Note: This is not a review of the product as a server. It is a review of how it performs after transforming it to a workstation or a desktop.
Installing the product is no different than recent versions of Windows. It is an easy procedure o follow, except for two parts: I don't like the staging installation, it serves no real purpose for the user; it should have been a normal, modern one-go installation, and it shouldn't take more than 20 minutes. It took nearly 40 minutes on my MicroTel AthlonXP 1600+, 768 MB RAM and its 52x CD-ROM.
And then, it booted for the first time... Windows Server 2003 (Win2k3 for short) booted in around 15 seconds, much faster than my Windows XP Pro (~25 secs), on par to a "clean" installation of Gentoo Linux (with no extra services) and slower than BeOS 5 (around 8 seconds, but BeOS doesn't load anything heavy on startup).
The desktop appearance is a bumped up version of the standard Windows 2000 theme and it has all the extra eye-candy stuff turned off. Smooth fonts, "show windows contents when moving windows," etc., are all off. It only takes a few seconds to go to the settings panel and turn everything on. And even with the "eye candy overhead," I must say, this is the (overall) fastest *modern* operating system I have ever used.
You read correctly, if Microsoft did one thing correct in this version is to optimize the OS for maximum performance and we are not talking just server performance, but all-around responsiveness of the OS. Sure, BeOS heads will tell us in the forum how responsive the BeOS UI is, but BeOS is not overall fast. It is a very bad server platform (even with the BONE networking stack installed it's not a serious server), it doesn't have a good throughput, its SMP scaling is below par today (despite popular belief), and compiling anything takes more time than it would take on any Unix or Windows I ever used. BeOS will still feel faster on slower machines, but it can't offer all what Win2k3 can.
As for a users' speed comparison to Linux, let's just say that the exact same machine feels much faster with Win2k3 than with Red Hat Linux 9. Applications load instantly. For example, this not-so-fast machine can load Windows Media Player 9 in 1 second. IE loads instantly, OpenOffice.org 1.1b2 loads in 7 seconds (version 1.0.2 under Red Hat needs 13 seconds, even with DMA on), the Gimp for Windows loads in 6 seconds, Apple QuickTime in 2 seconds. IE scrolling is extremely smooth, UI responsiveness is great, the recently compiled applications from Microsoft (e.g. Windows Explorer) are 100% flicker free upon resize (XP's is not fully flicker free), so what else can I say? The OS just feels fast-fast-fast, as others have said as well in their reviews.
But there are problems when using a purely server product as a workstation that was tweaked to be as secure and as fast and stable as it can be after all this bashing Microsoft is getting for years.
First and foremost, backwards compatibility is crippled. This is a known issue and bear in mind, it was a conscious decision made by Microsoft in order to secure, stabilize and speed-up the OS. They did it on purpose. Let me explain the situation: