Windows XP blitz begins: Should you upgrade now?

October 22, 2001|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

Can you hear that $200 million train roaring down the track?

If you haven't, you will. That's how much Microsoft is spending on ads and promotions to convince us that we need Windows XP, the latest version of the operating system that runs most of the world's personal computers.

Although new PCs loaded with Windows XP have been on the market for weeks, owners of existing systems will get their first chance to upgrade on Thursday. That's when Microsoft releases the program to retailers and unveils what may be the biggest marketing blitz in the history of the industry.

On TV, radio, in print and on the Web, Microsoft will shout that XP is more reliable than the old Windows and loaded with goodies that make it easier to use and more fun to play with. Better yet, it's guaranteed not to stain, chip, warp, crack or peel.

The big questions are (1) Should you believe the hype and (2) Should you upgrade now?

The answers are (1) XP is very good and (2) No, unless you enjoy being a pioneer.

No matter how enticing it seems, any new operating system is fraught with peril. No matter how much time and money Bill Gates & Co. have spent testing XP (and they've spent a bundle), there's no way to predict how it will play with your unique combination of hardware and software. This is particularly true for laptop computers, which use proprietary versions of Windows and often aren't happy with generic upgrades.

If your PC is running well and you're satisfied with its ability to handle Web browsing, word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, digital photography, music and other forms of entertainment, there's no reason to rush out and spend $99 to fix what ain't broke.

At the very least, it won't hurt to wait a few months for other folks to discover the bugs and incompatibilities with video drivers, sound cards, printers, CD burners and other gadgets that any new operating system has to deal with. In fact, it may be a good idea to make XP the operating system on your next computer and leave this one alone.

That said, if you're an adventurous soul and want to give XP a try, make sure you have enough computer to handle it. Microsoft says systems built since the start of 2000 should have no trouble. But I wouldn't run XP on anything less than a 500-MHz Pentium II with 256 megabytes of internal memory and two gigabytes of free hard disk space. Memory is particularly important.

If the upgrade works, XP has the potential to make your computer a much more reliable machine. For the novices in your household, it will be friendlier and more intuitive than Windows 98 or ME. It will be easier to network at home and arrives with multimedia programs that make it easier to enjoy photographs, music and video.

Of course, this will come at a price - a considerable outlay if you own more than one computer. That's because of XP's most controversial feature: product activation. Designed to prohibit casual piracy, the new policy requires that you contact Microsoft by phone or Internet to get an activation code for your copy of Windows. If you don't, Windows will stop working after a month.

The code is tied to your computer's hardware. If you try to install a copy on more than one computer - which has always been illegal but was common in multi-PC households - Microsoft will know. If you have several PCs and want them on the same version of Windows, get ready to pay for extra copies of XP or stick with Windows 98.

Is XP worth this hassle? In most regards, it's Microsoft's best operating system. To understand why, think of Windows XP as a set of programs with two major functions.

The first and most important is the core operating system. This is the software that runs your computer, communicates with the outside world, creates a graphical interface for point-and-click use, and provides a platform to run applications - your word processor, Web browser, spreadsheet and so on.

Windows 95 and 98, installed on most home and small business PCs, were based on Microsoft's creaky Disk Operating System - known in the trade as DOS. It wasn't very stable when it was introduced two decades ago, and it was never designed for the kind of multitasking demands that Windows makes. It's one of the main reasons why consumer versions of Windows crash so often.

During the 1990s, Microsoft developed a robust, industrial-strength operating system for business use known as Windows NT, and later as Windows 2000. Written from the ground up for multitasking, it was much less likely to crash a PC when a single program went into rigor mortis. Unfortunately, Windows NT wouldn't automatically recognize new hardware - a feature called Plug-and-Play. Ultimately, it was so tied to business that the makers of many consumer-oriented video cards, cameras, printers and other gadgets never bothered to develop driver software to work with it.

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