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Review: A look at the next Windows

PC World

(IDG) -- Windows XP, Microsoft's next operating system, took fuller shape with the release of Beta version 2 on Sunday. And judging from PC World's examination of a late pre-beta-2 build, it should be one of the most exciting -- and controversial -- products ever put out by the technology behemoth.

The controversy over the OS formerly code-named Whistler stems from Windows Product Activation, a new and stringent copy-protection scheme that requires upgrade customers to contact Microsoft for an ID number (a procedure separate from the usual registration process).

That feature, which could hinder some installations, isn't the only potential upgrade hurdle. Microsoft already anticipates that XP may conflict with some system BIOSs, hardware, and applications. As a result, installing the new OS could be a real hassle for people who don't have state-of-the-art PCs. You'll also need a gigabyte of free disk space. INFOCENTER
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However, Windows XP inherits Windows 2000's stability and security, and it will be even more appealing than Windows Millennium Edition to digital photo, video, and audio enthusiasts. XP also includes Windows Me's highly popular software for returning a system to the way it was before installation of a buggy driver or application.

Expanding the Family

Windows XP will appear later this year in two versions: the business-oriented Professional and the consumer-focused Home Edition. The near-Beta 2 build we tested was of Windows XP Professional, and we found it to be essentially the next version of Windows 2000 Professional, Microsoft's current OS for businesses. Windows XP Home Edition replaces Windows Me and its Windows 9x antecedents, marking the end of the line for that MS-DOS-based family.

Home Edition is essentially a subset of Professional, omitting several nifty tools that Microsoft has deemed appropriate only for business users. But even the lowliest Windows XP Home Edition system will benefit from the Windows NT/2000 family's software stability and user and file security.

Nevertheless, Windows XP is almost sure to be less compatible with legacy hardware and applications than Windows Me and its predecessors. While Microsoft has labored to improve XP's compatibility with games, many DOS and Windows applications will be nonstarters; Microsoft says users with computers and peripherals released before 2000 may run into problems as well. A Microsoft product manager predicts that 90 percent of upgraders will experience 100 percent success. The remaining 10 percent will encounter difficulties ranging from minor to catastrophic.

Older PCs are also likely to run afoul of XP's system requirements: In addition to the minimum 1GB of free hard disk space (needed partly for XP's non-optional uninstall backups), your machine must have at least a Pentium III-233 CPU and 64MB of memory -- more for better performance -- to run either version of Windows XP.

Microsoft's stepped-up copy protection may prompt even more howls from users, however. During installation, Windows Product Activation will scan your system's hardware and create a "fingerprint" that you'll be required to transmit to Microsoft, along with the unique product key, within 30 days of installation.

If you alter enough of the system's characteristics recorded in this fingerprint -- by upgrading video, storage, and other components, for example -- you may have to call Microsoft and convince a representative that you're not a software pirate before you can use the system again. The feature's main purpose, of course, is to prevent people from installing a single copy of XP on multiple computers, something determined crackers will surely view as a challenge.

New Face, New Fun

Windows XP's most obvious innovations are strictly skin deep. A revamped interface offers richer colors and textures in icons, buttons, toolbars, and menus. A larger Start menu automatically displays icons of frequently used applications. Control Panel, My Computer, and other system folders link to common file management tasks and organize icons into novice-friendly categories. Prefer the status quo? You can disable most of these features -- after you do so XP will look a lot like Windows Me and 2000.

XP includes all of Windows Me's consumer-oriented add-ons, and it even improves on some. A Camera and Scanner Wizard and the related My Pictures folder are bursting with ways to preview, copy, and print images, either from your PC or from your attached digital camera. Windows XP also supports the new Picture Transfer Protocol for camera connections.

The new Windows Media Player 8 is more streamlined and customizable than its predecessor, and it plays DVDs. Like Media Player 7, version 8 lets you manage the contents of an attached digital audio player, but it adds the welcome ability to burn CDs. Even so, it's less full-featured than a product like Roxio's Easy CD Creator.

Better Quality, Smaller Files

Windows Media Audio and Video files will sound and look better while using less disk space. Microsoft says it has improved the encoding algorithm for both formats, adding a new 750-kbps video stream rate (geared to cable and DSL connections) that approximates DVD quality. Regrettably, the Windows Movie Maker application is just as limited in Windows XP as it is in Windows Me. Importing clips from your digital or analog source is easy enough, but the program's video editing tools are limited, and its output options even more so.

Windows XP inherits Windows Me's popular System Restore feature, which lets you roll back the system's state to an earlier configuration. There's also a new safety net: The Automated System Recovery wizard, tucked away in the Backup program, guides you in creating an emergency boot floppy/CD-Recordable combo that you can use to recover from a hard disk crash or other disaster in minutes. Unfortunately, this feature is not included in the Home Edition.

Despite Microsoft's ongoing legal battle over its browser marketing tactics, Internet Explorer 6 is one of Windows XP's least interesting updates. The main innovations since version 5.5 are a Personal Bar, which incorporates a miniature media player, and new privacy settings.

Easier to Share the PC

At home, Windows Me and its predecessors do very little to make life easier for multiple users. When everyone in the family needs a private e-mail account, a place to run Quicken, and room to play Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, chaos ensues. XP tackles the problem with a slimmed-down version of Windows Terminal Services. This feature lets you log out, yet leave your apps running while another user logs on. When you want to return, XP can switch back to your session almost instantly.

The Terminal Services-based Remote Desktop lets you connect to and take control of your system remotely, either over the Internet or by modem, but only in Windows XP Professional. A related feature included in Home Edition, however, lets any Windows XP system connect to, troubleshoot, and reboot another remote XP computer -- with permission from that PC's owner. This could be invaluable to anyone who donates a PC to a far-away, technically challenged relative, as well as to companies that want to support off-site users and install software remotely.

To maintain security amid all this Internet activity, both versions of XP will come with a personal firewall. A network bridge simplifies setup of a wired or wireless network, which could benefit home and office users joining the wireless networking boom.

Overall, XP promises to be the best preinstalled version of Windows yet. Businesses that have been contemplating a move to Windows 2000 may find XP friendlier, while home users will find it more reliable and suited to family needs. But upgraders should keep their expectations low. You cannot upgrade a Windows 95 PC at all. And at least some Windows 98, 98 SE, and Me users should expect hassles similar to those encountered in Windows 2000 upgrades.

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