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Windows XP Professional Edition
Publisher: Microsoft Corporation 
Purchasing: Microsoft site: Professional Edition or Home Edition
Reviewed: 14th June 2002

Introduction

At the time of writing, WindowsXP has been out for quite a while - 6 months or so. In my opinion (and from past experience) upgrading your operating system on the day of release can be a very risky thing to do. Unless you're lucky enough to have new/recent hardware which is well supported, it is unlikely that all hardware vendors will have finished and released drivers compatible with the operating system. Now that WinXP has been around for a while it seems that any hardware vendor that is/was going to support the system has drivers available, and in some cases the initial round of bugs have been ironed out with additional releases. So, if like me, you wait until others have done the test-driving for you - now is probably the time to look seriously at WinXP.

7 Years is a long time.
As you'll see in a minute, the interface has been improved but is essentially still based on the revolutionary design brought in for Windows 95. Many conventions, names and practices premiered a whole 7 years ago are obviously still present - even if they have changed shape and adapted  slightly over time. As we all know, technologies can rise and fall in a matter of months/weeks; therefore 7 years is a lifetime in this industry.

The reason I'm bringing up Windows 95 here (when I doubt anyone has used it seriously in a long time) is that the XP that this new round of software takes its name from is cleverly (!) derived from eXPerience. So in 7 years have they really learnt from their successes and mistakes? is experience really the case?

The New Interface
There is an often quoted law: "if it's not broken, don't fix it". This law is generally applied to this new operating system release, whilst the Win9x interface has its detractors, it was generally heralded as being a good thing. Win95 premiered the system, Win98 refined it and added a few new features (quicklaunch bars/IE integration...) and WinNT/2K followed suit. WinXP continues the trend by softening all the edges and generally smoothing over the whole system by integrating the entire operating system and tools together. 

The most striking change in WinXP is the Graphical User Interface (GUI), as you can see in the following screenshots - everything is slightly smoother and corners are rounded. This alleviates any dislike of previous versions being harsh straight/square grey dominated worlds. Some people have complained about the "fluffy-ness", but I personally believe that whilst this is occasionally true it is far from a bad thing. If you're working for long periods at your computer, or often zooming through windows looking for files having something smooth and eye-pleasing is a good idea.

Take a look at the following four screenshots (click to enlarge), each one shows a slightly different view of the system (including the new changes), and each one is with a different appearance scheme.

   
Classic Style                                            Olive Style   

   
Silver Style                                            Blue Style

The Olive/Silver/Blue style schemes shown are the ones specifically designed for Windows XP; and on a default install there are only these three (Service/Plus packs may add more). Unlike with previous versions of windows you can't customize the colors for these three schemes - you can change the background and fonts but that's all. This isn't exactly a big problem, there are 3 possible styles to choose from, and if you really don't like any of them you can always switch back to the classic style. Classic style is basically the same as Windows 98 / 2000 except for it using the XP layouts (note the different start menu). I personally don't think this scheme works so well - it doesn't seem to fit together as well as the XP-Only schemes.

Clutter-Free
Windows XP does a very good job of keeping the display clean and tidy - without getting in your way too much. Most people will be familiar with the task-bar getting cluttered up very quickly, once you had 6 or 7 programs/windows open and particularly if you had lots of applications resident in the system tray it would very quickly become difficult to use. The little 'tabs' for each application would get so small you couldn't tell what they represented. With WinXP, if you have lots of programs open of the same kind (often the case with explorer windows) it will condense them down into one tab. If you look at the silver style screenshot again the first tab in the task bar actually says "7 Windows Explorer", and upon clicking on this tab it extends a list of these 7 tabs in the form of a menu. This may sound annoying, and until you get used to it, it can be, but it is actually very useful and far less annoying than the previous situation. 

This is also helped by a clever revision of the system tray. On my Win98 system I had no less than 8 icons in the system tray on a basic startup (net utilities/drivers/virus scanners etc...), which limited any remaining space for applications in the task bar. In XP it only displays the important ones (as you can see in the screenshots, the ATI driver icon is present) all the others are hidden until you need them. Should you click on the arrow, all remaining icons will magically appear.

It's the little differences
In many cases, it's the little differences that make the GUI just that bit better than all those before it. Simple things like smooth animations when clicking on buttons, alpha blended menus, tooltips and shortcuts to name a few. On their own they aren't particularly substantial - but put them all together and it nicely rounds off the whole experience.

Usability
Okay, so the GUI is a definite improvement - but how does the rest of the interface shape up? 

If you haven't used WinXP yet, but are familiar with Win98/2000 then you'll be at home straight away. Pretty much everything that you could do with previous versions can still be done with XP. This was probably as much a requirement for Microsoft as it was a good idea, with a huge user base familiar with previous version a radical change would have annoyed and disadvantaged a lot of people.

Instead, you need to look at it in the form of an extension to the existing framework. You can use WinXP just like you would a previous version, but if you can get used to the shortcuts and extensions then you'll be a lot better off for it. 

The start menu is one of the major changes, you can set it to use the old/traditional style, but I've already started liking the new one more. There are now two columns of icons/menus - down the left side you have two sections, the top is effectively the old quick-launch shortcut bar and the bottom is a list of recently used programs. On the right-hand side you have the system icons/menus - My Documents, Favorites, Control Panel, Run, Search, Help & Support. These haven't changed much from previous versions, with the only exception that you can optionally turn them from standard icons to menus (such that you can get to all the control panel without opening it).

The next useful change is the standard layout for the window, although now it has become layoutS, as it now changes based on what is stored in the folder. 

Shown above is a fairly typical window as seen in XP. Down the left side of every window is a context-sensitive set of options. The bottom three (File and Folder Tasks, Other Places and Details) are always present, but the top one will change based on the types of files. In this case it has selected "Picture Tasks", with a set of custom options for pictures. You also get specific lists for audio, movies, web files and just general files. For each of the task panes you can click on the up/down arrows to hide/show the relevant information - I tend to leave it as you see it, with specific options and details only. For movies/photos/audio you can change the view to be more like that shown in the Blue Style screenshot at the top of the page. In this mode you can view the photo's directly in the explorer window.

All of these windows can be customized to a considerable degree - you can get rid of the entire left-pane (and/or replace it with the explorer style file system), and you can turn off various parts of the toolbars shown at the top of the window.

Functionally, the interface is very fast - all the added information and features doesn't mean that you can't navigate around your computer just as fast as before. You can let the new features help you, but they don't have to get in your way.


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