After much hemming and hawing, Microsoft finally shipped its so-called N Editions of Windows XP--Windows XP Home Edition N and Windows XP Professional Edition N--to European Union (EU) countries in mid-June. The N Editions, as you may recall, were designed to satisfy an EU antitrust ruling against the software giant which stipulated that Microsoft must ship a version of Windows XP that did not include Windows Media Player (WMP) or any associated files.

Microsoft's documentation about the N Editions explains what files where left out to meet this requirement. In total, almost 200 files were removed from XP Home and Professional Editions, though most of them are ancillary or support files. The most crucial missing pieces, of course, are Windows Media Player itself (WMPLAYER.EXE) and the "classic" version of WMP (MPLAYER2.EXE) that Microsoft still inexplicably ships in other XP versions.

If you're wondering what the XP N Editions are like, wonder no more. I got my hands on both XP Home N and XP Pro N this week and gave them both a spin. The results were pretty uneventful.

What you get

The XP N Editions are literally identical to XP Home and XP Pro with Service Pack 2 (SP2), except that Windows Media Player is missing (Figure). (To learn more about XP, see my original review of Windows XP Home and Professional Editions and my review of Windows XP Service Pack 2.) Despite their fairly recent lineage, the XP N Editions require a whopping number of updates from Windows Update (or the newly available Microsoft Update). But what you're left with is a stock XP system. The Start Menu is loaded with the customary icons for Tour Windows XP, MSN, Windows Messenger, and File and Settings Transfer Wizard--but no Media Player, of course--and the system generally behaves identically to other XP versions (Figure). There's no reason to belabor the point. It's XP.

What you don't get

So what happens when you try and access digital media files on a stock XP N system? My expectation was that the system would behave oddly in some way. That wasn't the case at all. I tried two methods for accessing media files. In the first, I accessed the MSN Music Web site to see what would happen when I attempted to play a song preview. Here, the site simply dumps you to the System Requirements page, which suggests Windows Media Player 7.1 or newer (Figure). Ditto for CNN.com's free video service: You're told that no Media Player is detected and are provided with a link to download it (Figure).

Next, I tried to access an MP3 file directly from the Windows shell. Here, the system simply didn't know what to do with the file, which is pretty much expected behavior (Figure). Interestingly, if you follow the advice of the warning dialog, the Microsoft Windows File Associations Web site pops up and recommends either Microsoft Windows Media Player or, curiously, Nullsoft Winamp. Nice.

If you search for "Windows Media Player" in help, a query that results in 37 results on my XP Pro system, Help and Support Center comes up empty (Figure). This is actually better than I had expected as well: Imagine the confusion if Help continually referenced an application that wasn't installed on the system to begin with.

Another thing I had expected to see was an entry for Windows Media Player 10 as an optional install from Windows Update. But again, Microsoft surprised me: It's not there, and it's not offered as an option in Windows Update at all. But you can also install Windows Media Player 10 from the Microsoft Web site. (You can also install other media players, like Apple iTunes or RealPlayer 10.5.) In fact, when you do install WMP 10, your XP N Edition, quite suddenly, is virtually indistinguishable from the "normal" XP Home or Pro (Figure). That wasn't hard, now was it?

Conclusions

It is entirely unclear what the point is here. The XP N Editions are not particularly desirable per se, but they are certainly not crippled in any way: You can install Windows Media Player any time you want. These products certainly make a case for those who believe that software governments, and not the courts, should create software products. I do give some credit to Microsoft for not creating a totally crippled product as I had expected. Indeed, in the areas in which the XP N Editions could have completely failed, they did not do so. That's great, and it suggests that the company's more belligerent days are behind it.

I can't recommend the XP N Editions per se, but I can report that you shouldn't be afraid of using these products at all. They're not crippled or broken in any way I can see.