WinXP - your next experience?
Considering that today is the day the next generation of Windows, also known as Windows XP where XP stands for eXPerience, launches I think it's only appropriate to ask if there's anything to the MS hype. Clearly, they'd want you to upgrade to the new operating system the very first day it's released. After all, they earn a lot of money with every copy sold and the more the merrier, right?
So, from a rippers and webmasters perspective, let's have a look at the new OS:
Good looks and nothing behind it?
I'm sure by now you have enough of screenshots so this is the only time I'll bother you with the new Luna interface that Windows XP has. As you can see everything is a bit more colorful than in previous versions. Some people might feel reminded of MacOS and rightfully so.. The start menu has also been changed to make always present the last few programs you have used, but you can go back to the traditional start menu with a few mouse clicks (control panel - start menu). The same applies for the new interface.
Anyway, the kernel of the new windows is based on Windows 2000, which is the most stable windows version to date. It's fully 32bit and there's no DOS anywhere to be found anymore. This makes it stable but on the other hand you lose a bit of compatibility. CT (probably the world's best computer mag) has tested how some DOS programs perform under XP and the results weren't impressing but at least games worked, though usually not flawlessly. But after all we have a new round of Wolfenstein, Doom and Duke Nukem coming our way. Regular Windows games work mostly without any problems (again, in doubt refer to CT, they had an extensive list, I only tested Command & Conquer, Quake3A, Unreal Tournament and Return to Castle Wolfenstein).
When it comes to non-games programs the situation is even better, there's hardly any application that wouldn't work, and if it works in Windows 2000 chances are virtually nil that it won't work in Windows XP, and just in case Windows XP has a compatibility tool that makes the problematic program think it's Win95, Win98, NT or W2K. All the programs I use daily to make my site, surf the web, download, etc. worked just fine. From the screenshots in my latest guides you can also see that ripping programs work just fine, there was not a single program that wouldn't work.
The pros and the cons
What I did not like about the new Windows was first and foremost the activation. MS claims that most users won't be touched by it, or only once, and they might well be right, but all computers that run for a long time without being reinstalled are a source of problems of their own. I do a lot of PC assembly for friends and people my family knows, and whenever I get to see these PCs again they usually have some problems that are due to the people using it having installed a gazillion of apps that finally managed to make the system unusable. Take a moment to consider: If you have to install your operating system every month, what applications would you install after the reinstall? Every program on your latest shareware CD? Or just the ones you really need? Clearly, since we're all lazy we opt for the easy solution, but before that we spend a moment thinking about which programs we really need. A few years back I reinstalled whenever I felt the system was becoming unstable. In the course of that I eventually decided not to install applications that I wasn't sure of I would use until the next reinstall. That sped up the installation procedure greatly and at the same time made the periods between 2 reinstalls become longer as there wasn't so much scrap collecting on my PC.
But back to WPA: Being a guy who reinstalls his OS at the very max every 3 months (usually around 1.5-2 months... more when I get new hardware) I find having to activate rather annoying. And if you change too much hardware you have to reactivate too, though in such a case you should reinstall anyway.
There's a few other annoying things: Some people clearly might not like the new interface, but as I said you can deactivate that so it's not so much of a problem. And, at first I also deactivated it, but now I kind of like it. Then there's MSN Messenger that's installed by default and that will suggest that you get a .net account right after installation. Here again, being an user of that program it doesn't annoy me but I can understand that if you don't use it, you'd rather not have it installed in the first place. And, at least with regular tools, there's no way to get rid of it. Then there's MSN Explorer that's being installed by default and that you really don't need.
People using alternative browsers might not like that IE6 is the default browser, but you can't blame MS for integrating their browser, because it's really a service to you, the browser performs great and if you had used it when Nimda first started (accidentally I installed IE6 on my W2K a bit earlier than the Nimda epidemic, and when I got the first infected email I had the choice to execute the virus or not) you'd never had any Nimda problems ;) IE6 also gives you quite a lot of control about cookies, though the default settings are too strict to post on my board.
Okay, so what did I like?
First of all, I've used Windows2000 for almost as long as it was on the market (when I first got it I was really reluctant to install it..) and I love it. Windows 2000 is the most stable Windows and it really is stable. Imagine ripping a DVD (from the drive), burning a CD, encoding a movie, chatting and surfing the web at the same time without any problems (provided you have enough RAM... 256mb or more). And that does never crash. My hardware problems aside I might have had one crash every 2 months. Don't tell me your W9x has the same crash rate.. because I used W9x for a long time and it crashed almost every day and I wasn't running the same amount of progs on that. And just that you know.. Windows2000 doesn't slow your ripping down, it allows you to run most of your games, and it's just stable stable stable. If your PC ever crashed after you had it running for 2 days encoding some SVCD you know what I'm talking about. I can almost guarantee you that this won't happen in Win2000. So, after having established why Windows2000 is way better for your ripping machine than W9x (and Windows Millenium is a part of that series as well), is XP better than Win2000?
One major reason why I think in the end that move is a good one is that Windows XP finally unites the 2 product lines: Business Operating Systems (NT, W2K) and Personal Operating Systems (W9x, ME). In the past when a company released some hardware they had to write at least 2 sets of drivers. As many W2K users know this was often problematic. There's still a lot of hardware that's driverless in W2K, or only halfway supported. Let's just mention one famous example: Creative Soundcards. How long did it take until SPDIF output was even possible? And the drivers are still pretty much beta, the W9x drivers are much better. Many companies who make hardware that's mostly destined for home users did not really bother about the business OS. With WindowsXP this will all change. While most users will have the Home edition of XP users of the professional version will be able to use the same drivers. That ensures that you will get adequate driver support for your hardware. Microsoft will push XP with all their might and there's no doubting that it will replace the old product lines sooner or later and manufacturers can't afford not to support the new OS in the long run.
Concerning stability I didn't notice any difference between Win2000 and XP which is a really good thing, and I was long afraid that XP came out prematurely and therefore wouldn't be as stable as its predecessor. If I was under the impression XP was less stable I would have gone back to W2K a long time ago. I tried many betas and both RCs and there I went back to W2K again after less than one day of testing because the system would just crash at some point, something which is simply unacceptable for me. I need a system that runs stable under heavy stress. And as said before, concerning running applications I also didn't have any problems.
There's a lot of small things that are better in XP. Like the grouping of the applications in the task bar, hiding inactive icons on the right side of your task bar to just name a few. And a big one: Remember the times where you had W2K running and the guy next to you started up twice as fast as you with his WinME? Well, this time you'll be the one laughing because WinXP is the fastest booting windows. No more brewing a coffee while your windows starts up.
And the Achilles heel
So, should you upgrade immediately? Well, I can't make that decision for you. But before you rush to the store let's at least make sure your hardware is supported You can try the MS Upgrade Advisor. Also, visiting the sites of the makers of your hardware is also not such a bad thing, they usually mention about XP compatibility. XP has the largest collection of drivers of all Windows, in my computer (1.2GHZ t-bird, KT266 board, Geforce2 MX400 GFX card, Planet Ethernet card, SBLive 5.1, WinTV PCI, Logitech Mouseman (USB), Pioneer DVD-ROM, Plextor 24x burner, HP Deskjet printer) the only hardware that wasn't recognized out of the box was the WinTV card. But there the WDM drivers available on the official homepage worked just fine (in fact, MoreTV works without having any drivers installed). And Windowsupdate also has the required drivers.
Creative has also released drivers for many of their soundcards, including the SBLive 5.1 and Audigy series and they work fine (my new primary comp: Athlon XP 1800+, KT266a board, and the same hardware as above as). NVidia has already released 2 sets of certified drivers, however, they have the tendency to make shutdown very slow. But there's a solution to this problem: get the latest beta drivers from 3dchipset.com and the computer will shut down as fast as it should. VIA has also released true XP drivers just in case the default drivers don't work (though they work just fine for me).
In conclusion, at this point (2nd update of this article) I can say that my hardware works perfectly fine. Even the Gamepad I recently bought works just fine on the USB port. And if it comes to performance, the XP drivers are already on a quite good levels and several magazines and online computer publications have started running their benchmarks on XP exclusively. That should give you an idea of things to come.
So, ensure that your hardware will work with the new OS. Most of the time that won't be a problem as drivers already exist, but in some cases you might want to wait rather than having to keep the old OS as well just to use a certain piece of hardware. And if you have some really old hardware where there's no driver support on the horizon you have to ask yourself if it may not be time to upgrade...
Recently I set up my secondary PC, which is mostly used by my parents and my sister, in multi-user mode as I was getting tired of them kicking me out of IM software whenever they turn on the computer. So, I created another account for them, and set it to ask a password. I did the same for my own account. Now, the first thing I noticed is that XP creates administrator accounts by default. This clearly isn't that smart as you should give users the least possible privileges. Of course, it makes things easier, but it's just a security hole. It's also rather easy to change the account to a limited access account, but still, from a security standpoint creating admin accounts by default isn't good at all. Now, if you start that machine in question, after the graphical mode has started you're asked to select a login by clicking on an icon, then you have to enter a password (you can disable the password check in the control panel - user accounts).
So far so good. Nothing really groundbreaking here. But now, if you press the start button, select Log off, you have 2 options: to log out or to switch the user. This allows you to have your session running and work in another account. So you get back to the login screen, and can login as the other user. Then, when you have to switch back (I set one account as a regular user account, without administrator privileges) you go via the same menu again, and within 2 seconds (or faster.. I didn't really measure.. but it was rather quick) you're back in the other account. This is a pretty neat feature that *nix users have known for a long while already.
There are some issues though: First of all is the file protection, which actually concerns the multi-user capabilities in general. Only applications that install their settings and create documents in private folders (c:\documents and settings\accountname\) are actually meant for a multi-user environment, as otherwise the file protection mechanisms don't come into play and everybody can read and modify your documents unless you manually change the access permissions (for which you'd require admin access). Maybe that's one of the things required to get an XP certified logo. From the applications I'm using I only found one that really used these mechanisms: CuteFTP. Most other programs stored their settings in a regular folder that every user can access. Also, many applications don't realize that a user switch has happened and keep on working. For instance, I had Winamp running on my admin account, switched to the user account and the mp3 kept playing. While being nice for me, it's certainly not a desired "feature". So, as mentioned before, for the multi-user capabilities to really work many programs have to be adapted, but you can't really blame that on the operating system. Windows has never really been multi-user capable the way *nix is, so most applications have been written for a single user environment.
But, in total, if adapted applications exist and Microsoft makes some changes to the default security (service patch anyone) the new features are really useful.
The *nix features
People who have used *nix (UNIX, Linux) probably got to like the way they can copy&paste in the terminal, or that they can switch from one virtual desktop to another. The copy&paste feature has been there since Windows2000 actually. In Windows XP, when you start the command prompt, right click on the title bar, select defaults, and check all 3 edit options. After restarting the command prompt you can now mark text with the mouse as in *nix, and pressing the right mouse button will do a copy operation. Another right click will paste the line again, or using Control-V you can paste it into a graphical application.
Then you probably like how you can press the TAB button in the terminal of most *nix shells. The command line parser will then try to complete the file/pathname. If you did the above changes (or set it in TweakUI), you can use the tab key as in *nix to complete file and pathnames. This feature has been available since Windows NT, but only reachable through a registry key until WinXP.
And last but not least: The XP Powertoys come with an application that allows you to have 4 desktops and switch between them, as you're used from GUIs in the *nix world. Besides that they contain several other useful tools that make XP even more useful.
Time to upgrade?
I don't know what the official requirements for running Windows XP are but here are my suggestions: A CPU running at 500MHz or more, coupled with 256MB ram and a reasonably modern GFX card. If you don't have that it's time to upgrade, and since by coming here you have signaled an interest in ripping DVDs let's take that into account:
WARNING: The following are general hardware suggestions in case you're going to get a new PC and have nothing to do with WindowsXP. WindowsXP does not require that much computing power, however, ripping at reasonable speed requires.
We need more FPS: The faster we can encode, the better. Towards that end, don't be satisfied with some 2nd rate CPU. The price war between Intel has given us lower prices than ever. So don't settle for anything below 1 GHz. Yes, you got me right there. That speed ensures that you don't have to sit in front of your PC for days, waiting for your rip to finish. There's very cheap processors in this speed class as well. Both the AMD Duron and the Intel Celeron offer a very good price/performance relation for low-end processors. The 1.x GHz Duron and the 1.2 Ghz Celeron are based on the latest Athlon / Pentium3 core respectively and offer some additional features compared to their slower brothers. In the higher end segment we have the regular AMD Thunderbirds which are cheaper than ever since the new AthlonXP has just been launched. Keep in mind that the Athlon XP has a performance rating which tells you how it performs against the respective Intel Pentium4 chip. So, an Athlon XP 1800+ performs at least as fast as a Pentium4 running at 1800Mhz, and in fact, when you read the reviews you can see that in many cases the chip can even reach the performance of a Pentium4 running at 2GHz. But if you like to go Intel, fine with me, just keep in mind that most of the Pentium4s you can buy out there come with SDRAM, which slows down the processor up to 30% compared to using RDRAM. But then again, RDRAM is still very expensive, and if you ever said Microsoft was evil, then you definitely don't want RDRAM as Rambus is just like a 1000 times more evil than Microsoft. So, if you don't want RDRAM you can go with DDR RAM instead, there's 2 chipsets for this atm, the Via P4X266 or the SIS 645 which even supports DDR333 RAM which brings it dangerously close to the much more expensive RDRAM. When you go with the Celeron you're stuck with SDRAM, when you go AMD you have the choice. My suggestion is to go for DDR RAM as I think that once Intel supports DDR (beginning next year), the SDRAM phaseout will begin and you don't want to invest in a technology that's on the verge of disappearing. My 2 systems already contain DDR RAM and I won't put any more SDRAM in machines I assemble just to save a few bucks.
Concerning GFX cards I've worked with Nvidia cards since the TNT1 now so this would be my first choice. But ATI cards are pretty good as well, unfortunately they still have some drivers issues they're fighting with but let's hope that they can get this down eventually. ATI cards are also better when it comes to packing features on the cards. Going with a lower end card of these 2 manufacturers is more than enough for a ripping machine. I have a Geforce2 MX400 chip, and that's more than good enough for today's 3d action games. It also covers the next generation of 3d games to come, but probably not with all features. That's where the Geforce3 and Radeon 8500 come in but these are definitely card for gamers. The Kyro chip is also not too bad but clearly can't keep up with NVidia / ATI and atm there's some performance issues with the WinXP drivers. I'd stay away from Matrox or SIS cards.
About harddisks: I've used the Maxtor DiamondMax+ series for years without problems. Lately I've used a 60GB IBM GXP75 disk (stay away from any GXP75 discs, they have an unusual high failure rate) and now I also got a 100GB WD drive which performs really well. But you probably better stick to reviews in your favorite mag here, these are just my experiences and I'm not too much into HD benchmarks. Make sure the HD is 7200rpm for good performance (don't worry, they're not that loud).
Audio: Creative clearly rules the market. Unfortunately, especially for W2K, we get bad drivers and the SBLive series may have problems with many mainboards (strangely enough I never had any and I've had all the affected chipsets on my MBs). Then there's the fact that the SBLive processes all audio streams internally as 48KHz streams, so things are up and downsampled. If you're still not afraid of these cards, just make sure that you can exchange them if problems arise. Alternative cards are the Hercules cards or the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz (though the FAQ says there's a DirectX problem resulting in games quitting after 10 minutes - the main reason why I haven't dumped the SBLive when I thought the card was causing problems (it was the RAMs in the end)).
Mainboards: Asus, Abit, MSI are my 3 favorites here. At the moment I use a Soltek board after the recommendation of THG (let's hope he did that review properly, not as with his MPEG-4 articles). Chipsets to go for are the VIA KT266(A) and SIS 735 for AMD chips and the SIS 645 or VIA P4X266 for the P4 (DDR RAM, Intel covers RDRAM and SDRAM chipsets atm) and the VIA Apollo or Intel i815 for Celeron/P3.
Last but not least: If you go for an AMD CPU make sure it's properly cooled. Better check one times too many than frying your CPU. Also, spending a few bucks more for a good fan really pays off here.
And a final word about hardware: With WinXP more than ever you should think about going legacy free. That means, on more ISA cards, no more serial and parallel connectors, no floppy drives, etc. I have dumped my old 3.5" floppy drives more than a year ago, files that are smaller than such a disc can be sent via email in the broadband age, and larger files require some other means of transport anyway. I still like the ZIP drives but these days you may be better off going for a burner directly. I haven't had many burners, but Plextor rules. I never ruined a single blank (unless I tried to overburn way too much) with my good old 12x Plex and the new 24x performs great too. No matter what burner you get, make sure it supports Burn-Proof so you won't have to worry about buffer underruns and ruined blanks. When it comes to periphery stuff make sure that they come with an USB interface, or Firewire. Most Scanners, Printers, Mice and Keyboards have an USB interface and if you've once seen the plug&play facilities of that interface you know why changing makes sense. Just an example: While my Windows XP is running, I start the printer and plug in the USB cable. Windows detects the new device, installs the driver and now I can print in the program that I had already open prior to plugging in the printer. No longer do you have to reboot when you connect/reconnect a device to your PC (within reason, if there's no drivers you will have to install them before you can use the device for the very first time and here it depends on how well the driver was written if a reboot is required). I still use some PS2 hardware but eventually I will dump that as well. The serial and parallel ports are already turned off in the BIOS. And, of course, ISA is also legacy. If you still have ISA cards you should consider dumping them, and there's hardly any new mainboard still having ISA slots anyways.
Also, if you read the recent Comdex coverage you can see that hardware manufacturers are really steering into that direction. Next year we'll see many more computer that only have USB2 and Firewire ports for external hardware.