The next desktop generation

With the October release of Windows XP, Microsoft pushes Windows into the next phase of the OS's evolution. The company has designed XP to replace not only Windows 2000 and Windows NT but also Windows Me and Windows 9x. Like Win2K—its direct predecessor—XP is based on the 32-bit NT kernel. Unlike Win2K, however, XP is earmarked for both the corporate environment and the home user. XP also marks the first time that Microsoft has separated the client (XP) and server (Windows .NET Server—formerly code-named Whistler) OSs' development paths. To determine whether you should upgrade your corporate desktop to XP, you need to know about the new OS's significant new features. (To learn about my 10 favorite XP features, see Top 10, "Cool New Features in Windows XP," page 127.)

Microsoft is introducing three versions of XP: XP Home Edition, XP Professional, and XP 64-Bit Edition. XP Home, which Microsoft intends for home and small-business users, is essentially an upgrade from Win9x. The company is targeting XP Pro toward business users who currently run Win2K Professional or NT Workstation 4.0. Although both XP Home and XP Pro are based on the same system kernel, the business-oriented XP Pro provides a superset of the features that XP Home provides. Figure 1, page 38, lists the XP Pro features that you won't find in XP Home. You can purchase both XP Home and XP Pro through retail channels, preloaded on a computer, or in volume directly from Microsoft. To obtain XP 64-Bit Edition, you must buy a preloaded 64-bit Intel Itanium system from a sanctioned PC manufacturer, such as Hewlett-Packard (HP), Dell, IBM, or Compaq.

System Requirements and New Hardware Support
Not surprisingly, XP Home and XP Pro's system requirements are nearly identical to those of Win2K Pro. Table 1 lists Microsoft's minimum and recommended system requirements. In typical Microsoft style, the minimum requirements—particularly the RAM requirement—are understated. As is the case with Win2K, an adequate amount of system RAM is essential for obtaining reasonable XP performance. I tested XP Pro on a 450MHz system with 128MB of RAM and on a 1.2GHz system with 128MB of RAM, and the OS performed impressively on both systems. As a general rule, if Win2K is performing well on your current system, XP will also perform well on that system.

As you might expect, XP supports the current crop of system hardware, such as high-performance ATA100 hard disks, IEEE 1394 FireWire connections, and CD-R and CD-RW devices. XP's ability to burn CD-Rs and CD-RWs eliminates the need for third-party CD-authoring software. (To burn a CD, you simply use Windows Explorer to select the desired files, then drag the files to the icon that represents your CD-R, CD-RW, or DVD-RAM drive.) In addition, Microsoft has incorporated the ability to burn CDs into Windows Media Player (WMP) and the NT Backup utility. XP also provides support for FAT32 on DVD-RAM; however, native support for the latest DVD-RW devices isn't available in the base product.

System Setup and Upgrade
Home users who currently run Windows Me or Win98 will typically upgrade to XP Home. Business users who currently run Win2K Pro or NT Workstation 4.0 will typically upgrade to XP Pro. However, if you're using Win95 or other earlier Windows versions, you won't be able to upgrade to XP. Instead, you'll need to perform a fresh installation. Figure 2 illustrates Microsoft's supported upgrade paths to XP.

XP's setup routine, like Win2K's, is simple and straightforward. If your computer is connected to a network, the setup process requests the name of your computer, the name of your workgroup or domain, and—if the network doesn't use a DHCP server—your system's TCP/IP address. By default, an XP installation on a domain system disables XP's Fast User Switching feature, which lets multiple users share one system. Instead, in a domain installation, the system displays at reboot an updated version of a Windows logon dialog box. The entire manual setup process takes about 30 minutes. As with Win2K Pro, you can use Remote Installation Services (RIS) to install the OS from a remote server and you can run an unattended setup. In some cases, which I describe later, product activation will be necessary after installation. For additional information about product activation, see the sidebar "Windows Product Activation."

As a side note, if you're performing an XP upgrade on a Win2K system that has existing file shares, the system will disable the file shares after the upgrade. To fix this problem, you'll need to run the Network Setup Wizard (to inform the system that you plan to share files) or manually re-enable each share. Microsoft's response to this behavior is that it is an intentional security feature.

The XP UI
Microsoft has designed XP's new task-oriented UI (unofficially named Luna) so that novice users can more easily perform common tasks. However, if you're an experienced Win2K or NT 4.0 user, the usability changes will probably annoy you. Several familiar items (e.g., Administrative Tools, the My Computer icon) have moved. Also, the new UI tends to require more mouse clicks and screen navigation than the earlier Windows UIs do. In general, though, you'll find many more familiar items than changes. Users who are familiar with Win2K, Windows Me, or Win98 will have little trouble adjusting to XP's interface. The new UI is cleaner than ever before: By default, it displays only one icon—the Recycle Bin—on the desktop. The XP UI features larger graphical icons, a redesigned Start menu, and a soft blue background palette in its default configuration. Figure 3 shows XP's Start menu.

The Start menu's two upper left positions are now the fixed locations for your system's default Web browser and email client. You can use any Web browser and email program—they don't necessarily need to be Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) and Microsoft Outlook Express. Frequently used programs appear automatically in the Start menu's lower left portion. Icons for WMP, MSN Explorer, Windows Movie Maker, and Tour Windows XP appear by default, but you can manually remove these menu options. You use the All Programs option to access installed applications. The items on the Start menu's right side offer the same basic functionality as they offer on the Win2K Start menu. The accessibility of Control Panel from the top level of the Start menu is a particularly welcome change.

Unlike Win2K's Control Panel, which lists the systems-management applets individually, XP's Control Panel (which Figure 4, page 40, shows) displays links to categories of applets. Clicking a link displays a task list, along with the more familiar applet icons. For example, if you select the Network and Internet Connections category, XP displays a dialog box that contains a task list that lets you Set up or change your Internet connection, Create a connection to the network at your workplace, or Set up or change your home or small office network. Selecting any of these tasks starts the Network Setup Wizard, which guides you through the specified task. The dialog box also contains the Internet Options and Network Connections icons. You can click an icon to display a window in which you can manipulate the item's properties. If you prefer a Win2K-style interface, you can simply select the Control Panel's Switch to Classic View option.

XP offers several more interface improvements. Microsoft has cleaned up the taskbar and added a Properties option called Group similar taskbar buttons, which lets you group similar items. When you enable this option, XP groups multiple instances of an application under one taskbar icon. The taskbar then displays an arrow and an ellipsis, which leads you to the grouped items. Clicking a taskbar icon then displays a menu that shows all the instances of the open application. Continuing this minimalist theme, a Desktop Cleanup Wizard automatically removes any desktop icons that you don't regularly use. Another interface improvement is XP's WebViews feature, which uses a Dynamic HTML (DHTML)­style task list in conjunction with the current folder content to create a context-sensitive task list. For example, when Windows Explorer displays folders, the WebView pane provides folder-relevant options, such as Create a new folder and Share a folder. When Windows Explorer displays files, the WebView pane provides file-relevant options, such as Copy a file and Delete a file.

Management and Compatibility
XP Pro gives you the same systems-management features that Win2K offers, including Group Policy, Roaming Profiles, RIS, and IntelliMirror. However, Microsoft has enhanced many of these features in XP. XP's Group Policy lets you configure Netlogon settings—for example, you can use Group Policy to configure DNS client settings and to redirect My Documents to the user's home directory. Improvements to Roaming Profiles include interoperability with offline folders, the ability to prevent roaming-profile changes from propagating to the server, and the ability to prevent specified computers from using roaming profiles. XP's RIS lets you remotely install Win2K and .NET Server as well as XP Pro.

A new management feature in XP Pro is Automatic Updates. This optional feature lets users with administrative privileges automatically download and install major Windows updates (e.g., service packs), as well as smaller updates (e.g., security hotfixes, updated device drivers). The system automatically downloads the updates as a background task, then prompts the user to apply them. To enable or disable this feature, select the Automatic Updates tab (which Figure 5 shows) from Start, Control Panel, Performance and Maintenance, System.

Another new XP management feature is Automated System Recovery (ASR), which provides a safeguard against unexpected system failure. ASR's backup component backs up the system state, system services, and all disks associated with the OS. It also creates a file that holds backup information, disk-configuration data, and specific restore instructions. ASR's restore component uses that file to restore the saved system state.

XP Pro also provides Device Driver Roll Back, which lets you replace a malfunctioning device driver with a previously installed version. To use Device Driver Roll Back, you simply open Device Manager, right-click the malfunctioning device, and select Properties from the pop-up menu. Then, select the Driver tab and click Roll Back Driver to restore the original device driver. Any time you install an unsigned device driver, XP automatically creates a Restore Point, which you can use to restore your system state.

XP Pro also presents several miscellaneous features that Microsoft has designed to help the IT administrator. First, you'll discover many new command-line utilities (which Table 2, page 42, lists), most of which originated in the Microsoft Windows 2000 Resource Kit. Second, XP Pro supports log files that are larger than 1GB, and the event log can now contain embedded URLs that link to various Web sites for additional information. Third, the new XP NTFS supports read-only volumes, which you can use to facilitate system backup.

One of Microsoft's goals was for XP to be an upgrade for both Win2K and Win9x. Therefore, XP needed improved compatibility with DOS and Win9x applications. To achieve greater 16-bit DOS compatibility, Microsoft revamped its Virtual DOS Machine (VDM) support in XP. As a result, XP can run many older DOS programs that either didn't run under Win2K and NT or required the system-modal DOS box (i.e., a Win9x feature that let you run DOS programs in single-program mode) under Windows Me or Win98. The new VDM lets XP more effectively emulate Win9x's memory management, which fixes many of the problems that older 16-bit software experienced while running under the 32-bit NT kernel. Microsoft has also added Creative Technology's Sound Blaster 2.0 support for the DOS VDM, providing audio support for older DOS games and applications.

Communications and Connectivity
Microsoft's biggest networking change in XP is Windows Messenger, which replaces both the MSN Messenger instant-messaging application and the NetMeeting videoconferencing application. Windows Messenger provides instant-messaging capabilities, video- and audioconferencing features, and collaborative whiteboard support. (This feature is also integral to the Remote Assistance feature, which I discuss shortly.) Improvements in audio- and video-transmission technologies let Windows Messenger provide high-quality conferencing over typical DSL and cable-modem broadband connections.

Unlike NetMeeting, Windows Messenger is based on the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), a lightweight realtime communications protocol that uses participants' email addresses to set up a call without needing to know participants' location. (Unfortunately, Windows Messenger's use of SIP makes the feature incompatible with NetMeeting.) Windows Messenger's new acoustic-echo­canceling feature lets you use a standard PC microphone (rather than a headset) for high-quality audioconferencing. To provide better-than-phone-quality audio at DSL and broadband connection speeds, Microsoft has incorporated Sonic Foundry's 16Kbps SIREN audio codec into Windows Messenger. Through Windows Messenger, you can conduct chat sessions with systems that use MSN Messenger. Unfortunately, Windows Messenger isn't compatible with AOL Instant Messenger.

To use Windows Messenger across the Internet, you must first sign up for a Microsoft Passport account. Passport is a free service that handles user authentication and call initialization. Corporate users can substitute Microsoft Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server as the authentication server. In addition, the upcoming .NET Server product will be able to host Windows Messenger. Figure 6 shows an example of a Windows Messenger videoconferencing session.

A couple of XP's small office/home office (SOHO) communications features are Internet Connection Sharing (ICS)—which is functionally identical to Win2K's ICS feature—and Internet Connection Firewall (ICF). ICS lets you configure an XP system as an Internet gateway for the other systems in your network. This feature provides basic DHCP, DNS, and Network Address Translation (NAT) services for the networked client systems. An XP ICS system doesn't need to be always connected to the Internet for this functionality to work: You can configure the client systems to initiate a dial on demand connection, which means that the ICS gateway system will automatically connect to the Internet when necessary.

XP's ICF feature dynamically opens and closes the communications ports that network programs use. ICF maintains a table of connections that local systems initiate, and inbound Internet traffic can reach the local network only when the table holds a matching entry—a process that confirms that the communication exchange began from your network. Although this new feature isn't as sophisticated as most single-purpose firewall products, ICF fills an important role for SOHO businesses and always-on broadband users. XP Pro automatically enables ICF whenever you set up an ICS connection.

One of XP's most helpful new communication features is the Network Diagnostics utility, an invaluable tool for diagnosing and fixing both system and networking problems. Network Diagnostics lists the current status of your Internet services (e.g., email, news proxy services); lists computer information (e.g., system name, boot-up type, available RAM); lists OS information (e.g., build number, installation date, version number); and most important, tests the status of modems and network adapters. To start Network Diagnostics, select the Scan your system option from Start, Control Panel, Network and Internet Connections, Network Diagnostics. Figure 7 shows the results of a scan.

When testing network adapters, Network Diagnostics tests the NIC driver and pings the default gateway, the primary and secondary DNS servers, and the local IP address. The utility displays a Passed or Failed indicator next to each of the tested network components, as well as all the pertinent network information, including the gateway IP address, the DNS server IP addresses, and the local IP address. You can configure Network Diagnostics to save all the system and network diagnostic information to a file, which you can email or FTP to the Help desk.

XP's improved communication support also includes enhancements for wireless communications. The OS can scan for wireless networks and automatically configure the wireless 802.11 NIC to connect to any discovered networks. This feature is useful for connecting mobile users to public access points. XP also supports the IEEE 802.1X standard for authenticated network access.

Help and Support
XP's coolest features are in the support arena. First, XP has a redesigned Help system that's easier to use than any prior Windows Help system. The new Help system's Search facility is Web-integrated, so XP can extend its searches beyond the local system's Help files to Microsoft's Knowledge Base. The Help system also offers integrated links to Microsoft newsgroups and a new Did you know? section, in which Microsoft or the system's OEM can provide support links to Web sites. Each time you visit XP's Help and Support Center, the system accesses the Web to dynamically update the headlines in the Did you know? section, letting Microsoft or the OEM display up-to-date security alerts and other pertinent support information as part of the system's Help. Figure 8, page 43, shows the Help and Support Center.

Although the new support features improve upon those of earlier Windows versions, they're still no match for TechNet, Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN), or the MSDN Web site. The XP Help system doesn't remember previous queries, and it doesn't respond consistently. Sometimes the system displays Help results in balloon-style windows, other times in pop-up windows, and other times as updates in the Help and Support Center window. Also, in my testing, I frequently lost my place in the index or search list as I navigated the various Help links.

I overlooked all those complaints, however, as I tested XP Pro's most impressive new support features—Remote Desktop and Remote Assistance. Both of these features are based on the Win2K Server Terminal Services technology. Remote Desktop lets you control a target XP system from a remote system. This extremely useful feature lets you, for example, connect to your work system from home. It also lets multiple users remotely log on to and simultaneously share one system. Before an XP system will allow any remote connections to it, you must manually enable Remote Desktop on that system. To do so, select the Enable Remote Desktop option from Start, Control Panel, Performance and Maintenance, System, Remote. Then, you can grant permission to specific users to use Remote Desktop. From the remote system, you can access the target system by selecting the Remote Desktop Connection option from Start, All Programs, Accessories, Communications.

Although two remote users can connect simultaneously to the target PC with different user IDs, one user can't connect both locally and remotely at the same time—the remote connection will fail. After you establish the connection, Remote Desktop appears in a Terminal Services window, and the target system is locked to most local activity. But if a user types Ctrl+Alt+Del on the target system, the remote Desktop session ends. In my testing, performance over a LAN connection was impressive.

Remote Assistance, which takes up where Remote Desktop leaves off, lets another user view your screen or take control of your system to troubleshoot a problem. Having this functionality available in the OS will be a boon to Help desk personnel. Like Remote Desktop, Remote Assistance uses the Terminal Services RDP to display the remote screen. To initiate Remote Assistance, you use either Windows Messenger or email to send an invitation to support personnel. If you use Windows Messenger, you can check your list of contacts for a support technician who's currently online. After you issue an invitation, the support technician receives a prompt that lets him or her accept the invitation. Figure 9 shows the remote user's desktop displayed within the Remote Assistance window.

The support technician can choose to simply view the screen or take control of the session. If the technician chooses to take control, the requesting party receives a prompt stating that the support technician has requested a remote control session. After the user replies OK to this prompt, the remote support technician can take control. To terminate the remote control session, the user who granted remote access simply presses the Esc key. An invaluable feature of Remote Assistance lets the support technician conduct a voice conversation while the remote control session is active. This capability lets the technician give the user immediate feedback without needing to pick up the phone. Remote Assistance also lets you send files—a useful feature for collecting data such as a network diagnostics report.

Decisions, Decisions
For business users of Windows Me and Win9x, XP Home or XP Pro is an essential upgrade that provides a much higher level of system stability and capability. XP Pro is also a valuable upgrade for NT users, who will derive productivity benefits from the new interface and tools and will appreciate the new OS's high level of application compatibility and quick boot-up times.

For Win2K users, the question of whether to upgrade to XP is more difficult: Win2K already has comparable stability and productivity. However, Win2K businesses whose users can take advantage of the remote-support features and Windows Messenger conferencing, or whose mobile users need public wireless support, will benefit from XP.