel like I was ripped off. The games are not that good in Plus!, and it is mostly a tease to get you to buy more... what did I pay $40 for. I don't feel as bad when I remember I bought Plus! with a gift certificate.

I tried to get Return to Castle Wolfenstien working. This was a present I received in December and was waiting until I was in the house before trying to play it. It installed without trouble, but that is where the trouble began. I don't expect Microsoft to take blame for this game's problems. I went back and forth with Activition's Tech Support through a number of e-mails. There FAQ told be to download the default CFG file. I did this and I got further in the launching of the game, but it froze just before actual game play would start. Activition had me download and install newer video drivers. Then run DirectX diagnostics sending them the results. The they had be download sound drivers. Then I had to run the diagnostics again and send them the info. Then they wanted my to do "a little housekeeping." Little was to uninstall Wolfenstein, perform a full scan disk on my drive, defragment the drive, and finally reinstall Windows. Huh? Little?

I didn't like this because I reformatted the drive before installing Win 98/Win XP and Wolfenstein. But I did the steps anyway. The Windows XP choked on the install. It didn't offer to "re-install." In fact it looked like it was the exact same install it did when I "upgraded" from Windows 98... where it would wipe out the existing version of Windows. I let it... and the install died. Rebooting the computer would give a menu to continue the install or go back to the installed Win XP (the default option was to boot to the install). Continuing the install told be that it had trouble reading from the CD. Booting to Windows XP as it was still on the hard drive gave me a bad video setup. Apparently enough was done that it had no idea about my video settings. When I right clicked on the desktop and clicked Properties I got a dialog box that would let me change the desktop theme... nothing more. No screen saver, no video settings, nothing. I even tried reinstalling the video drivers but Windows XP was hosed.

Music

I didn't get a lot done with Music. Overall with the brief time I was playing songs with Media Player I didn't like it. I found it much easier to stick with WinAmp for playing MP3 files and MusicMatch for burning music to audio CDs.

CD Burning

I didn't get the chance to burn a CD. I was getting ready to make a CD for my wife to listen to in the car with a collection of songs from different artists. I selected a couple of songs in Explorer and wanted to record them. It launched Media Player. Unfortunately the "Wolfenstein Crash" interrupted my chance to see if Media Player could burn a CD as well as MusicMatch did under Windows 98.

When I put a blank CD in the drive Win XP asked if I wanted to record to it. I said yes, and it launched an Explorer window showing the drive. Unfortunately, the Explorer window didn't show anything else. Why couldn't it launch Explorer "viewing" the CD drive and also showing all my other drives as well. This is poor usability to only half help someone. Since I had to launch another Explorer window anyway... were is the savings?

I didn't actually get around to burning a CD. I am disappointed, I was still hoping it would be a lot easier then Easy CD Creator.

Multiple Users

Windows XP is supposed to make sharing a computer easier. And it does. But maybe it is not exactly what you want. Remember, Windows XP thinks it is smarter than you. My biggest problem is with the My Documents and the Shared Documents folders in Windows XP. I found it just a little troublesome to switch between the My Documents and the Shared Documents folders when saving documents. It is easier with Office XP, but that is something I know from previous testing. I did not install Office XP (and probably never will) at home. Although not perfect switching between the folders was good enough. The problem started when I wanted to use my own shared directory. I had created long ago a Shared Documents directory (yes, the same name, but I came up with mine first) on the D drive of my computer. I point my laptop to it as its default My Documents directory. Since I want to keep all our files together I used Tweak UI (you need this if you are serious about using Win XP) to change the default My Documents directory to the shared directory I setup on my machine. Trouble is you can't have XP's My Documents and Shared Documents point to the same directory. In Office 2000 it is not as easy to choose between My Documents and Shared Documents as it is with Office XP... especially when there is a directory that has the name Shared Documents. So all I used was the My Documents feature pointing it at my own Shared Documents. I don't make use of the built-in Shared Documents in Win XP.

Under normal circumstances I think this feature would work great for several people sharing a single computer. But once you put people on a shared (or networked) environment it becomes more of a hindrance than a benefit. This needs work.

Miscellaneous

I liked that I was able to resize the open dialog box. It seems to remember this somewhat. I think it remembers this on an application by application basis. I did not get the chance to observe this for sure in the time I spent with Windows XP.

Grouping of "objects" or applications in the task bar is improved, but not perfect. I like that it does it. It just seems to use a strange logic that makes it hard to predict its behavior. Whenever an application has more than two "instances" in the task bar they are supposed to be combined into one object. That one object has the number of instances displayed, and clicking on it pops up all the instances so you can choose the one you want. However, what is not clear is when it doesn't do this. I found that it only grouped these objects when it felt it needed to. I had up to four instances of the same application in the task bar, but it only grouped them when enough other applications made the task bar crowded. This is reasonable, but I would prefer consistency over Windows XP thinking it is smarter than me. If you say you will do it with three or more, then do it with three or more.

The Start Button's Menu is very frustrating. It is too large, and every time I moved the mouse off of Start it brought up the All Programs menu. This made it difficult to use the rest of the oversized Start menu. I think a slightly larger version of the classic Start menu would be better.

Performance

I left Windows XP in its default mode for visual effects. This is a resource hog. Things move very slowly. Realize, I was running XP on a 450 MHz Celeron system with 128 MB of RAM. I got a bit of hard drive thrashing, but some of this may be because I set the swap file to 600 MB (for Return to Castle Wolfenstein, recommended in its own documentation). Overall the animation take time. I have noticed this on other machines in the 400-500 MHz range with Win 2K and its animated menus and such. Windows XP is the worst of the lot. If the animation in Windows 2000 or Windows Me bother you then you will hate it in Windows XP. It looks cool the first couple of times, but stop wasting precious computer time with glitz. I highly recommend turning down animations or turning them off completely.

Control Panel

I have reported this before... if you already know your way around Windows (98/NT/2000) you will be frustrated with Windows XP. This is especially true of using the Control Panel. I have tried to use it in its default configuration, but find it nearly impossible to find some settings. When troubleshooting Castle Wolfenstein I was forced to set the Control Panel to the Classic View. Even then there were a couple of settings that I could never locate. This might be a reasonable solution for a new computer user, but how many of them are there anymore?

PowerToys

I downloaded and installed the PowerToys for Windows XP. So far I mostly used the Tweak UI applet to help me configure Windows XP to my liking. If you are up to understanding what Tweak UI can do for you then it is indispensable. I could not run XP without it. It would be far to frustrating. Some of the other applets in PowerToys are probably useful, but mostly they go unnoticed. I think the enhanced Tab Switcher is neat, but unnecessary. It also is too slow in bringing up its mini screen of the task. I haven't noticed much else. Get the PowerToys for the Tweak UI applet... you won't regret it.

To Upgrade or Not To Upgrade... That Is The Question

Here's is where I am supposed to tell you whether you should or should not upgrade to Windows XP. That is a difficult thing for me to do. There are some valid reasons for upgrading. There are also some good reasons for NOT upgrading. Keep in mind that when my "re-install" failed I switched back to Windows 98. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Lets' start with performance. If you have a machine slower than 700-800 MHz DO NOT upgrade. Windows XP adds a lot of window dressing that just plain slows a computer down. Once I know that all the software my kids run is compatible with XP I plan on leaving it on for them. They won't care about the performance at their age, but the stability XP has over any previous home edition of Windows is a huge plus toward kids software. Adults, on the other hand, will find Windows XP too slow on anything but a very fast machine.

Stability is propably the best reason to upgrade. If you are running Windows NT 4.0 (SP6) or Windows 2000 (SP2) DO NOT UPGRADE. Either of those operating systems should be stable enough that you don't need Windows XP. The only reason for upgrading from NT/2000 is if you need game compatibility. Even then I suspect Win 2K should be multi-media friendly enough for most games.

If you are running Windows ME don't walk, run out and buy Windows XP. It is so much more stable than Windows ME that it is worth the price of admission. Even if you are running slower hardware. Windows XP is so stable compared to ME that the time you waste with the operating system will more than be made up for itself in stability. If you have slower hardware you can turn off Windows XP's video bells and wistles, and maybe set it to the Classic View. This will keep performance reasonable. You will be glad you did.

As for Windows 98/98 SE? That is a tough call. I find Win 98 more stable than 98 SE. Since I have a router/hub I don't need 98 SE's Internet Connection Sharing. If you have done like me and setup your Win 98 machine with just the software you really use and find it stable then you don't need Windows XP. Windows XP brings a few features to the table for usability and stability over Win 98. But I don't think the performance penalty is worth it unless you have at least a 1 GHz machine. However, if you are dealing with a lot of crashes, install and remove a lot of software, and generally push Win 98 to the point of rebooting once a day or more... then upgrade to Windows XP.

Conclusion

I hate to be the one to give Microsoft praise. They give themselves enough of that. But I have found Windows XP to be the most CRASH PROOF version of Windows that I have ever used. This disregards some of the security issues with Windows XP. I use a router/hub and its hardware firewall protection. This is not fool proof though. Running Windows XP with a high speed internet connection means you really need to keep up with security patches. I think XP will need quite a few of them over time. If you know enough to install patches when they are available, have FAST HARDWARE, and are thinking about Windows XP then you might as well take the plunge. You have nothing to lose except your privacy to Microsoft as part of its Activation scheme. (If you are hell bent on getting around the privacy issue just do a search on the Internet for the Corporate Files to Windows XP. These files replace files in Windows XP Professional with versions that big corporations get that don't require activation. Try this at your own risk!)

That's it. I switched back to Windows 98 mainly because I don't have the time to fiddle around getting things just right. I share a lot of my D drive with my laptop, and a couple of days before the "Wolfenstein Crash" my laptop broke and it went to the shop for 2-1/2 weeks. I need my main machine to be both reliable... and familiar to all in my family. Windows 98 was a lot easier to setup then XP, and it is good enough for the time being.

When I build my next machine I plan to test XP more, and run it in a multi-booting environment with Windows 2000 and Windows 98. That will make for an interesting article.

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