Clearly, Windows XP is the most important operating system release since Windows 95. And it's not just because this release includes the first major user interface (UI) change since then, though that's certainly one of the more obvious changes. No, Windows XP has been updated, tweaked, improved, and massaged from top to bottom, in order to create an OS that is equally useful for new users, typical home users, power users, and business desktops. Surprisingly, even its current beta form, Windows XP is a major success across the board, and it's an upgrade that's easy to recommend for almost any type of user, given some system requirement caveats (more on that later). Regardless of the Windows version you're using today, you're going to want Windows XP.

Before we proceed, I recommend reading through my extensive Showcase articles about this product, where I discuss a number of the key technologies that make this release special. In these Technology Showcases, I present behind-the-scenes looks at...

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Given all of the information in these showcases, this review will focus on the changes, improvements, and new features in Windows XP Home Edition and Professional Edition, discussing where these features succeed and fail. Note that this review was written based on over a month of hands-on experience with several pre-Beta 2 builds, and I verified this information against latest pre-Beta 2 build before publication. Not much changed between my first introduction to the "Luna" user interface on February 5th and the release of Beta 2 on March 23, 2001, but I will be looking closely at Beta 2 and post-Beta 2 builds in the coming weeks. I installed Windows XP numerous times on several different machines, each with it's own unique add-ons and capabilities. I really gave this OS the complete run-through, and have been using it day-to-day for over six weeks at the time of this writing. I've taken it on cross-country trips, and threw every conceivable software package at it, including some ancient DOS games I haven't looked at in years.

Here's what I've found out about Windows XP Beta 2.

Installing Windows XP Beta 2
For the end user, there are three primary Windows XP Setup scenarios. In the most common, the user will receive Windows XP with a new PC and be required to complete a small portion of Setup, called the Out Of Box Experience (OOBE). The second most common Setup scenario is an existing Windows user that needs to upgrade to Windows XP; this version of Windows supports upgrades from Windows 98, 98 SE, Millennium Edition (Me), NT 4.0, and 2000. And finally, some users will choose to install Windows XP "clean," by wiping out an existing Windows install, or buying a new hard drive, and installing Windows XP manually.

The Windows XP Out Of Box Experience is painfully similar to that in Windows Me, with the same annoying Wizard character. Thankfully, it's also short, though it now incorporates the dreaded Windows Product Activation (WPA) process that we've all read so much about, if it determines that you're connected to the Internet. If you are not connected to the Net, you will need to activate Windows XP manually. And make no mistake, this is not an option: Windows XP must be activated within 30 days (14 days in Beta 2), or it will cease to function.

For upgraders, Microsoft is promising a relatively painless process, even for Windows 9x/Me users. In fact, the company has done a number of things to ensure that upgrades are as successful as possible: If you upgrade a Windows 9x machine to Windows XP, Setup automatically backs up the previous OS in case anything goes wrong, and this step is not optional (barring some Setup.exe command line switches that will be documented in the Resource Kit): Microsoft doesn't want any users to be left high and dry because they chose poorly during an upgrade. Interestingly, Windows NT 4.0 and 2000 users do not get this benefit; Microsoft says that this is because NT, 2000, and XP are architecturally very similar and upgrades should just work. One other interesting side note: You might be curious about how Microsoft handles an upgrade from 9x, a DOS-based, 16/32-bit OS, to the NT-based Windows XP. The answer is, they don't. Instead, Setup takes a note of your system configuration and then clean-installs XP, applying all of the appropriate Registry changes. The process is surprisingly successful: Some apps will need to be reinstalled, but most will just work. I'll cover the Windows XP upgrade more in a future Technology Showcase.

The process of clean installing Windows XP is very similar to clean installing Windows 2000, though it utilizes a more attractive Setup routine and incorporates some new features and fixes. When performing a clean install, say from a bootable CD-ROM, you can now access the system's Automated System Recovery (ASR, more on this later) features immediately by pressing F5, which is an improvement over Windows 2000, where the recovery and repair tools aren't made available until after the lengthy file copy phase. Then, when the graphical portion of Setup begins (and this is true for upgrades as well), a new feature called Dynamic Update kicks in. Dynamic Update allows you to optionally update Windows XP Setup with the latest driver updates, and setup and security fixes that are specific to your system. This keeps Windows XP Setup up-to-date, even years after the product ships, solving the shrink-wrapped box problem where software is often out-of-date the second it ships to stores.

In the enterprise, most Windows installs are automated. Like Windows 2000, Windows XP supports a variety of automated installation types, though the choices are more fleshed out in this release. I'll be covering most of these issues in my review of Whistler Server Beta 2 (coming soon!), but a few new features are worth covering here. For PC makers, it is now possible to add customer information to the unattend.txt file so that the user gets a personalized system out of the box. PC makers can also customize Help and Support, the Windows XP help system, as they could with Windows Me. Also, administrators can download the updates that are available to Dynamic Updates and make them available in their install shares so that automated installs are also always up-to-date. I'll be looking more closely at unattended installations of Windows XP in a future Technology Showcase.

Regardless, Windows XP is easier to set up than any previous version of Windows. It's still a long process--almost exactly an hour for a clean install, regardless of what kind of hardware you've got--but the interactive stuff is all up front, and you can literally walk away after you've set up the networking features, and just let it do its thing.

User Interface Improvements
The first thing that's obvious about Windows XP is that the user interface has changed dramatically (Figure), at least in the Home and Professional editions (the new UI can be enabled in Server editions as well). This UI takes three general forms: A new Welcome Screen that replaces the old Logon to Windows dialog; a new-look Explorer, and a new Start Menu. What's really odd about the changes is that you can totally mix and max: If you want to use the old Explorer look and feel with the new Start menu, you can. The reverse is also true. And if you want to go back to the old Logon dialog, go for it. In this section, I'll take a look at some of the major UI changes.

First up is the Welcome Screen (Figure), which resembles a PowerPoint slide more than a way to logon to your system. First publicly revealed at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this past January, the Welcome Screen is a friendlier, more visual way to handle multiple users. It provides a list of the users that are currently set up on the system, along with their associated image file, so you can visually choose one, rather than type in a user name. For obvious reasons, this Welcome Screen is not available in Server editions and is not available when you logon to a domain from Professional. You can turn off the Welcome Screen from new User Accounts applet in Control Panel, if desired. But one of the coolest reasons to own Windows XP is it's new Fast User Switching feature (covered later in this review), which is integrated into the Welcome Screen, and I've grown quite attached to this feature.

When you do logon to Windows (Figure), you're presented with a much cleaner, uncluttered desktop (Figure). It seems that each release of Windows since Windows 95 has been designed to undo the visual mess of that release, and Windows XP takes this to the obvious extreme: By default (in Home and Professional), only the Recycle Bin icon appears on the desktop (along with a few help files and readme-style notes). Oddly, this behavior is actually tied to which Start menu you choose (the "new" Start menu, or the "classic" Start menu), but you are able to re-add the old desktop standbys (My Computer, My Documents, and the like) from Display Properties if you'd like. But Microsoft doesn't stop there: If the system detects that you haven't used a desktop shortcut after a few days, the Desktop Cleanup Wizard will appear, notify you of the offense, and then place them in an "Unused desktop shortcuts" folder. I think this is a bit much, personally, as I place items on the desktop for a reason. I suspect many users will feel the same way.

The new Start Menu (previously called a "Start Panel") replaces the cascading Start Menu of old with a more functional version that supplies most of what the average user would need, all on a single window (Figure). You can personalize this menu as you see fit--so, for example, you might want to add a list of the most recently accessed documents, or make the My Documents item a cascading menu instead of a link (Figure). The new Start Menu is a huge improvement over the old version, and I never want to go back.

Visually, the big change is the new "Whistler" user interface, which is implemented through a feature called Visual Styles. This allows the OS (task bar, Start Menu, Control Panel, windows, Web views, and UI widgets like buttons, scrollbars, and toolbars) to take on a new look and feel, by changing from one style to another. Most impressively, applications can take advantage of these new styles as well, if they're written to the latest versions of Microsoft's component library and Theme library (IE 6 does this, for example). Visual Styles shouldn't be confused with "Themes," which were Microsoft only supplies two basic visual styles in Windows XP, "Whistler" (which is the new default in Home and Professional), and "Classic," which looks much like Windows 2000. The Whistler style features lots of blues and greens, and is stunningly different from earlier versions of Windows. It's also most at home in high-color, high-resolution environments: I recommend sticking to Classic if you can't swing 1024x768 or higher.

Visual Styles are controlled through the Display Properties dialog (Figure), which has been enhanced in a number of ways. Confusingly, you'll also want to visit System Properties to get the best looking results: In there, you'll find "Performance" options on the Advanced pane that provide much-needed visual effects, such as per-folder watermarks, icon text transparencies, and drop shadow effects (Figure). Why this stuff isn't in Display Properties is beyond me. One thing that is (buried) in Display Properties, however, is the ability to turn on ClearType support (Figure). ClearType effectively triples the horizontal display resolution on LCD displays (laptop screens and flat-panel monitors) only and it makes a huge difference if you're using such a display: I strongly recommend using ClearType on an LCD display.

Aside from visual improvements, Windows Explorer has been upgraded in many useful ways. In Windows 2000, WebView was an annoyance, something I usually turned off immediately. In Windows XP, however, it is a near requirement, and I strongly urge you to leave this feature turned on for as long as you can stand it: Microsoft exposes a lot of functionality through this WebView, and it's really the crowning achievement of the entire UI. For example, "My Pictures" and "My Music" have now been elevated to the same prominence as My Documents in the shell hierarchy, in light of the fact that many users want to work with digital images and music. Folders that contain these types of documents automatically expose functionality based on their contents. So My Pictures, for example, will have a WebView pane that is applicable to images, with options for viewing images as a slide show, ordering prints from the Internet, and printing images (Figure). The My Music folder, likewise, lets you quickly order music online and play all of the music contained in the folder, using its integration with Windows Media Player 8.

But this shell behavior goes much further than that. Each folder can be customized with a custom image icon, or music and image folders can be auto-decorated with thumbnails of the album art or images they contain (Figure). And the WebView intelligently lists other places you might want to go in the shell, based on your current location. For example, when you open My Computer, the "Other Places" section in WebView lists My Network Places, My Documents, Shared Documents, and Control Panel. What you need is almost always there, waiting for a mouse-click.

In the Windows 98 Plus! Pack, Microsoft first introduced Compressed Folders, a feature that makes ZIP archives behave somewhat like normal folders. This feature is carried over into Windows XP, with a twist: When you choose "Extract All..." from a compressed folder's properties menu, a new Extraction Wizard starts, walking you through the process of extracting the archive. It's a small thing, sure, but its inclusion means that I can forego the installation of a third party archiving utility such as WinZIP; this has been a constant theme during my exploration of Windows XP, actually: Since turning to this OS day-to-day, I've given up a number of third party apps.

As mentioned in previous reviews of Whistler builds, the new Control Panel sports a "Category view" by default in Pro and Home editions (Figure). (Server retains the so-called "Classic view.") Most of the categories in Control Panel reveal a group of tasks ("Change the computer's theme," "Change the desktop background," etc.), along with "See also" items ("Fonts", "Mouse Pointers") in the WebView pane, and old-style Control Panel icons ("Taskbar and Start menu," "Folder Options"). Most of the actual applets in there are familiar, though User Accounts is new to this release (more on this later), as is Game Controllers applet, which supports controller customization and troubleshooting features. The "Up" toolbar option is currently broken, so that it jumps you back out of the Control Panel, instead of up one level as it should: Microsoft says they will fix this before the final release.

The file associations option in Folder Options/File Types has been improved somewhat to support multiple file associations. For example, you might want to be able to open JPEG graphics with Image Preview, Paint, Adobe PhotoShop, and Microsoft PhotoDraw: This is now possible, and easy, through the UI (actually, it's even easier to do directly from Explorer: Simply right-click the document you'd like to open, choose Open With, and then select the program you want to use; each time you add an application, that app will be added to the list of "Open With" choices automatically).

And finally, the desktop simplification theme mentioned earlier is carried over to the Taskbar Notification Area ("tray") and taskbar in Windows XP as well. Icons that appear in the tray are supposed to be used for notifications only (such as an icon indicating that a new email has arrived), but of course applications makers have filled the tray with icon after icon, reducing the available real estate in the taskbar. In Windows XP, unused tray icons are automatically hidden, which is nice. But what's amazing is that you can actually determine the hiding behavior on an icon-by-icon basis, which gives you amazing customization possibilities (Figure). In the taskbar, similar buttons are always grouped. This differs from previous versions of Windows, where each button in the taskbar was arranged in the order its corresponding application was opened. So if you opened My Computer, Microsoft Word, and then My Documents, their corresponding buttons would be arranged in that same order. But do so in Windows XP, and they will be arranged My Computer, My Documents and then Microsoft Word, because My Computer and My Documents are similar. If enough windows are opened onscreen, the taskbar will group similar windows into a single button (Figure), giving you a pop-menu of choices. And this behavior, of course, is also customizable. It's been done right.

Digital Media
Microsoft has been at the forefront of the digital media revolution for a few years now, with last year's releases of Windows Me and Windows Media Player 7 cementing the deal. In Windows XP, a new version of Windows Media debuts, and the digital media integration--only hinted at in Windows Me--reaches new heights.

First up is Windows Media Player (WMP8), which is designed to look like the Whistler visual style (Figure). Note that the Beta 2 release of Windows XP does not include this updated version of WMP8, but Microsoft sent along an advanced copy for the review, and I'll look at it briefly here, with a longer look coming in a future Technology Showcase. WMP8 builds on the all-in-one design from WMP7, but with numerous improvements. The left-hand taskbar is now collapsible (Figure), giving the full mode version of the player a wider range of possible sizes, so that you can shrink it down considerably without going into the reduced-functionality skin mode (Figure). And the window border in WMP8 is optional; you can set it up to hide the window border and menu automatically, or always hide it, if desired, giving the player a modern look.

The choices in the Windows Media Player 8 taskbar have been streamlined to be more obvious: "CD Audio" is now called "Copy from CD", and "Portable Devices" is now called "Copy to CD or Device." Copying audio from a CD ("ripping") now occurs at the full speed of your CD drive; this was limited to 2X rips in WMP7. And when you create an audio CD, you now have a better idea of how much free space is left when you're setting up a playlist; this is true for copying to devices (such as MP3 players like the Iomega HipZip) as well (Figure).

Overall, Windows Media Player 8 is a huge improvement over WMP7. But Microsoft has decided to bundle this player only with Windows XP: You will not be able to download a version of it for older copies of Windows. I think this is a huge mistake, and a misguided lure to get people to upgrade. Certainly, there is no technical reason for not supplying this excellent player to users of other versions of Windows.

As mentioned previously, media folders such as My Music and My Pictures have been elevated in status in Windows XP. My Pictures is the default save point for all image files, and it supplies functionality for viewing, sorting, deleting, printing, and sharing images, all without the need for third party software. Thanks to the shell improvements I was raving about earlier, you can now mouse-over an image file and see its resolution ("1024x768"), format ("Bitmap Image"), and size ("2.25 MB"), again without using any application. And a new slideshow feature lets you display the images in a folder as if they were a screensaver that supports transitions, subfolders, and even password protection.

For users with scanners or digital cameras, Windows XP is a Godsend. Windows Imaging Acquisition (WIA, a new standard that debuted in Windows Me)-compatible imaging devices integrate directly into the shell, so that any application that uses the common Open dialog box immediately gains access to image acquisition from one of these devices (this is not present in Server). In other words, you could open an image in Microsoft Paint directly from a digital camera, without first saving it to the hard drive (Figure). The new Scanner and Camera Wizard (also not in Server) improves on the version in Windows Me, with a number of exciting new features (Figure). You can browse a camera as if it were a hard drive, but the wizard lets you choose images to download, optionally delete them from the camera when done copying, automatically set up sub-folders in My Pictures based on time and date stamps, and the like.

For viewing and editing images, Microsoft supplies an enhanced Preview Applet (Figure), that's built right into the shell, and a new version of the venerable Paint program, which now supports WIA. Preview lets you view, rotate, zoom in an out, and print images, and you can annotate TIFF images (commonly used with facsimiles) with text.

Other shell improvements include integrated CD burning, which is a little obtuse, but logical enough once you get used to it. Here's how it works: You roam around your hard drive, selecting the files you'd like to save to CD-R or CD-RW. When you find the files you'd like to burn, select them and choose Send To and then Recordable CD from the right-click menu. You can do this as often as you'd like, until you've got a complete selection of files to burn. To check your progress, open up the CD drive in My Computer, and you'll see ghosted icons that represent each of the files you've selected. Then click "Burn CD" and you're good to go, assuming you've placed a blank CD in the drive. An easier way, perhaps, is to drag folders and files directly to the CD icon in My Computer; this has the same effect. Note that the CD burning feature is currently supported only in 32-bit versions of Windows XP. And on a slightly related note, DVD-RAM users can now format disks in FAT32 format, allowing these massively sized platters to be used like super floppies.

Digital video lovers are equally well served by Windows XP, though it should be noted that these features are not supported on Server. Windows XP improves the efficiency of data being transmitted between a digital video camera and the computer, making it a better choice for digital video editing than previous versions of Windows. And Windows XP includes Windows Movie Maker (WMM) 1.1, a small update to the basic video editing package that first shipped in Windows Me (Figure). WMM 1.1 allows you to capture analog and digital video, edit it and add simple transitions, and then output a final product in Windows Media format. You can also use WMM to create a slideshow of still images, which might have some use as well. Overall, however, WMM is a very basic package, unlikely to meet the needs of any but the simplest users.

When you put this all together, you've get a complete, end-to-end solution for just about any digital media need. I celebrated these features in Windows Me, and appreciate them even more this time around. Digital media integration, for many people, will be reason enough to upgrade to this OS.

Internet Integration
It just wouldn't be Windows if we didn't discuss integration with the Internet, and of course Windows XP includes all kinds of this functionality. From its Product Activation requirement to the AutoUpdate and Windows Update features, Windows XP is most at home with a pervasive Internet connection. But the most obvious face to the Internet in Windows is, of course, Internet Explorer. And Windows XP ships with the latest version.

Internet Explorer 6 (Figure) isn't dramatically different from its predecessor, IE 5.5. It incorporates the new user interface features, so it will sport the "Whistler" look and feel if you leave that on. This gives you a prettier application, but isn't particularly exciting, feature-wise. Under the hood, IE 6 has been improved with full support for Web standards such as Document Object Model (DOM) Level 1 and Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) 1. New privacy features allow Passport and other authentication dialogs to integrate with the Windows XP Credential Manager.

The big change, however, is a new Explorer Bar called the Personal Bar (Figure). Explorer Bars give you quick access to common Web-based functionality without needing to open a new browser window, and though this feature was first explored in IE 4.0, the IE 6 implementation seems to be based on the integrated functionality in MSN Explorer. By default, several Personal bars are available, including Search, News, Contacts, Weather, and Media, and you can add more. The Media Bar is particularly interesting: You can choose to use this integrated player when a Web site needs to launch a player, rather than use the full WMP8 player. The Contacts Bar integrates your Hotmail, MSN, MSN Messenger, and Outlook Express contacts into the browser, so that you can access them from the Web, all without open a second window. I'm not exactly the IM kind of guy, so I can't really vouch for the desirability of this feature. But my overall reaction to the Personal Bar in IE 6 is the same as it was when Explorer Bars first appeared: No thanks. I don't use the integrated Radio toolbar in IE and I don't expect to be using any of this stuff either.

IE 6 also features some interesting imaging functionality. A new Image Toolbar (off by default; see Tools/Options/Advanced) will appear whenever you mouse-over a non-advertisement image that's being displayed in IE (Figure). This toolbar sports four icons: Save, for saving the image to your hard drive; Print, for printing the current image locally; Send via Email, for emailing an image without first saving it locally; and Open My Pictures, to jump directly to that location (this is where a saved file would be placed). I'm a little amazed that Microsoft would make it so easy for people to grab images from the Web, but then it must have been a feature request. One feature that I find quite annoying is IE 6's Auto Image Resize, which automatically resizes a large graphic to fit within the current browser window (Figure). You can revert to the full-sized image by hovering over the lower right corner of the resized image and clicking the icon that appears, but it'd be better if this feature was off by default. The problem is that IE doesn't do a good job of dithering the resized image: I can't understand why this is the case: The version in Image Preview does a great job. Thankfully, you can turn off this feature from Internet Properties / Advanced; I recommend you do so.

There was some speculation earlier in the beta that Microsoft might replace IE with MSN Explorer as the default Web browser, if only in the Home Edition. This isn't happening, but MSN Explorer is indeed installed by default now. The version in Windows XP Beta 2 doesn't appear to offer any compelling new features.

And speaking of non-compelling, Outlook Express and Netmeeting carry over virtually unchanged, which is all the more jarring given the beautiful new visual refresh that IE 6 received. Outlook Express 6 (Figure) reportedly includes improved virus detection (not present in the Server editions), and NetMeeting 3.1 includes bridging improvements. Bah!

Beyond IE and related technologies, Windows XP does offer a number of other Internet features. The new Home Networking Wizard (not available in Server) makes it easy for individuals and small business users to share an Internet connection (dial-up or broadband) and automatically configure clients, without requiring any networking skills (networking geeks need not fear; you can, of course, set this up manually). Windows XP also includes a basic Internet Connection Firewall (ICF), which gives individuals at least some measure of protection against hacker intrusions.

For mobile users that bring a system home from work, a new feature in Windows XP makes it easy to configure a single network card with two network configurations. In Windows 2000, this would have required a manual change every time the system was brought online in a new environment, but Windows XP will auto-detect the environment and use the appropriate profile. This was one of the most eagerly sought-after features in Windows 2000, and it's nice to see Microsoft finally implementing it.

New deals with Ofoto and Kodak allow you to connect to these online photo printing services--through the Explorer shell, no less--and order prints of digital images stored on your hard drive (Figure). This is cool stuff, again because it obviates the need for yet another application. Microsoft is also including some basic MSN-based Web publishing features in the OS, so that you can use a Passport-enabled logon behind the scenes to access remote sites without manually typing in a username and password.

Overall, the Internet integration features in Windows XP are useful, and not as in-your-face as were the Channel Bars and Active Desktop in Windows 98/IE 4. Microsoft seems to have calmed down a bit regarding this type of functionality and we're finally seeing truly integrated functionality--like the cool Ofoto service--that makes sense, cutting down on the number of additional applications we need to master.

Networking
Aside from the obviously Internet-biased stuff, Windows XP includes a number of other networking-related improvements. Laptop users who discovered Offline Files in Windows 2000 will appreciate an improvement in Windows XP that optionally encrypts the files stored in the client-side cache. Offline Files Database Encryption will keep you data secure, whether it's against physical theft of the machine or another user.

In what's curiously been seen as a controversial move, Microsoft has removed a number of legacy protocols from Windows XP, including NetBEUI and Data Link Control (DLC). And the 64-bit version of Windows XP Professional will not include support for IPX/SPX and IrDA. Given the move to TCP/IP-based networks, and tools like the Home Networking Wizard that make working with TCP/IP all the easier, this isn't a huge loss.

For those moving to 11 Mb, 802.11b-based wireless networking, Microsoft is making things a bit more secure. Windows XP supports automatic key management, user authentication, and authorization for 802.11 networks. And the XP networking stack is smart enough to always use the fastest transport: If both 100 Mb Ethernet and 11 Mb wireless networks are connected, the Ethernet network will be used. You can also set up a Windows XP machine to work as a network bridge between two interconnected network segments. This way, you can have wireless, Ethernet, and HomePNA (phoneline-based) networks all connected to the same machine. For the end user, the benefit is that an Internet connection can be shared across various types of networks without any configuration.

There are a number of other, smaller improvements to networking as well. Windows XP's Wake On LAN capabilities have been improved so that XP machines are woken up correctly. Microsoft SharePoint, from Office XP, is being added to provide users with a way to easily create Web sites that support site navigation, team portal pages, and document library features. I wasn't able to find this feature in the Home or Professional versions of Windows XP, and you can only install it in Whistler Server through the Configure This Server tool. I?ll be looking into this more in future releases.

Working with Applications
There is only one reason that Windows 2000 didn't ship with a consumer edition, but it was a big one: Compatibility. Microsoft was unable to meet the strict hardware and software compatibility standards that consumers expect, so they held off for the next release. But now, in Windows XP, compatibility is Job 1: The goal is for the vast majority of users to experience no problems with any hardware or software.

Hardware compatibility has basically worked itself out without much work on Microsoft's part. With over a year on the market, Windows 2000 now has an ample and battle-tested driver library, and these drivers will work in XP. Software compatibility, however, is another story: Consumers run a more varied selection of applications that the typical business user, and that means games, DOS applications, and home-oriented applications. Microsoft had its work cut out for it, but amazingly, they've come through. Using a set of application compatibility technologies, Whistler is far more compatible with legacy applications than Windows 2000.

The biggest problem with older applications is that they incorrectly detect the operating system, and assume that because Windows XP is based on NT, it can't possibly run properly in that environment. A new technology called AppFixes automatically detects such applications, by comparing them to a massive database of such programs, and fools them into thinking that they're running on an older, more compatible version of Windows. The AppFixes database is updated via AutoUpdate and Dynamic Updates, but you can also use this technology to manually fool applications--like DOS games or home applications written for Windows 95--into installing and running correctly under Windows XP. To do so, simply create a shortcut to the application or its setup EXE, open it's property sheet (right-click, Properties) and select the OS you'd like to emulate (Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0, or

To make DOS applications--specifically, popular but historically touchy DOS games--more compatible, Microsoft has implemented SoundBlaster-compatible sound support and high-resolution VESA video support. I tested these features with such DOS games as Wolfenstein 3D (circa 1990) and Duke Nukem 3D: Both ran flawlessly, and in full screen. When I attempted to return to windowed mode (ALT+ENTER), however, the games froze and had to be restarted. Still, the fact that these ancient--but still fun--games would even run on an NT-based OS, let alone run well with full video and sound support, is still hard to believe. I had to play through the entire shareware version of Wolfenstein, purely for research purposes, to prove that it worked (Figure).

Speaking of frozen applications, Microsoft has also improved the way in which the system reacts when an application does crash. In Windows XP, you can now move, resize, minimize or close a stopped application so that you can continue working on other applications, and avoid losing data. When you press CTRL+ALT+DEL, the Task Manager appears now, unlike Windows 2000.

Overall, applications compatibility has been excellent in my tests. I've had some weird problems with Visual InterDev 6.0, and the "New programs installed" balloon help won't go away from its evil little spot over the "More Programs" location on the new Start Menu, but so far so good. I'll test more applications--especially older games--by the RTM release.

Users and Logons
One of the themes for Windows XP is "it just works," and one of the areas that got the simplicity treatment is the way the system handles multiple users. Windows NT has always handled multiple users with aplomb, but earlier versions of the OS based this feature on the ways in which businesses would implement it. In Windows XP, the focus has switched to the home, and Microsoft knows that families need to let different users have access to different personalizations, documents, and even security settings.

The Welcome screen is the point of entry for Windows XP's multiple user features. By default, when a system sits idle, it quietly returns to the Welcome screen so that another user can logon if needed. But unlike older versions of Windows, Windows XP allows multiple users to be logged on at the same time, using a new feature called Fast User Switching (this feature is not applicable to Server, and is not available in Pro if you logon to a Domain). Fast User Switching enables a user to leave applications running, walk away from the computer, and come back later with everything in place. But in the meantime, other users can sign on, and leave their own applications running. It's a great setup for a family with a single PC.

Fast user switching is available by default, and you enable it by choosing Log Off from the Start Menu, and then Switch User from the dialog that appears (Figure). This returns the system to the Welcome screen. Any users that are currently logged on will have new text below their logon name that describes the number of open applications and whether any email is waiting.

Another interesting per-user feature is the Files and Settings Transfer Wizard (not available in Server), which eases the process of moving documents, files, and state settings from one system to another. Similar to the Save My Settings Wizard in Office XP, the Files and Settings Transfer Wizard walks you through the process of archiving important data to a floppy or other removal storage device, a specific location on the hard drive, or a share on the home network. Then, the settings, documents, and files can be restored on a new system. This wizard lets you save items like accessibility settings, browser settings, display properties, mouse and keyboard settings, network printer and drives, Outlook Express, regional settings, sound and multimedia settings, and taskbar options; specific folders; and a wide range of specific file types (Word documents, text documents, etc.). And you can thoroughly customize exactly what it is that you'd like to save by adding new settings, folders, files, and file types. It's pretty comprehensive (Figure).

Getting Help
Microsoft has dramatically improved online help in Windows XP, with an update of the Help and Support application that debuted in Windows Me. The version in Windows XP is significantly enhanced, however, with powerful new features and, imagine this, searching functionality that actually works. Finally, in Windows XP, "Help" isn't the oxymoron it is in other versions of Windows.

The main Help and Support screen sports a list of help topics, a list of support tasks, and a new "Did you know?" section that's automatically updated with dynamic content (during the beta, however, this content is not live). Help and support includes a standard Index view for alphabetical navigation of help topics, Favorites functionality for saving frequently-accessed topics ala Internet Explorer, and even a History section that help find information you recently accessed.

Microsoft has integrated a number of tools into Help and Support as well, including the System Configuration Utility, Advanced System Information, and even Windows Update. And Help and Support is fully extensible so that PC makers and support organizations can add custom content. Due to these improvements, the help experience is far friendlier and accessible in Windows XP than its ever been. I'm looking forward to seeing the types of tools that PC makers integrate into Help and Support.

System Requirements
Though I argued with company engineers over this point, Microsoft is listing the minimum system requirements for Windows XP as a Pentium III processor with 64 MB of RAM, though they do recommend 128 MB of RAM. Personally, I think this is unrealistic. I recommend a mid-level Pentium III processor with at least 256 MB of RAM. Before you fire off an angry email, however, let's get something straight: RAM is cheap, and Windows XP will perform dramatically better if you can exceed 128 MB. So there's no reason not to do so, unless of course you're running an older system that might not have this type of expansion possibility. But in such a case, you're not exactly a candidate for Windows XP anyway.

That said, Windows XP should exhibit similar performance to Windows 2000 when used in the default configuration. But when you turn on all the cool new graphical effects described above, you're going to feel the pain if you're lacking RAM. Don't sell your system short: Bulk up on the RAM and enjoy Windows XP.

Conclusions
What can I say, I'm blown away by Windows XP and I think you will be as well. For the first time, Microsoft is offering an OS upgrade that's equally applicable to newbie Windows 98 users and Windows NT/2000 power users. This release is so feature rich it's hard to wrap one's mind around it all, and no amount of description can outdo the benefits of actual hands-on access. If you can get your hands on Beta 2, do so, and if not, make sure you jump on the Public Preview that should become available in a few months. As you use Windows XP, you will find yourself discovering new features again and again, and you'll wonder how you ever got along without it.

Not that there aren't problems, of course. There are small graphical glitches, such as when the once-rounded corners of the Start menu, for example, are straightened out with little black triangles. This seems to happen to me with each install, eventually. The little balloon help that appears when a new program has been installed doesn't seem to want to go away, and it appears almost every time I log on. The tray icon hiding feature resets each time you reboot, rather than working as you'd expect each time you turn on the system. And even though you can change Start menu links to be menus, they don't cascade out past the upper level. So, for example, if you change My Documents to be a menu, you can see the contents of the My Documents folder from the Start menu, but you can't drill down further than that without opening a window.

None of these complaints are showstoppers, and I expect many of these issues to be addressed in future releases anyway, so stay tuned to the Windows SuperSite for updated information. But overall, Windows XP is of surprisingly high quality for a product that's been in development for little over a year. Folks, this is the real thing: Windows XP is the version of Windows we've all been waiting for.