The first feature-complete version of Windows XP is a winner

Windows XP has finally entered that final, almost boring, stage of development, where the product doesn't change that much from build to build, but bugs are squashed, the user interface is refined, and small visual changes are added in a bid to improve its fit and finish. Since the release of Windows XP Beta 2 in late March, very little has changed: The product is still a world-class upgrade to both Windows 9x/Me and Windows NT/2000, and most of the improvements are subtle rather than monumental.

With that in mind, this review will focus on what's changed since Beta 2. For more information about Windows XP, I recommend checking out the numerous other articles I've written, including but not limited to:

Windows XP Beta 2 reviewed
What to Expect from Windows XP RC1   NEW!
Windows XP RC1 User Interface Image Gallery   NEW!
Windows XP 64-bit Edition & Windows Advanced Server LE Revealed
Windows XP Beta 2 Tips 'n' Tricks
Windows XP Home Edition vs. Professional Edition   UPDATED!
Windows XP Software and Hardware Compatibility
Deploying Windows XP
Windows XP Home Features
Windows XP Networking: Wireless and Home Networking
Introducing the Windows XP "Luna" Interface

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User interface and shell
Visual changes to Windows XP RC1 encompass two areas--the somewhat artistic choices of icons, color schemes, and graphical elements; and the general streamlining of the user interface, where clutter is reduced and the overall look and feel is tweaked and improved. Windows XP just looks better than previous versions of Windows and it makes it easier to accomplish tasks by exposing functionality directly in the shell. For RC1, Microsoft has simply improved on the interface jihad that was first seen in Beta 2.

The changes are first obvious when you install Windows XP: The Setup routine (Figure) has been overhauled and branded with Windows XP logos and marketing information. The boot logo has been branded as well (Figure), with a new pulsating progress bar. And the Welcome screen has been tweaked a bit with an animated, waving Windows flag.

Once you to logon to the system, a number of other small changes are apparent. The desktop is now completely devoid of icons, other than the Recycle Bin, and the Quickstart bar--previously on by default in the Professional Edition--is now off by default (Figure). The effect is extremely clean and streamlined. Both Home Edition and Professional have a new Windows XP wallpaper image--Home's is green (Figure), while Pro's is a blue-gray color (Figure).

The Start Menu is now stocked with a number of default application shortcuts, including Windows Media Player, MSN Explorer, Windows Movie Maker, Tour Windows XP, and Files and Settings Transfer Wizard (Figure). One empty spot is reserved for the first application you actually run, but curiously, the Microsoft-placed shortcuts don't remove themselves at all, or for a long period of time, which I find a bit dishonest. (Note: OEM installs--such as those performed by a PC maker--will have three open slots so that the PC maker can add shortcuts to their own application bundles). New additions to the Start Menu include Recent Documents and Printers and Fax, which was added at the request of corporate testers.

Throughout the shell, there are attractive new icons, and the last vestiges of old icons--some of which dated back to Windows 3.1--are finally removed. A new Windows XP Tour advertises itself when you sign on the first time (Figure); the tour offers a Flash-based animated version (Figure) as well as a static HTML version (Figure).

Taskbar buttons have been changed to more closely resemble actual buttons, in response to suggestions from testers (Figure). And when a window needs to send a notification, its taskbar button turns orange (Figure); in Beta 2, only the top portion of the button would change color. The new color change is effective and non-intrusive.

Bowing to complaints from testers, Microsoft has provided two new "visual appearances" (a term that doesn't actually appear in the UI; this is how Microsoft described it to me, though the term "color variations" was also used. One wonders that Microsoft has yet to settle on the terminology for this feature.) The new appearances supplement the default Windows XP visual style (Luna), rather than replace it: Instead of offering an entirely new look and feel, the new visual appearances are basically just differently colored versions of the default UI. So the "Olive Green" appearance (Figure) is exactly what it sounds like--a drab, olive green-colored UI. And the other appearance, "Silver," offers a metallic look and feel; this one is marginally attractive (Figure) . But the overall quality of these two appearances is poor, leading me to wonder why the company didn't include other color schemes. The answer is that more color schemes (or visual appearances, if you prefer) will be available on the Web and via the Windows XP Plus! pack, around the time that Windows XP ships in October. A number of other visual appearances--such as Ruby and Emerald--were in development but didn't make it in time for the RC1 feature-set lockdown.

Another interesting change regards the screen metrics for the Luna-based UI, which were hard-coded in Beta 2. Now, you can change the size of graphical elements such as titlebar buttons, fonts, icons, and the like, which is a welcome change (Figure). Sadly, the graphical-based UI elements often look horrible when resized, however, so your mileage may vary.

Internet Explorer 6 has gone through a number of changes, some of which are still ongoing. Microsoft added Smart Tag functionality to IE 6 after Beta 2, and it's still present in RC1. But this feature will be removed before RTM, so we'll just skip over that. The Personal Bar has been removed since Beta 2, replaced with a nice new Media Bar that provides an in-browser media player so that audio and video can be played from Web sites without the need to open another application (Figure).

Microsoft has upgraded the privacy settings in IE 6 so that they're more granular, offering users a wider range of options. For example, the new Privacy tab in Internet Options (Figure) now sports a "Medium High" privacy setting, and advanced settings allow you to control the way various cookies are handled by the browser. And it's possible to view a site's privacy settings through a new Privacy Report feature (Figure).

Outlook Express has been updated with the Windows XP look and feel, but is otherwise unchanged (Figure). MSN Explorer has been updated to version 6.1, which adds a collapsible My Stuff bar (Figure).

The PC Health features--such as Help and Support, and System Restore--have been updated with new features as well. Help and Support (Figure) has received bucket-loads of new help content, and the user interface has undergone various fit and finish improvements. Contents and indexing are now completed, and the hierarchical taxonomy--the way that help content is arranged--has been finalized. Microsoft is moving away from a task-based approach in Help and is instead basing the UI around short topic lists that expand as you drill down. Help now integrates with a number of other OS features, including Remote Assistance, the Microsoft Knowledge Base and online support site, Windows Update, Windows Catalog, System Restore, and a host of other tools. There are also a number of nice tours and walk-through articles now available from Help as well.

Communications
In the area of communications, a number of changes have occurred. Most obvious is the addition of Windows Messenger (Figure), which replaces MSN Messenger and Netmeeting. So Windows Messenger includes the textual and audio chat capabilities from MSN Messenger (a free download for users of other versions of Windows), but it also includes the real-time communications platform and capabilities from Netmeeting, providing users with the ability to perform video chats (Figure). A version of Windows Messenger that ships post-RC1 will support PC-to-phone calls as well.

But Windows Messenger is about far more than chatting: Microsoft will merge its .NET services with Windows through this application, since Windows Messenger integrates with .NET Passport (Figure) and supports the .NET Alerts technology. Today, you can get alerts about email messages and online contacts, but in the future, there will be richer options available. More on that by RTM.

Microsoft has also worked hard to make Windows XP the ultimate home networking and wireless networking client. For home networking, Windows XP can detect whether it is the device attached directly to the Internet connection (the so-called "edge device"), or whether it is downstream from the edge device (which could be a residential gateway, broadband router, another PC, or whatever), and then configure itself accordingly.

The Network Setup Wizard (Figure) replaces the previously-separate Home Networking Wizard and Internet Connection Wizard. By just pressing "Enter" to each choice in the wizard, 90 percent of users will be able to completely configure a home network, without really having to do anything. Windows XP uses Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) technology to look for an upstream gateway and network location awareness to select the correct network connections for sharing and internal networking. This kind of capability is pretty exciting, because it takes the pain out of networking, and I'll be covering it in more detail in an upcoming Showcase.

Windows XP also supports networking bridging, another complicated networking technology that is generally auto-configured for the user. Bridging allows you to connect two separate networks--say, a standard Ethernet-based wired network and an 802.11b-based wireless network--over two network cards in a single computer. In Windows Me, this was sort of possible, in that the OS supported two (and only two networks); in Windows XP, this feature is far more complete and extensible to a wider range of networks. Windows XP also includes an Internet Connection Firewall (ICF), which is auto-configured for each machine, based on its location in the network. ICF isn't a complete firewall solution, but it does provide basic protection against Internet-based intrusions, and it's inclusion in Windows XP is laudable.

For wireless networking (specifically 802.11b, or "WiFi"), Windows XP is without peer. All modern 802.11b NICs are auto-detected by Windows XP and, best of, installed without any need for configuration. This also includes mobility functionality, so that you can move to a new wireless network--at, say, work, Starbucks, or the airport-- and have the wireless card auto-configure on the fly and keep you online. I've been testing 802.11b wireless networking for about three months now and I'm sold: Even around the house, the mobility you get with this kind of networking makes it hard to live without. I strongly recommend that people upgrading to Windows XP look into wireless networking, especially for laptops.

Digital Media
Windows XP was designed from the ground up to support a variety of end-to-end digital media tasks, and it is this aspect of the operating system that I'm most excited about. Indeed, I'm so excited about it that I wrote a book, imaginatively titled Windows XP Digital Media. Anyhoo, Windows XP makes it possible for even novice users to be up and running immediately with digital media features, and really, it's the fun stuff that makes this whole thing worthwhile.

A big change since Beta 2 regards the auto-play functionality of digital media devices, such as audio CDs, blank recordable CDs, DVDs, digital cameras, digital video cameras, and the like. Now, when such a device is plugged in, an auto-play dialog appears, giving you a list of media-specific options from which to choose (Figure). You can choose an option each time such a device is plugged into the system, or you can choose the default choice and have that always happen on device connection.

For RC1, Windows Media Player 8 has been renamed to Windows Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP) and given a new (though faked) Windows XP-inspired user interface (Figure)--that is, it doesn't actually use Visual Styles to change its appearance, as IE 6 does. MPXP supports a number of new features. You can (manually) add lyrics to Windows Media Audio (WMA) and MP3 files (Figure). You can display CD album art as a pseudo-visualization (Figure). And a new visualization suite--Battery--has been added (Figure).

For DVD and digital video playback, the full screen controls have been improved to support playlist display. And it's easier to get into full screen now, thanks to a Full Screen button in the player. What's missing from full screen mode, however, is the fading feature that was promised back in February, where the full screen controls would visual fade into the background when not used. Instead, the controls simply scroll off-screen, which achieves the same uncluttered appearance, but without the cool effect.

MPXP supports more DVD decoders, but this feature still feels half-implemented: Windows XP requires that you install a separate software DVD player, such as PowerDVD or WinDVD, before you can play DVDs in MPXP. But even after you install such a player, MPXP isn't full featured: You can't adjust color balance or brightness in the player, for example.

A new tour gets people up and running with the myriad of features in MPXP (Figure).

For shell-based work, the My Music folder has improved somewhat since Beta 2 as well. My Music was always able to display WMA metadata information, but now it supports this capability for MP3 files as well. So you can add metadata information to MP3 files right from the shell (Figure) and it affects the underlying ID3 tag information. This is good stuff, implemented correctly. MP3s can also implement album art information now as well.

For users interested in editing digital movies, Windows Movie Maker (WMM) 1.1 offers some key improvements when compared to the Beta 2 release, though it still falls short of Apple's excellent iMovie 2 software. WMM 1.1 now supports uncompressed AVI (720 x 480) movies, so you can record in the highest resolution possible, edit the video, and then create a near-DVD-quality movie. For PDA interoperability, WMM also supports new output profiles that match the capabilities of those handheld devices. This will make it easier to bore fellow airplane passengers with your home movies, presumably.

Setup and installation
For installation and upgrading, Windows XP RC1 offers a number of improvements over Beta 2. The new Windows Upgrade Advisor (Figure) is a good example. This tool runs during Setup, but you can also run it separately from the Windows XP CD-ROM, and Microsoft will offer it for free from the Web and various retail stores later this summer. This tool polls your hardware configuration and gives you an idea of what your upgrade or installation experience will be like. And because it is updateable via Windows Update, the tool is always up-to-date. The Windows Upgrade Advisor will find supported hardware and software in your software and let you know what will and won't look.

For most people, Windows Product Activation (WPA) will be the one major disappointment in Windows XP (Figure). This technology basically ensures that each copy of Windows XP can only be installed on a single system, preventing what Microsoft calls "casual copying," where a user might share a single copy of Windows with various PCs, or other friends and family members. I won't beat it to death here, but WPA is a huge mistake, and one that Microsoft should immediately and irrevocably remedy. However, I see no indication of this happening, based on conversations I've had with various people at the company. Thus, you can expect to see WPA in the final version of Windows XP, and it's present in RC1 of course.

One subtle confusion: Activation and registration are not the same thing. Each copy of Windows XP must be activated, but you are not required to register Windows.

Other changes
There are a number of subtle improvements in Windows XP RC1, and I've tried to cover the important ones here. Other changes include a few improvements to Windows XP Home Edition, which now includes the NT Backup utility and support for multiple monitors. Under Home Edition, NT Backup doesn't support the new Automated System Recovery (ASR) features, however, so Home users won't be able to take advantage of this. Also, NT Backup is not installed by default under Home Edition; you have to grab it off the CD-ROM and install it separately.

Overall, performance is much snappier in RC1 than it was in Beta 2, and this will improve a little bit more by RTM as well. Windows XP boots demonstrably faster now as well, which is nice, and new Fast Boot hardware will reduce boot up time to just several seconds on newer machines.

Conclusions
Windows XP RC1 takes the very stable and impressive base of Beta 2 and makes a number of subtle and not-so-subtle improvements. Even in this unfinished state, Windows XP offers major improvements over both Windows 9x/Me and NT/2000. For Windows 9x users, Windows XP finally moves them into the world of stability and reliability that NT/2000 users take for granted. But for NT/2000 users, Windows XP provides the hardware and software compatibility that were previously unheard of on those platforms. For any user of Windows, the new user interface in Windows XP is a huge improvement over anything else that's available. And most importantly, the new task-based interface provides new users and experienced pros alike with a system with which they will be immediately productive.

It's hard to understate the importance of this release. Windows 2000 was important for businesses, because it moved those users ahead with a platform that was extensible and supported modern hardware and technologies. But Windows XP speaks to a far larger group--consumers, home users, enthusiasts, and gamers--making the stakes higher, and the goals loftier. That Microsoft was able to hit it on the head so completely is somewhat stunning, especially when you consider that this release has really only been in development for less than two years.

Windows XP RC1 will be available to an unprecedented audience, for as little as $10 in the United States. I strongly recommend that all users of Windows evaluate this release and plan accordingly for the future. Come October, you're going to want to upgrade or buy a new PC. Spend a little time with Windows XP RC1, and that will be obvious.