Updated for the RTM release of Windows XP
 
Overwhelmingly, Windows XP is about the home user. Satisfying a long-standing goal of bringing the stability and reliability of Windows NT/2000 to consumers, Windows XP must also provide the compatibility of Windows 9x while expanding into digital media-themed experiences. Years after the initial push toward an iterative, activity-based user interface in its aborted "Neptune" project, Microsoft has delivered a user interface in Windows XP that delivers on the promise of integrated experiences.

"Before, Windows integrated applications," Microsoft group vice president Jim Allchin told me and a group of other technical journalists in early February before Windows XP was first revealed to the public. "Now, it integrates experiences. It's an enabler for these experiences." Microsoft has targeted music and video, the online experience, and photography and imaging as the three key experiences that consumers wish to take advantage of. And the company is delivering what it calls "end-to-end experiences" for each of these, where the OS itself can be used at each step of the way to accomplish those tasks with which consumers are concerned. <% ' Added so can inventory as Connected Home articles. kw = "CH" %>

"Windows XP is more flexible," Chad Magendanz, the Lead Program Manager for Windows XP told me. "It has an inductive user interface that anticipates what the user needs, and offers the most common tasks." And Magendanz isn't just dancing to a new tune from the Microsoft Marketing department: In music and video, the online experience, and photography and imaging, Windows XP delivers. Let's take a look.

Music and Video
Building on the success of Windows Media Player (WMP) 7, which was released in the middle of 2000, Microsoft began to explore the areas in which it could improve for the next release. But the company felt that it wasn't enough to simply tack on new features and fix problems. Instead, WMP was rearchitected to provide a platform on which third parties could build. As such, Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP) will only be bundled with Windows XP and will not be made available separately for users of other versions of Windows, a move which is sure to raise some eyebrows.

"We wanted to create a next wave to bootstrap third party solutions," said Dave Fester, the General Manager of Marketing for Microsoft's Digital Media Division. "This enhanced Media Player will appear post-Beta 2, and it will be fun and discoverable. It enables scenarios like DVD movies, home movie creation, Internet radio, digital music, and Web-based movies."

Microsoft told me it had four design goals with MPXP: It had to be easy to use; its all-in-one capabilities had to be extended even further; it had to be lockdownable and manageable for corporations; and it needed to be optimized for Windows XP from a design standpoint. This final qualification means that MPXP uses the "Windows XP" user interface, rather than a unique look and feel. The result is an unqualified success that takes the best features from WMP7 and adds customization features to make the application more appealing to a wider range of users. But MPXP isn't just a standalone application: Where it makes sense, functionality from the player is exposed in the shell, giving users the type of end-to-end experiences that the company promised.

MPXP now includes the ability to play DVD movies, with one annoying caveat: The user must independently find and install a DVD codec for copyright reasons. Microsoft engineers told me that, for example, you could install a product such as WinDVD and have this codec added to the system. Then you could use MPXP to play DVDs. And Microsoft will offer three DVD packs from various manufacturers to add this capability to XP without the need to purchase a full DVD playback application; prices have yet to be announced. DVD playback in MPXP includes a beautiful full screen mode and integration with the player's Playlist so that you can access DVD chapters directly from the UI without having to navigate to the DVD's menu. Folks, that's good stuff.

Microsoft also made huge gains with CD-R and CD-RW recording. In Windows Media Player 7, the lame CD recording functionality was provided via an Adaptec plug-in that limited burn speeds to 2X, regardless of the capabilities of the drive. In Windows XP, CD burning happens at full speed: If you've got 24X writing capabilities, MPXP will do it. And as speeds go up in the future, the burning speed in XP will go up as well.

The first thing you'll notice in MPXP, however, is the new user interface. "Users want to be able to customize look of player," Fester said. "So now you can take away the shell and remove the outer, rectangular window for a cleaner look and feel. This outer rectangle is not displayed by default, using an auto-hide function that brings the menus back when you mouse-over. On the left side is the familiar taskbar, with some improvements. It still lists common activities and has proven popular with customers. But it can now be hidden. Full skinning capabilities are still offered in compact mode, but the new look integrates with XP."

MPXP uses the new WMA8 and WMV8 audio and video codecs for improved quality, but one of the big surprises with this release is that you can specify MP3 as a recording format. This option also comes with a caveat, however: Microsoft won't be supplying an MP3 codec in Windows XP, but it will leave the interface open for third parties to add this capability instead. And indeed, at least three companies will sell MP3 Add-on Packs for Windows XP. But Microsoft says that its WMA8 format offers near-CD quality at only 48 Kbps, which makes it possible to store more music in the same amount of space, important for those personal digital audio players and PocketPC devices. And WMV8 purportedly provides near-DVD quality video at 500 Kbps. I haven't been able to test the veracity of these claims yet, but will be looking closer at the Windows Media 8 technologies in the near future.

One of the coolest things about MPXP is its behavior for "ripping" CDs, or copying music from an audio CD to your hard drive. When you copy music from an audio CD to the system, the containing folder automatically displays the album art for the CD that was ripped. And Windows XP caches this image locally so you don't need to be connected to the Internet to see it. If you group ripped audio in folders contain artist name, where sub-folders contain folders of individual CDs, the containing folder will automatically display up to four CD album cover images automatically. The effect is amazing, and absolutely beautiful: At a glance, you can tell which folder contains which music. It's this sort of functionality that makes Windows XP truly wonderful.

Speaking of Explorer views, media files now include a plethora of meta-data information. In MP3 parlance, this is the type of information you'd find in an ID3 tag, and WMA formats contain similar information: Each media file has corresponding meta-data for artist, album title, date, and the like. When you mouse-over a media file in Explorer, you get the full list of available data about that file. Right-click and get Properties, and you can modify this data (this is also possible from within the MPXP Media Library). And yes, it works with MP3 files too. Another nice touch in Explorer: You can select a group of files and choose to play them in WMP or add them to a Playlist. I found this functionality to be interesting but a bit limiting: Often, I just want to add music that was acquired elsewhere to the player's Media Library, and I requested that this feature be added to the final product. We'll see whether it's present in Beta 2 or the RTM release.

A final nicety that's related to Explorer: With WMP7, once media files were added to the player's Media Library, it was problematic to move those files around in the shell because WMP7 would "lose" them. In MPXP, this no longer happens: When a media file is moved, MPXP updates its Media Library automatically so that moved files don't get lost. Another small, but immensely important change that makes for a big usability win.

For corporate users, MPXP can be administered through Active Directory. This means that an administrator can specify which features and functionality are present in the player and optionally prevent end users from changing skins or visualizations. One of the big complaints about WMP7 was that it presented a humongous interface that looked out of place in the enterprise. The combination of manageability features and a clean new corporate skin in MPXP should silence those critics.

In addition to MPXP, Windows XP also includes Windows Movie Maker (WMM) 1.1, a small upgrade to the application that debuted in Windows Me. WMM 1.1 includes a new uncompressed AVI mode for full-screen video, new output modes for Pocket PC devices, and a number of other improvements. It allows users to acquire video from analog (camcorder, TV, VCR) and digital (digital camcorder, DVD) video sources, record them on the hard drive, and share them via the Web and email. It's a simple but fairly elegant application, and it works as promised. And though true videophiles will eventually want to move on to more powerful tools, WMM is a great way to get started with digital movie making.

Also of interest is the inclusion of analog and digital TV (including HDTV) signal demodulation, tuning, and software de-multiplexing in Windows XP. This means that hardware makers will be able to introduce very cheap (~$35) TV-in cards, in lieu of the TV decoders we now see. By integrating this functionality into the OS, Microsoft is hoping to speed the integration of TV and PCs by lowering cost to the end-user. Since none of these cards are currently available, I haven't been able to test this feature yet.

Online Experience
Microsoft has been a stalwart force in the Web browser arena since the release of Internet Explorer (IE) 3 in August 1996. Since then, each version of Windows has included a version of IE, integrated as key component of the OS. With Windows XP, this tradition continues with the inclusion of Internet Explorer 6. IE 6 integrates with the Windows XP visual enhancements, meaning you get the XP look and feel in IE. Microsoft's goals for IE 6 are simple: The company wants IE 6 to be the highest quality browser ever built. IE 6 will be a platform for next-generation Web applications, and it will include integrated privacy enhancements.

To facilitate these rather lofty goals, IE 6 includes a new Media Bar that resembles some of the sidebar functionality first introduced in MSN Explorer, as well as new image and multimedia features. But IE 6 also includes a number of internal quality improvements, which build on its IE 5.5 base. A built-in crash reporting feature can optionally alert Microsoft of problems with the browser, allowing it to easily fix bugs after the product is released (and, of course, technical beta testers are Corporate Preview Program users are using the feature now, increasing reliability during development).

As a Web platform, IE 6 supports the Document Object Model (DOM) Level 1 100 percent, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) Level 1 100 percent, the P3P privacy draft recommendations, and just about every Web-related acronym on the planet (HTML, XML, HTTP, FTP, etc.). The privacy features are probably going to get the most press: In IE 6, users will be able to prevent access from third party cookies and other unwanted intrusion using accessible tools.

The integrated Media Bar lets you play back audio and video without opening a separate application, which is, in general, an unspoken rule in Windows XP. It uses Windows Media technologies, of course, and is surprisingly configurable. The first time you attempt to launch a media file from within IE 6, you are asked whether you'd like to use the internal player and whether you'd like to always use that player. But note that the IE 6 Media Bar will not become your default media player outside of IE; it will only appear, if desired, while using IE.

Image viewing and browsing has been significantly enhanced in this release as well. An automatic image resizing feature will cause oversized images to shrink to fit the browser window so that you can view it without scrolling. A small floating button lets you toggle such images between shrunken and normal views. An optional Image toolbar can also be enabled: When you mouse-over images, the toolbar appears next to the mouse, giving you access to one-click save, print, and email access; it also lets you open the My Pictures folder. The Image toolbar will be of most use to those users that are not sophisticated enough to use right-click context menus. Oddly, it's only available by visiting the Advanced section of the Internet Properties dialog, a location such users are unlikely to visit. I've recommended that Microsoft turn this feature on by default.

For corporate users, IE 6 is more administrable than ever through the IEAK, which now allows system administrators to control all the new features, including the Personal Bar, Media Bar, and image features. I'll be looking at IE 6 customization features in a future showcase.

Microsoft told me that it would ship the final release of IE 6 for Windows NT/2000 and 9x/Me when Windows XP was released. This version will incorporate all of the functionality from the version integrated into Windows XP, minus the XP look and feel. In other words, IE 6 on Windows 2000 will look a lot like IE 5.5 on Windows 2000, with some new functionality.

Photography and Imaging
The design goal for Windows XP regarding digital photography and imaging is startlingly simple: Microsoft wanted to make it easy for any user to access the most popular end-to-end imaging and photography related experiences, but it also wanted to make its integrated photography and imaging functionality satisfying to all users. Windows XP provides features for acquiring, managing, and sharing digital photos, using either a scanner or a digital camera. "The Scanner and Camera Wizard in Millennium was a start," Magendanz said. "Windows XP adds the ability to acquire images from any device. And we're defining new classes of devices and cameras in conjunction with hardware makers."

Image acquisition involves the automatic installation of a digital imaging device, with methods for getting pictures off of the device, while preserving any meta-data (date stamp, etc.) that might have been added to each image by the device. Image management includes a number of shell-related capabilities, such as image preview, find, annotation, and rotation. Sharing images can occur in a number of scenarios: Users will want to print images, view them in a slideshow or screensaver, upload them to Web sites or photo services, and email them to friends and family. All of this is possible in Windows XP without the use of any third-party tools.

In Windows XP, the Scanner and Camera Wizard has been enhanced to provide scan cropping, digital camera image rotation, and better integration with the My Pictures folder, which has been elevated in status for this release. In the My Pictures folder, thumbnail generation has been sped up considerably, and view styles are now automatically inherited in any sub-folders, preventing users from constantly re-applying view settings. Individual devices--scanners, cameras, whatever--appear in the Explorer shell as drives with device-specific icons for easy identification, as well as through the Scanners and Cameras option in Control Panel. And controlling these devices is now far more discoverable--and powerful--than it was in Windows 9x or 2000.

"The new Filmstrip view in Explorer has a large preview area, controls for image manipulation, and a mouse-over functionality that displays image meta-data," Magendanz said. "Folders now include miniature previews right in the folder icon, and users can add custom previews if desired. With the new grouping feature, photos can be grouped by resolution, camera model, when taken, etc." Any folder than contains images will display a Web pane with picture-specific tasks, which is a nice touch. "New folders will be sniffed for content and the appropriate Web view template will be chosen," Magendanz added. "If you load up with MP3s, music choices will be added."

An Image Preview application is built into the OS, providing fast speeds and the most commonly-needed tools. And finally, you can print photos directly from Explorer, using an amazing set of templates, which provide layout options for color ink jet printers so you can print your own photographs. You can also order prints from the Internet using an option in Web view: Microsoft has partnered with Ofoto and Print@Kodak, in a deal that was done just the day before I received my first preview. The corresponding wizard pulls down content from the print service's server, providing the company's user interface right in the dialog. You could do this before with custom apps from these companies, or through the Web, but Microsoft's integration of this functionality puts it right at your fingertips without the need to open any application.

With Windows XP, the process of acquiring, managing, and sharing digital photos has never been easier. "End to end, it works out of the box," Magendanz told me. "It just works."

Conclusion
Building on the solid base of Windows 2000 and the consumer-oriented feature set of Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me), Microsoft has finally delivered a no compromises version of Windows that delivers the key consumer experiences that real users demand. Windows XP is a usability success story unparalleled in the history of Windows: No longer must we wonder why things are the way they are, as Microsoft has finally delivered a user interface--no, a user experience--that actually makes sense. It's hard not to gush uncontrollable about Windows XP's consumer-oriented experiences, as they are so thoroughly superior to anything available elsewhere. Anyone who wants to work with digital music, videos or photos, or experience the best that the Web has to offer should take a look at Windows XP as soon as possible. But be warned: Once you've used Windows XP, you will find other OSes--not just other versions of Windows, but Linux and Mac OS X as well--to be painfully hard to use.