Defining the PC's place in a connected home

Windows XP, the latest release of Windows, can be a cornerstone of a connected home. Enhanced networking functions make connecting to a LAN or the Internet easier than ever before. Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) and Internet Connection Firewall (ICF) features let you share an Internet connection with other systems on your home network and still provide the basic security you need for DSL and cable modem connections. Digital media enhancements and the new Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP) let you experience a vastly improved PC entertainment platform.

XP is the biggest release of Windows since Windows 95 and may be the most important release of Windows to date. Microsoft has finally eradicated the last vestiges of 16-bit DOS code from the OS, promising home and small-business users the same reliability that business users enjoy with Windows 2000.

XP embraces and extends the benefits found in Windows Me and Win9x, as well as in Win2K and Windows NT. Like Windows Me and Win9x, XP offers excellent compatibility with older 16-bit DOS software, and XP has several features that make it easy for novice users to perform common tasks. Like Win2K and NT, XP also provides more advanced features such as user-based security.

XP comes in two retail versions: Windows XP Home Edition and Windows XP Professional. In addition, by buying a 64-bit Itanium system from an officially sanctioned PC manufacturer such as Hewlett-Packard (HP), Dell, IBM, or Compaq, you can get a 64-bit OEM-only version called Windows XP 64-Bit Edition. As you might expect, XP Home targets home and small-business users running Win9x; XP Pro targets business users running either Win2K or NT. XP Home provides a subset of the features found in business-oriented XP Pro, which includes corporate features such as domain authentication, group policy support, dual-processor support, and additional networking capabilities. To determine which version is right for you, see "Upgrade Path," page 17.

For both XP Home and XP Pro, Microsoft recommends the following minimum system requirements: a 233MHz processor, 64MB of RAM, 650MB of free space on a 2GB hard disk, and a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive. Although such a system will work, you'll be happier if you use the following Microsoft guidelines: a 300MHz processor, 128MB of RAM, a minimum 4GB hard disk, and a 12X CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive. In my experience, these guidelines for system requirements will give you good performance. Like Win2K, XP is memory hungry, and having an adequate amount of RAM is the most important factor to ensure good performance.

The End-User Experience


Microsoft has made XP easier to understand and use than earlier Windows versions, starting with the setup. Although easy to navigate, the setup requires knowledge of your system's network connectivity; the setup process prompts you for networking information after it has copied files from the setup CD-ROM. When the setup process finishes, it prompts you to activate your installation by using the new Windows Product Activation (WPA) feature. The activation process sends a unique code over the Internet that identifies your system to Microsoft, then returns a code that activates your copy of XP. If you don't have an Internet connection, you can complete the activation process by calling the Microsoft support number that the Activation Wizard provides.

If you run XP on a new system, XP's Migration Wizard can transfer all your user-state information from your old system to your new system—the choice of media is yours. The Migration Wizard can transfer your desktop settings and data files to your new XP system. However, it can't transfer your applications. Running as a two-step process, the Migration Wizard first collects the information from your old system, which it refers to as the source. The wizard then saves this information to media such as a disk or a network share. Next, the wizard applies all the user-state information to the new target system. The source system can be running XP, Win2K, NT 4.0, Windows Me, or Win9x. The target system must be running XP.

XP's new task-oriented UI—the result of extensive usability testing—makes performing tasks easier for the novice. If you're an experienced user, you might find the new UI annoying. Several familiar items have moved, and the new interface requires more mouse clicks and screen navigation than any of the previous Windows versions. However, you'll find more familiar items than changes. I had no difficulty adjusting to the new interface and becoming productive right away.

The XP UI reflects Microsoft's experience as a game maker. In many ways, the UI is more graphical and more fun to use than any of the earlier Windows versions. The UI features larger and more graphical icons, a new Start menu, and—in its default configuration—a soft blue background palette. Figure 1 shows the XP Welcome screen.

The Welcome screen reflects all the user accounts configured on the system; you can customize each account with its own unique picture. The new interface also supports Fast User Switching—a feature that lets multiple users share the computer. To take advantage of Fast User Switching, you click the Start menu, as in earlier versions of Windows. But instead of selecting the Log Off option, you select the Switch User option to display the XP Welcome screen. All the applications that you're running will remain active. In Figure 1, for example, you can see that I have two active applications. Another user can log on and run his or her applications; my applications will be suspended until that user logs off and I log back on. If you share your computer with other family members, you'll find Fast User Switching a handy feature that lets you easily share the system and still keep everybody's files and settings separate.

The XP interface has a cleaner look than any previous Windows version. Almost all the default desktop icons are gone, leaving only the Recycle Bin, Taskbar, and Start menu on the XP desktop. You access programs from the Start menu, which shows the most recently used programs and the installed applications. In addition, the Start menu has two spots reserved in its upper left corner for the default browser and the default email application. The Taskbar also is cleaner, with an option that groups similar items together.

The XP task-oriented interface uses WebViews, a new feature that lets novice users more easily become immediately productive. The WebView interface combines a dynamic HTML-style task list with the current folder content to create a context-sensitive task list. For example, Figure 2, page 12, shows the WebView display for a typical folder. The WebView pane lists common file tasks, letting novice users easily perform these tasks. The options in the WebView pane change depending on the type of content that you're displaying. For example, when Windows Explorer displays folders, the WebView pane displays folder-relevant options such as Create a new folder and Share this folder. When files are displayed, the WebView pane displays file-relevant options such as Copy this file and Delete this file.

WebViews are also sensitive to file types. For images (e.g., files ending in extensions such as .bmp, .jpg, or .gif), the WebView pane displays photo tasks such as View a slide show, Print this picture, or Set as desktop background. If you're an experienced user, you'll benefit less from WebViews than a novice user will. But you can still take advantage of the familiar Windows Explorer context menu by right-clicking items displayed in the Windows Explorer window. You can also turn off the WebViews feature by selecting the Folders Option from the Windows Explorer Tools menu, then selecting the Windows Classic option. This action will display a Windows Explorer view that looks and acts like the Win2K and Win9x version.

The Networking Experience


XP has several new networking features that make setting up and using your LAN or Internet connections easier than ever. Network Setup Wizard, designed to simplify setting up all your system's network connections, guides you though several common networking tasks including assigning a computer name, configuring the networking protocols, and setting up file and printer sharing. The Network Setup Wizard also lets you take advantage of more advanced networking features for businesses and small office/home office (SOHO) users, such as Network Bridging, ICS, and ICF. I discuss these features in "The SOHO Experience" section.

XP also includes another new networking feature: Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 6.0. IE 6.0's look and feel has changed to match the new XP user experience. The Explorer Bar includes capabilities other than just being a storage place for your favorite links. You can customize the Explorer Bar to automatically pull in information from your favorite sites. IE 6.0 also features an integrated Media Bar that lets you play music and videos through the browser without launching additional applications.

In addition, IE 6.0 includes support for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) standard, which lets you control the cookies that enter your system. With IE 6.0, you can allow all cookies, block all cookies, or accept only cookies from the connected domain—essentially blocking third-party banner ads from retrieving personal information without your approval and returning that information to a Web site.

One of the major networking changes that Microsoft has added to XP is Windows Messenger. Microsoft has positioned Windows Messenger as a replacement for the MSN Messenger instant-messaging application and for NetMeeting, a videoconferencing application. Windows Messenger provides instant messaging capabilities, as well as audio- and video-conferencing and collaborative whiteboard support. Microsoft improved the audio and video transmission technologies incorporated into Windows Messenger to allow high-quality conferencing over typical DSL and cable modem broadband connections.

The SOHO Experience


With the rapidly increasing availability of high-speed broadband connections such as DSL and cable modems, SOHO users can now get the same type of high-speed Internet service that business users have enjoyed for some time. As a card-carrying DSL addict, I readily guarantee that after you get a DSL connection you'll never willingly return to a 56Kbps dial-up connection. However, there's no free lunch, and these new high-speed broadband connections are no exception. The always-on nature of DSL and cable modem connections opens your system and network to the same security concerns that give network administrators gray hairs. SOHO-related enhancements in XP include several features that let the OS keep pace with these new broadband connections.

XP's ICS feature lets you set up an XP system that acts as a gateway to the Internet for other systems in your home network. This feature lets two or more systems on your home network simultaneously access the Internet. ICS works best over a high-speed broadband connection, but you can also use it over a lower-speed, dial-up link.

XP provides basic home-network security through its ICF feature. Although not as sophisticated as most standalone firewall products, XP's ICF can block port scans by dynamically opening and closing the communications ports that network programs use.

XP Pro's Automatic Updates feature lets you easily keep your systems current with Microsoft's latest patches and updates. When enabled, Automatic Updates lets XP automatically download important system fixes from the Windows Update site.

The Wireless and Mobile Experience


Not all XP enhancements are as visible as the UI or the networking wizards. Several behind-the-scenes enabling features are important to wireless and mobile users. A major change for wireless computing is the integration of 802.11x support (Wi-Fi, the wireless networking protocol) into XP. Out-of-the-box XP supports most of the popular wireless network interface cards (NICs). Integrated wireless support lets your laptop immediately recognize Plug and Play (PnP) network cards. XP's integrated wireless capabilities let you take advantage of the many mobile Internet access ports you can find in a variety of locations, including your local Starbucks and some major metropolitan airports.

A closely related feature, the Windows XP Network Bridge, also makes networking a better experience for mobile users. The Network Bridge connects disparate networks, letting them appear to your system as a single virtual network. If you're a wireless user, you'll find this feature handy because your home network probably has both Ethernet and 802.11x wireless segments. XP's Network Bridge lets your system see the two separate networks as one entity, making it easier for you to access and share resources between the two networks.

The Digital Photo and Video Experience


If you have a digital camera, you'll appreciate that XP directly supports USB and serial connections to most popular digital cameras. This feature lets you easily transfer digital photos to your computer. In addition to direct PC-to-camera link-ups, XP supports several SmartMedia readers. You can pull the SmartMedia card out of your camera and insert it into the reader to transfer images to your XP system.

Although direct support for digital cameras is a major improvement, XP offers even more digital media support. The My Pictures folder (Figure 3) gives you several options for viewing and arranging your photos—for example, both a thumbnail view and filmstrip view of the images contained in a selected folder. You can also organize the contents of the My Pictures folder into a screen-saver slide show. You can password-protect the slide show, use selected photos from different directories, and time the transition between the different images.

Another great feature of XP's digital media support is the Photo Printing Wizard, which you access from the Picture Tasks menu in the My Pictures folder. The Photo Printing Wizard displays a thumbnail view of the images in a folder. You simply select the check box next to each image that you want to print. Then, the wizard prompts you to choose among several styles of photo formats. For example, you can print a full page, an 8" x 10" photo, two 5" x 7" photos, four 3.5" x 5" photos, or a contact sheet with 45 images per page. The Photo Printing Wizard automatically rotates the photos and crops them to fit the selected layout.

One of the coolest new features of the My Pictures folder lets you order prints online. Using the Order Prints Wizard, which you access from the Picture Tasks menu, you can send selected images across the Web to participating photo processing services and get professional prints of your images. The service mails the processed prints back to you.

The XP digital media features aren't limited to digital photo cameras. XP includes support for IEEE-1394, which lets you connect directly to your Digital Video (DV) camera without third-party software. XP also includes Microsoft's Movie Maker software, which lets you capture and edit digital video. Movie Maker can capture input from Windows Media, AVI, and MP3 files, and can output audio and video in Windows Media format.

The Music Experience


XP's digital music capabilities are every bit as exciting as its photo and video features. The My Music folder now acts as a digital media repository, which lets you sort, manage, and search for music based on its metadata rather than forcing you to use Windows Explorer to locate and decipher hard disk file names. For example, the My Music folder can display album art, as well as the title, in the Windows Explorer pane. You can search for music by using meaningful information such as song title and artist.

XP further enhances the music experience with improvements to Windows Media Player (WMP). The new version of WMP (Figure 4), now called Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP), provides a host of new music and entertainment capabilities.

Like earlier versions of WMP, MPXP supports playback of MP3 and Windows Media Audio (WMA) files. Using the new WMA file formats, MPXP provides near-CD quality at 48Kbps, which lets MPXP store nearly three times as much music in the same space as the comparable MP3 format.

You can use MPXP to burn CDs and to create custom play lists. MPXP supports both copying music files from audio CD to the hard disk and writing WMA files to make your own music CDs with XP's integrated support for writing to CD-Rs, CD-RWs, and DVD-RAM devices. MPXP incorporates a Portable Device window that you can use to write to storage devices such as a CD-R or CD-RW drive—or you can output to a portable device that supports the WMA format, such as Compaq's iPAQ, Creative Technology's NOMAD, Rio's Volt, or Sony's Vaio Music Clip.

Out of the box, MPXP supports only writing in the WMA format. However, Microsoft is now shipping an add-on pack that includes an MP3 encoder, which will let third parties add an MPXP plugin that supports ripping MP3 CDs.

The Home Theater Experience


Enhanced TV support is one of the home theater features hidden in XP. Using a technology termed "Microsoft TV Technologies," XP provides the ability to integrate television into Windows. Microsoft TV Technologies lets you add a High-Definition Television (HDTV) adapter to your PC, along with a third-party TV application that lets you watch TV on your XP PC while simultaneously browsing the Web or performing other PC tasks.

XP provides the essential support for HDTV output, but it lacks applications for changing channels. Third-party TV application software fills this role. This fusion of TV and the computer could be the basis of a new generation of special entertainment devices.

The Gaming Experience


For an enhanced gaming experience, XP provides support for the latest high-performance 4X Advanced Graphics Processing (AGP) graphics cards. Additionally, XP supports the latest DirectX 8.0 gaming API, which provides improved performance, better audio playback, and improved pixel rendering.

XP's revamped DOS support also lets it play old DOS games that either didn't play under Win2K or NT, or that required the system modal DOS-box under Windows Me or Win98.

XP provides a new experience for the home and SOHO user. The new interface makes the power of Windows more accessible than ever before for novice and occasional Windows users, and its Network Setup Wizard makes it easy to step through advanced networking tasks. However, some of XP's best features are in the arena of digital photos and music, where XP improves the end user experience and raises the bar for digital device and PC integration.