XP Sends 9X Packing

But it needn't displace Win2000 on desktop

Windows XP, developed from the stable and scalable NT code base, is an operating system with enough compatibility and ease of use to send Windows 9x off to join DOS in long-overdue retirement.

Windows XP, Microsoft Corp.s newest Windows client, was released to manufacturing last week, roughly two months ahead of its announced Oct. 25 launch date. In tests of code Microsoft is calling final, eWeek Labs was impressed with Windows XP Professional Editions performance and that its wide variety of new features are compelling but dont require hardware resources beyond those of Windows 2000—the operating system that XP Professional is set to replace.

XP is so close a cousin to Windows 2000 that sites running Windows 2000 on their desktop systems neednt worry about migrating unless they plan to take specific advantage of XP-only features such as Remote Assistance and Remote Desktop. For sites running Windows 9x on their desktops, however, a move to Windows XP makes a great deal of sense: XP delivers all the stability and manageability benefits of Windows 2000 with fewer of the device and software incompatibility issues that marked Windows 2000, particularly at the time of its release.

Windows XP Professional Edition will be priced at $299 for a standard version and $199 for an upgrade version. Machines running Windows 98, Windows Millennium Edition, Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000 can be upgraded directly to XP.

Mobile Benefits

Windows XP bears some particular benefits for mobile computer users. One of the most visible is its support for Microsofts ClearType text display technology. ClearType triples the horizontal resolution of text rendered on LCD monitors, delivering a noticeable boost in readability.

Windows XP will also ease the burden of wireless NIC configuration for mobile users accessing the corporate network via 802.11b. For example, it took us less than 1 minute to set up and begin accessing the wireless network in our lab, and XPs native support for a bevy of WLAN (wireless LAN) cards obviated the need for the drivers and utility software shipped with our WLAN card.

In addition to simpler configuration, IT administrators will welcome the security enhancements to 802.11b networking that Windows XP delivers, courtesy of its support for the proposed IEEE 802.1x standard.

Mobile users will also appreciate some of the performance gains Windows XP delivers. In tests, we experienced faster boot times with XP than with 2000—a difference on the order of 20 seconds. Windows XP also is designed to awaken from Standby and Hibernate modes more quickly than Windows 2000, but we found wake-up times roughly equivalent between the two operating systems.

Also roughly equivalent is the battery life performance of computers running the two operating systems. We benchmarked identical 700MHz Pentium III notebooks for battery performance using Ziff Davis Media Inc.s Winstone 2001 Batterymark benchmark test and found that the two operating systems differed in battery life by only about 1 minute.

More impressive are two new features in Windows XP that take advantage of Windows Terminal Services technology to grant users control of remote XP machines. The Remote Assistance utility lets users request assistance from another XP user via e-mail or Windows Messenger and allows that user to take control of a remote machine to make needed changes or otherwise provide support. This will be especially useful for IT administrators charged with supporting users in far-flung locations.

Similarly, the Remote Desktop feature provides remote users with full access to their XP desktops via another XP machine or a Windows Terminal Services client.

Both of these features pose potential security risks, however, and administrators should be selective about who can and cant use them.

Performance Balance

In designing Windows XP, Microsoft sought to match or improve upon the performance of Windows 2000 by striking a balance between features that impose performance hits—such as System Restore—and speed enhancements—such as disk access optimizations.

We tested Windows 98 Second Edition, Windows 2000 with Service Pack 2 and Windows XP on identical 450MHz Pentium II machines, each with 256MB of RAM. We used Ziff Davis Medias Business and Content Creation Winstone benchmarks and found that XP and 2000 outperformed Windows 98 and ran neck and neck with each other.

For sites looking to move to XP, these results indicate that XP will, in most cases, not demand the sort of hardware upgrades that Windows 2000 did. According to our findings, the sort of resources required to run Windows 2000 acceptably—the equivalent of a 400MHz Pentium II processor and 128MB of RAM—are sufficient to run Windows XP acceptably.

Compatibility, Interface

Windows XP includes an application compatibility facility that enables users to run applications designed for Windows 95, Windows 98, NT 4.0 or 2000.

However, non-XP applications that rely on specific drivers or low-level operating system components, such as disk partitioning utilities and anti-virus software, will require new drivers or software updates to work with Windows XP. We recommend that sites research XP compatibility with their key applications before countenancing an upgrade.

The design of the new Windows XP interface, dubbed Luna, emphasizes simplicity by organizing elements of the operating system into intuitive groups, as in the reorganized control panel and the task bar.

Windows XPs new Start menu is roughly twice the size of that in Windows 2000 and is meant to save time by tracking users habits and securing prominent placement of their most frequently used applications.

Users already familiar with the Windows 2000 Start menu may choose to revert to that version. Administrators can also opt to revert to the Windows 2000 interface via group policy.

Safety Measures

Windows XP includes a stateful local firewall. Its no substitute for a corporate firewall, but it can provide an added measure of security for Internet connections by enabling administrators to block various types of incoming Internet traffic.

This extra protection makes particular sense for mobile users who move frequently between the office network and various other unprotected public networks. When activated, the firewall denies all incoming traffic by default—a more secure default setting than the "allow all" default weve come to expect from Microsoft.

We expect to see System Restore, a feature that made its debut in Windows ME, lighten the load on corporate help desks supporting Windows XP. System Restore enables users or help desk personnel to return systems to a workable state in the wake of a harmful application installation or other destabilizing event.

As with Windows 2000, Windows XP warns users of the potential dangers of installing unsigned drivers, and administrators may choose to disallow the installation of unsigned drivers altogether.

Windows XP also builds upon the side-by-side component-sharing and file-protection features found in Windows 2000 to minimize the occurrence of file conflicts among applications—commonly known as "DLL hell."

Product Activation

Retail copies of Windows XP will include an anti-piracy feature called WPA (Windows Product Activation). Although volume-licensed copies of XP will not include WPA, it is likely that enterprise IT departments will encounter WPA in some of the machines under their care.

At installation, WPA generates a unique string derived from XPs product ID, combined with identification data from the components of the machine on which XP is running. After installation, users must activate XP within 30 days by transmitting that string to Microsoft. Users receive in return an ID that tells XP it has been activated.

However, if a user changes more than six components in his or her system, XP no longer recognizes the machine as the one on which it was installed and requires reactivation within another 30 days. WPA does not involve transmission of personal data and does not involve any further communication between a desktop and Microsoft.

There has been no indication that WPA will cause an XP system to stop functioning under any circumstance other than that in which an XP machine that requires activation is not activated, but IT administrators would be wise to watch how WPA plays out in the months following the XP launch.