Will XP reboot the PC world?

The ailing personal computer industry needs a shot in the arm. Andrew Thomas thinks this week's launch of Microsoft's new operating system is likely to give it one
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The Independent Online

Thursday sees the official debut of Microsoft's latest and greatest operating system, Windows XP. The launch is significant not only for Bill Gates's software giant, but for the entire PC industry, which is desperately in need of a boost after consecutive quarters of dwindling sales, falling profits and staff layoffs.

Microsoft and Intel between them are spending more than $30m (£21m) to promote the launch of XP, which gives a pretty good measure of the importance of the new OS to the industry. But behind all the hype – MS has hired the Royal Festival Hall in London for a massive event fronted by the company's chief executive officer, Steve Ballmer – is Windows XP any good?

The short answer is "yes". If you're using Windows 95, 98 or ME you should upgrade to XP. It's faster and more stable and adds a lot of functionality. Similarly, if you're a Windows NT user, XP Professional has much to commend it. Windows 2000 users will find vastly improved support for printers and scanners.

After years of having separate consumer and "professional" operating systems, Microsoft is moving to a single operating system suitable for everyone from the most timid home user to the largest corporation. If you're a home user, you probably run Windows 98, ME or 95, while large businesses will be using Windows NT or 2000. The main difference between the two families is that the home operating systems have their origins in the days when PCs and software were mainly 16-bit, while the business versions are almost entirely based on 32-bit technology. With XP, everything becomes 32-bit and much of the code is shared between the two flavours. MS describes XP Professional as a superset of XP Home with additional functionality, such as the ability to run on PCs with dual processors.

For most users, XP Home will do everything they need and more besides; it even has support for more than one monitor. It's aimed as an upgrade to Windows 95, 98 and ME, and is priced accordingly – an upgrade will cost £89.99. The full version of XP Home is priced at £179.99, although most users will get XP preinstalled on a new PC. XP Professional will set you back £169.99 for an upgrade and £259.99 for the full product – considerably cheaper than the £314 price tag of Windows 2000.

Neil Laver, Microsoft's group program manager, says that 98 per cent of Microsoft's boxed OS sales are for upgrades rather than full versions. Laver adds that the older operating systems will still be available for a while: "Windows ME and Windows 2000 Professional will still be available until June next year, and will be fully supported for four years after that."

Should you buy XP Home and then decide that you want the full-blown Professional version, Laver says a special product is in the pipeline that will enable upgrades for about £80 – the difference in price between Home and Professional.

One of the main complaints levelled at Windows 2000 when it appeared was the lack of drivers – a printer or CD writer that worked perfectly under Windows 98 lost functionality or didn't work at all when a user upgraded to Win2K. This stemmed from hardware and software manufacturers having to produce different versions for Windows 98 and Windows 2000. With a much larger installed base of Windows 98 machines, they naturally developed those first, leaving Windows 2000 sadly lacking in the driver area. With the move to a common code base underlying both home and business operating systems, Windows XP has much better support for printers, scanners and other devices.

Windows XP is a development of Windows 2000 – itself based on Windows NT. As a result it is several orders of magnitude more stable than Windows 95, 98 and ME – applications that fail are tidily closed down without affecting the rest of the machine. Indeed, I have been running early code of XP on a number of machines since March, and the final version for over a month, and have never experienced the legendary Blue Screen of Death familiar to most Windows users. This in itself is reason enough to move to XP, although improved performance – it starts up and closes down far faster than any previous version of Windows – is compelling, too.

The first thing you notice is that XP has a much cleaner look. There are few icons on the desktop, everything is accessed through a completely new Start menu. If you're one of those people who end up with dozens of icons on the desktop, XP can automatically hide the infrequently used ones. Similarly, icons in the system tray (in the bottom right corner of the screen) are automatically hidden if you don't use them. Minimised tasks are grouped together on the task bar, so if you have several nested folders open, only one icon will appear on the task bar. When space on the taskbar runs out, the taskbar buttons form a menu to provide more space and facilitate switching from one window to another. Windows and icons also slide around and fade in and out in a rather engaging manner.

Although the list of enhancements in the XP user guide covers some 150 pages, quite a few will already be familiar to Windows 2000 users. Some, such as video editing, will be familiar to ME users as well, but with the benefit that they work without crashing the machine. Photographs are handled very elegantly, with the operating system offering to compress them for sending via e-mail. A new version of the Windows instant message application is included that has speech and video functionality, and coming soon is a further enhancement that will enable PC users to make calls to ordinary telephones anywhere in the world.

XP can also share one internet connection with other PCs on a network and comes with its own firewall to provide protection against unauthorised access. Users who rely on a knowledgeable friend to help them out when they hit problems will appreciate remote assistance that enables the user to go online, click on a friend's name and allow them to take control of their machine over the internet to fix the problem.

XP, in both versions, offers stability, speed and better functionality. If you're buying a new PC, you'll probably get it ready installed. But if you're planning to hold on to your old machine for a while, an upgrade would be £90 well spent, provided you have at least 64Mb of memory and at least a 500MHz processor.