BOOT CAMP 199 (01/11/01) 




Last week in our introduction to Windows XP we dealt with the main hardware issues and what type of PC you needs to run it on; this week we'll look at the installation and highlight some key features. A clean installation on a freshly formatted hard drive is the ideal scenario as this will sidestep problems with legacy hardware and software but inevitably some users will want to upgrade from previous a version of Windows.


This time there are fewer options and only Windows 98/SE/ME can be upgraded to XP Home; the XP Professional upgrade only works on PCs running Windows NT 4 and Windows 2000 (and Windows XP Home).


Installation begins with a check on the hardware and software, (if upgrading from an earlier version of Windows), and it reports any potential problems. I managed to install XP in a little over an hour on a virgin 700MHz PC; a 500MHz machine with Windows 98 and a modest assortment of office applications took the best part of a whole day… The installation ground to a halt at least half a dozen times and threw up countless warning notices and error messages. In the end out of sheer frustration I ignored them, the installation then went without a hitch and the machine has performed flawlessly ever since. Incidentally if an upgrade goes belly up you can uninstall XP and return to the previous version of Windows.


Boot up is a lot quicker and the XP desktop opens with a new default wallpaper image (called 'Bliss'…), any shortcuts from a previous installation will be displayed otherwise just the taskbar and recycle bin are shown. Overall it's pretty much business as usual; the graphics and menu layouts have been spruced up -- very smart they look too -- and generally speaking it is easier to use. All of the familiar Windows 9x components and conventions are still there and you can revert to the old Windows 9x cosmetics and ways of working but the good news is there are hardly any new tricks to learn.


Under the 'skin' – which you can change to give XP a very different look and feel – things are very different, and it begins with User Accounts. This allows several people to share a PC and customise it with their own preferences and settings; it is reasonably secure too, preventing registered users and 'guests' from accessing each other's data files or programs. Users can also switch between accounts without having to close down applications. A Hibernate option has been added to the shutdown menu, this saves settings and program data to disc and in most cases the PC can be woken up and running in less than a minute.


Accessibility for users with disabilities or special needs is very good too; there's a screen magnifier, on-screen keyboard and a built in voice synthesiser, called 'Sam' (other voices will be available) that can read text and 'narrate' keyboard and mouse actions.


Microsoft is trumpeting XP's multimedia features but most of them we've seen before. Media Player 8 (updated from Windows ME Media Player 7) runs much more smoothly under XP and includes the option to 'rip' CD tracks in the MP3 format. Movie Maker, a simple video editor, also makes the move from ME and there are some interesting new features for digital camera users. Connecting a digital camera should be effortless. In most cases XP automatically recognises the camera and the picture files it contains and displays thumbnails without having to load any third-party software. Support for CD-writer drives is also built-in and creating audio and data discs is a good deal easier.


The Print Wizard works well, making the most efficient use of expensive glossy paper when printing multiple images. Microsoft has teamed up with photo specialist Jessops, which is offering an online printing service. Images are uploaded over the Internet and a set of high-quality prints is mailed back to you in a few days.


All very impressive but perhaps the most compelling reason to upgrade or change to XP is the promised stability and problem-solving facilities. The Windows 2000 'kernal' on which XP is based has proved to be very reliable but things can and do go wrong. However, unlike Windows 9x fatal crashes and the dreaded 'Blue Screen of Death' should be a thing of the past (or at least, a lot rarer…). When a program stops working it shouldn't take Windows down with it. XP protects itself by not allowing new applications to overwrite DLL (dynamic link library) files and deep within the Properties menus of most programs there's an option to use old drivers and DLLs, and run XP in Windows 95 or 98 'compatibility' mode.


If something really bad happens the system files in Windows XP can be 'rolled back' to a previously known good configuration (automatically recorded when new software or hardware is installed) using the System Restore facility, and this can be invoked from a command prompt, in case Windows won't boot. However, the real star of the show is Remote Assistance. This allows a knowledgeable friend or engineer with an XP computer to link up to your PC -- via the Internet or a network -- and troubleshoot your machine. It allows full or limited access to Windows, plus all of the applications and files on the PC. Several layers of protection are built in. It can't be used without the explicit permission of both users -- it requires an emailed password -- moreover access can be time-limited and curtailed at any time.


There's plenty more and we'll be revisiting XP from time to time; no doubt it will throw up its fair share of problems but as I said last week, so far so good!


Next week – Boot Camp 200





DOS type operating mode that allows access to the PC's disc drives and files, without having to load Windows



Configures XP to run in a special Windows 95 or 98 emulation mode allowing older applications to be used



Extract tracks from an audio CD, so they can be re-recorded or converted to other audio formats, like MP3



The first of what will doubtless be many XP tips is how to switch on the built-in Internet Firewall. This very useful feature protects your PC from snoopers but for some reason it's not enabled by default, or easily found, unless you know where to look. The procedure is Start > Control Panel > Network Connections, highlight your Internet or Network connection then click Change Settings in the Network Tasks Window. Select the Advanced tab and check the item 'Internet Connection Firewall' and its done.

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