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Windows XP from a Mac Perspective

by Derrick Story
02/12/2002

Author's note: This is not an objective analysis of Windows XP. Instead, this article reflects a view of Microsoft's latest OS compared to my experiences with Mac OS X and Windows 98. Even though Mac OS X is my preferred operating system, I work in Windows too. Over the last few months I had grown really tired of Windows 98 and its oddities, so I placed my hopes in XP that it might deliver a better computing environment. Here's what happened.

I couldn't take it one day longer. Windows 98 was driving me out of my tree. It wouldn't boot, it wouldn't shut down, it wouldn't wake from sleep, and it wouldn't recognize new devices--even the simplest task turned into a big deal. I don't mind going on record saying, "I hate Windows 98." And having Mac OS X on my other computer just made me hate it more.

Because I'm in the Web publishing business, I use two computers. An IBM 600x ThinkPad and an Apple 667 TiBook. The TiBook has been my primary computer since I got it because I like Mac OS X (with its Unix underpinnings).

But I like the luxury of having Windows available to see how scripts run, Web pages look, photographs render, and a host of other Web-related things. It's part of my testing to make sure our pages and scripts look good on as many platform-and-browser combinations as possible.

Die-hard Macintosh users might recommend that I just run Virtual PC on my Mac. I do in fact; that's how I currently test Windows 98 stuff. But it's still a Mac monitor with Mac gamma, so things like photos are still more Mac than Windows, even in Virtual PC.

So, right alongside my TiBook I run the ThinkPad. Problem was, I had begun to hate it.

Take My OS, Please!

Comment on this articleOK, let's set the ground rules here: no Microsoft bashing just because you hate them. But if you have something interesting to say -- positive or negative -- about Windows XP, let's hear it.
Post your comments

One rainy morning, after my third attempt to start Windows 98, I decided enough was enough, I wanted to ditch my life disk repair and replace it with XP. My goal was to perform a total exorcism of my ThinkPad--reformat the drive, install a clean version of the new OS, and add updated applications as necessary. Maybe even burn sage next to it during this process just to make sure the demons were banished.

I put in a request to our IT department for this upgrade. Response: DENIED. "Windows 98 is our standard." I thought to myself, that's like walking around with a rock in your shoe because it's too much work to untie it and remove it. OK, how about this, what if I buy XP and load it myself? Response: DENIED. "We don't support XP either." Oh and by the way, "We don't support Mac OS X, either." Too late for that one buddy.

I'm reading this email on my TiBook while basking in the beautiful glow of a blue screen emitting from the ThinkPad next to me. Alright, now I'm getting upset.

Fortunately, my boss saved the day by smuggling in a brand new copy of XP Home Edition, and he said I could load it on my ThinkPad. Hooray! Let the games begin.

Load 'Em Up, Cowboy

XP's Start Menu I couldn't wait to "start" using XP. Here's a look at the redesigned menu. You can choose a more classic look if you prefer by changing its settings in the control panel.

Because I'm not exactly a Windows authority, I wanted the opinion of someone who was, so I could get his opinion while I made the transition from Windows 98 to XP. So I sought the help of a friend of mine, Brad Blanchard.

Brad's not a big XP fan, he's more of a Windows 2000 kind of guy. But he said he would help (insinuating through his tone of voice that I was installing a wussy OS on my ThinkPad). So he got started using the standard installation booting from the XP CD.

We used the built-in partition manager to wipe the hard drive and to create a single partition (FAT 32). The actual formatting was quick. Then we rebooted the computer and let the setup wizard do all the heavy lifting.

XP is very user friendly in this aspect. It's totally automated with no real prompts except for language choice, name, and CD Key. The modem is configured right away, followed by a stack of hardware drivers and network components. It wraps up by registering the DLLs and handling a few of the minor details such as configuring the Start Menu. The process took 35 minutes. Anyone with a little computer smarts can do it (at least a clean install).

The first thing new users will enjoy is that XP reboots much faster than Windows 98. I was already feeling better. The OS has a nice "get to know me" interactive tutorial, and setting up the Internet configurations and user accounts was a snap.

All in all, it was a pain-free installation. And what's most interesting, Brad said that the overall experience impressed him and elevated his opinion of XP.

Look and Feel of XP

Category Window

Classic Window XP has improved the Windows look considerably, but some feel it's a little cartoonish. It doesn't bother me though. Here you see the redesigned Control Panels in the Category view (top image), but you can still use the Classic view (second image) too. In this case I like the Classic view better. (Click for larger image.)


Mac OS X System Preferences Window But Mac OS X's clean looking GUI is still my favorite, such as in this shot of the System Preferences window, which is the OS X equivalent to XP's Control Panels. (Click for larger image.)

XP is a whole new look for Microsoft. As one friend described it, "It's almost childlike in its appearance, as if Microsoft were trying to give the feeling that it's really easy to use."

The Start menu is completely redesigned, but you do have the option of using the older look if you want. The new version of Control Panels, for example, sports a "Category View" that gives you options such as "Appearance and Themes," "Network and Internet Connections," and "Printers and Other Hardware." I tried this new look for a few minutes, then quickly switched to the "Classic View" that actually shows all the Control Panels by name instead of me guessing which category they're in. I think the categories thing is silly.

The Task Bar is also redesigned and much prettier than before. It basically behaves the way experienced users would expect, except it has enhanced functionality that applications such as AIM have tapped, which allow better organization of multiple active windows.

My overall impression of XP's new look is that it is truly designed for the masses, not for power users. When compared to the Mac OS X GUI, XP does seem less sophisticated. Even though the Task Bar has some functional advantages over Mac OS X's Dock, I feel less in control. But, the icons and saturated colors are attractive, and I like them more than anything else I've seen on a Windows machine.

Networking with XP

I was hoping desperately that XP would be easier to use in a networked world, and so far I'm quite happy with it. The internal modem was properly configured from the get-go--not exactly rocket science, but much appreciated. And when I inserted my WaveLAN 802.11 card into the PCMCIA slot, XP properly identified it, loaded the correct driver, and acknowledged my home AirPort network. Oh my word! Within minutes I was browsing the Internet via AirPort with the WaveLAN card.

The next day I took the ThinkPad to work and inserted the Ethernet card and tapped the corporate Internet connection with equal ease. Seems to me that XP has made great improvements in its ability to identify networks and access them.

I still prefer having the built-in AirPort card in my TiBook, and I love Mac OS X's System Preferences control panel. But this isn't really about which OS I prefer more--it's more about remaining sane when using my Windows machine, and XP's networking improvements have brightened my attitude considerably.

Identifying Hardware Devices

One of my major complaints with Windows 98 was how it handled new hardware, or, I should say, how it didn't handle new hardware. We've all been there. You plug in a new USB device and all hell breaks loose.

Happily, XP is a giant step forward in this category. I've attached a variety of USB devices, and many times XP had a driver willing and ready. If it didn't have one handy, and if I were connected to the Internet, the computer uses its .NET services to display a Web page with the required driver information and a link to the site for downloading. Smart and convenient.

Stability

How do you spell relief? I've never crashed in Mac OS X, and in the ten days I've been using XP, I've only crashed once. But, oh man, when you do crash, be prepared to get some lunch while XP rights itself again.

Upon restart I had the dreaded info screen telling me it had to verify its files and folders. It found a bad cluster in \WINDOWS\FONTS\BOD_I.TIF and replaced it. Then it had to verify the free space. The process took 20 minutes in all.

Blue Screen of XP
XP doesn't crash often, but when it does, go get a cup of coffee. It takes a while to clean up.

On a brighter note, XP sleeps and wakes much better than Windows 98. I've had no problems waking from sleep as long as 36 hours. As good as that is, Mac OS X has it all over XP in this area. There's still nothing sweeter than my TiBook book waking instantly as I open its lid. But, much to my delight, XP has definitely improved the Windows waking experience.

Dealing with Big Brother

One of the reasons why XP won't be my main computer in the near future is because I'm still not ready to deal with Microsoft's handling of my personal information. In all fairness though, because of how I'm using the XP computer so far, that situation hasn't been troublesome.

For example, Microsoft does require you to verify your unique copy of XP with them online. You have the option to register while doing so. I chose not to register (thereby not providing any personal information), but to merely verify that my unique copy of XP is running on this one computer only. I believe if I wanted to install XP on a second computer, that it would not pass verification. If you don't initiate this process within a month, XP disables itself.

Also, I've ignored the messages to set up my Passport account. I'm not prepared to comment on Passport one way or another right now, but I do know that I'm not ready to participate.

I'm handling all of my email and other transactions on the Mac OS X TiBook. Quite honestly, I'm just more comfortable having "my stuff" there.

Final Thoughts

For the way I use a Windows computer, XP is a huge step forward. Not only am I pleased with the improved networking and hardware identification that I mentioned earlier, but I've noticed several other niceties.

For example, my ThinkPad battery now lasts twice as long as it did with Windows 98. In the past, when I was using the modem or the 802.11 card, the battery was barely lasting 30 minutes. Under XP I've gone well over an hour under those same conditions, and it still has juice to spare.

Also, the sound management is much better. The quality of the sound output is cleaner, and it's much louder than before.

IE 6 is fun to look at, but it still doesn't have the Scrapbook feature, which I just love in IE 5.1 for the Mac.

And despite what you may have heard, you don't have to upgrade every previous Windows application to run it on XP. I recommend that you check with the software manufacturer to see how a particular program performs on XP, and decide from there. For example, one of my favorite Windows applications, Ulead's PhotoImpact 6, runs just fine on XP. Other applications, however, may not fare so well.

As I said up front, this is not Mac versus Windows review. But if you're suffering with Windows 98 to accomplish part of your work, I recommend you stop the pain.

Check out your computer to see if it can run XP, look at your existing applications to determine how many will run as is, and seriously consider upgrading. In my computing life, XP has dramatically improved my attitude for Windows-centric activities.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.


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