XP: Robust and user-friendly

XP: Robust and user-friendly<@VM>XP Home won't network or play in workgroups

BOX SCORE

A MinusMicrosoft Windows XP


PC OPERATING SYSTEM


Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.;

tel. 425-882-8080

www.microsoft.com

Price: Professional Edition $400, Home Edition $200


+ Stable and fast

+ Firewall, DVD and CD-recording software included

- Security risk in Hibernate mode


Real-life requirements:

300-MHz or faster Pentium II with at least 128M of RAM and 10G of free storage

The new Microsoft Windows XP operating system looks and acts differently from its predecessors. Is the relearning effort worthwhile? In a word, yes.

XP is simply faster and more stable than previous desktop Windows OSes, which XP replaces. On the negative side, its Hibernate mode introduces a new security exposure that Microsoft Corp. should warn users about.

With XP, Microsoft retires the last vestiges of MS-DOS, and it combines the usability of Windows 98 with the reliability and robust infrastructure of Windows 2000. XP will ship Thursday. Its default appearance could be described as a fusion of the Mac OS and Linux, although Microsoft leaves an option to let users revert to the so-called classic appearance.

About that new security flaw: The Hibernate mode in the $400 XP Professional Edition dramatically accelerates boot-up and shut-down sequences. Hibernate saves all the information being worked on'applications, files and Web pages'before turning off the PC. When Hibernate mode ends, everything pops conveniently back up.

That's different from Standby mode, which closes all ports and turns off the monitor but leaves the processor on.

Pressing a key or moving the mouse won't wake the computer from Hibernate; it's necessary to push the On button. The security problem arises because the regular log-in screen is skipped. All the desktop information that appeared before hibernation is reloaded.

Users networked on a particular domain might not realize that the hibernating PC is open and vulnerable to anyone who hits the power button.

XP's fast boot-up and shut-down results from a more efficient relationship between the operating system and the firmware responsible for starting or shutting down. Even third-party software opens faster under XP than under Windows 9x or Millennium Edition. XP is not faster than Win 2000, but it is smoother.

The Office XP application suite, for example, crashes less often. I had two crashes with Office XP under Win 2000 in six months. Under the XP OS, I haven't had a crash in four months.

The stability comes from improvements in pre-emptive multitasking of XP's Windows NT kernel. It separates memory allocation for the OS and the applications.

As in NT 4.0 and Win 2000, XP's OS-to-app memory distribution is about 1:4. On a computer with 128M of RAM, for example, XP reserves 32M for itself. The apps requisition whatever they need of the remaining 96M. If one crashes, the OS is isolated and has plenty of memory to maintain its operations.

In contrast, there was no logical memory management in cooperative multitasking in MS-DOS-based versions of Windows.

Second to faulty memory allocation, the most common reason for crashes and errors under previous Windows versions was poorly written hardware device drivers that conflicted with Microsoft code. Some makers didn't subscribe to Microsoft's digital certificates, and the user wasn't informed of this before loading new drivers.

Ahead of troubleshooting

Now, if XP encounters a device driver that doesn't have a Microsoft digital certificate, it alerts the user. That can save a lot of troubleshooting time.

XP requires at least 128M of RAM, but I recommend 256M. Performance seems directly proportional to the amount of RAM.

I ran the GCN Lab's comprehensive Alterion Inc. benchmarks [GCN, Aug. 27, Page 46] on a 500-MHz Pentium III system under Win 2000 and obtained an average score of 1,791. With XP on the same configuration, the average score was 1,750'about 3 percent slower. This slight loss in CPU performance was unnoticeable in use.

Despite the security hole from the Hibernate feature, Microsoft has improved security via the encryption that's standard in NT File System 6.0, plus a programmable firewall application that appears under Properties in the My Connection window.
Managers choosing between the Professional and Home editions of Microsoft Windows XP might be tempted to save $200 per copy with XP Home. Don't do it.

Home has reduced network functions. It can join in a peer-to-peer network but doesn't have the ability to join a network domain. Therefore it can't act as a server for other computers.

There are no Users and Groups functions in Home's Control Panel, and you can't set up a remote system. So Home is suited more for standalone users. They can still use dial-up modems or high-speed network card modems to log onto a network or surf the Internet, but that's it.

Another missing feature is Hibernate mode, which stores information to RAM at shutdown. When you return, just tap the On button and within a few seconds you can start where you left off even if the computer has been powered down.

Users of XP Home have to shut systems down and power back up the old-fashioned way, which still takes about 50 seconds.

Home's main advantage is what Microsoft calls the Friendly Login Screen. It asks for a password, similar to a boot-level password.

In all other aspects the OSes are identical. Both have built-in firewall protection and share the advantages and disadvantages explained in the accompanying story.

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