Review: Windows eXPerience

After years of crashes, BSODs (Blue Screen of Death), Stop errors and dozens of other problems, Microsoft finally has delivered what most of us would think impossible from them: a rock stable operating system. Granted, Windows 2000 was a decent try, but it had its share of system crashes, even with the neatest possible installation. It was more susceptible to bad written device drivers than Windows XP, and that shows. Of course, it’s not like you can throw anything at XP and it will stay unharmed, drivers are a very important component of an operating system, and if they’re buggy they make the whole system unstable, whatever OS it is.

But you’ve got to hand it to Microsoft, this time they did it right. It only crashed twice on me (because of buggy display card drivers probably), and when certain applications crash, the rest of the OS doesn’t care, as a matter of fact I can re-launch the application again and keep working on it, something that is unthinkable under Windows 98, Me or Mac OS classic. And the few applications that crash are the same that crashed before in any earlier version of Windows, and as a matter of fact they crash a bit less in XP.

But as it couldn’t be any other way, not everybody’s happy with it. Let’s examine the pros and cons, and to be a bit original, I’ll start with the cons:

Product Activation

The new “feature” most people seem to hate the most is Product Activation. This process elaborates a hardware hash (“an eight byte value that is created by running 10 different pieces of information from the PC’s hardware components through a one-way mathematical transformation”, as Microsoft explains in the Product Activation White Paper). This number, together with the CD-Key found in the
envelope that holds the Windows XP CD which the user has to enter during installation,
are sent to Microsoft during the activation process and Microsoft returns an
activation code. With an Internet connection this is done in matter of seconds,
and as most people may know by now, there’s no obligation to send the registration,
which is different from product activation. According to Microsoft, no personal
information is sent to them during this process, and even the code elaborated
from the user’s hardware is just a number that can’t be decoded to know what
hardware the user has.

CD-Key is unique, so once a copy of XP has been activated, it can only run on
that machine, if you install it in others, you won’t be able to activate it
and after 30 days you won’t be able to use it anymore.

In the
case you change more than six components in less than 120 days, Windows XP doesn’t
work anymore until you call Microsoft, explain to them what’s going on and they
issue you a new activation code. Restricting the number of hardware changes
the user can do over a period of time didn’t make all those hardcore hardware
swappers very happy, and it’s totally understandable. The thought of many people
on this is0 “Hey, it’s my computer, I do whatever I want with it. I don’t want
to be calling Microsoft all the time”. Besides, having to call Microsoft to
explain to them why did you change many components is just nonsense, or is it
that Microsoft is so naive they think everybody tells the truth in this world?
But the thing is, the have the right to implement an anti-piracy procedure,
and at least, they made this process as painless as possible. As long as the
user doesn’t change more than six components, he or she can even reinstall the
system from scratch at any time, and the re-activation is automatic without
having to call Microsoft.


very annoying new feature are the balloon reminders. As soon as you installed
the system, they just drive you crazy. First, one that tells you to take the
XP tour to learn about all the new features. I don’t mind it appearing once,
but you close it and then it rears its ugly head again next time you boot the
system and the next time again. Together with it, the balloon asking you to
sign up for a .Net account, or enter the login and password for the one you
already have (MSN accounts are now .Net accounts). That one also appears like
three times. It’s a terribly annoying trend many software companies have these
days, to push people around to do what they want. Take AOL for instance, when
you install AOL Messenger it puts links to their “Free AOL & Unlimited Internet”
in the links toolbar of Internet Explorer, in the favorites menu, on the Start
Menu and on the desktop, so you have to waste time deleting those right after
the installation. And don’t even get me started in Real Player, ICQ (which puts
its own folder in the favorites menu that can be deleted but the program restores
each time it’s launched) and many others. These days, if you don’t pay attention
on the setup of a program, you will end up with more than a dozen useless icons
on the tray, and annoyances everywhere. The problem with XP is that those balloon
reminders are installed whether you want them or not, and you have to close
them a few times until the system finally understands that you don’t want them.
The most annoying one to me is the Automatic Update feature, since I had a very
unpleasant eXPerience with it. I was playing back a video out to a tape in the
VCR, and suddenly it dropped a few frames and went out of sync. I assumed the
hard drive was very fragmented, but when I looked at the monitor, I noticed
the culprit was the annoying balloon telling me to update the system, so that
reminder made me waste an hour and a half of my time, since I had to start all
over again, after turning automatic updating off of course. The funny thing
is, I already had ran Windows Update and downloaded all the updates my system

(and most software companies) should know that people don’t like to be pushed
around to do things, it’s like having a friend beside you all the time reminding
you every five minutes of doing a certain task. All these automatic features
do nothing more than piss off people instead of helping them.

But these
balloons are not always annoying, a few times they are indeed useful, like when
using the embedded CD burning, included ahead in this review.

The New Look

The next (minor) annoyance is cosmetic. I like the new look overall, but they should’ve
paid more attention to details. The new icons look really good, plus they’re
at a maximum size of 48×48 pixels, so they don’t look pixelated when you use
the Large Icons mode. But they should’ve changed absolutely all the icons, not
just most of them. For example, when you go to the Control Panel, you will see
all the icons have the new style, but get into Administrative Tools and of six
icons, only one has the new look (Data Sources). More annoying, the Internet
Explorer icons are now in color and with the new look, which I like, but when
you download a file and the Download box comes up you get the same ugly icons
since the release of IE 4 in 1997. Not paying attention to details like that
is very disappointing from a multi-million dollar corporation like Microsoft.

I’d also
appreciate a bit more liberty of choice within the new interface. For example,
the silver look has the close button at the top right in red, but I’d like it
in blue, and perhaps other people would like it in green. The same goes for
the rest, in the “blue” look I’d like to be able to change the blue to a dark
gray and maybe the start button to a dark blue. Those things aren’t provided,
to change the color of the taskbar you have to switch to the classic look, which
is mid way between the old Windows look and the new one.

The New Look 2

with the new look issue, I have to say I really like the change. I was really
tired of the classic Windows look and I always liked the Mac OS look much more,
only that I couldn’t use it for everything because of the too frequent crashes
in the classic OS, and OS X may be rock stable but on my Power Mac G3 is horribly
slow and most of the popular apps are not ported to it yet. Most Mac religious
users say Windows XP look is a copy of Mac OS X, something with which I disagree.
I think the new Windows look has a personality of its own and the only point
of relation with Mac OS X is that both systems have a renewed and better look
compared to their predecessors.

I specially
love the “silver” look for the taskbar and title bars, scrollbar and many other
parts of the GUI. Both the “blue” and “Olive Green” modes look as if they were
part of those add-on products for adding skins to the OS. The only flaw I see
in this is that Microsoft only included three of them, and I think they should’ve
taken the time to design at least six different ones. But at least they got
it right with one of them, with a beautiful metal look and a stunning metallic
green Start button.

(click to enlarge)

But some
parts of the interface seem like a half done work.  For example, the title bar
is skinned all over, but the menu and toolbar remain the same as usual, except
for the change in the look of the icons. Thankfully, The XP Tweak UI which can
be downloaded for free allows to easily change the Windows and Internet Explorer
menu and toolbar background to anything you design and want to put there, as
you can see in the next screenshot. I haven’t tried for that any other format
but .bmp, but considering it is the native Windows format, I would avoid any
other. BMP works just fine for the task, and any graphics program can convert
whatever you do to it.

Video Editing

I didn’t
notice any problems in video editing and playback in XP. So far, video behaves
as it does in Windows 2000. The most popular codecs such as PicVideo, Divx 4.11,
Mainconcept DV, HuffYuv work with no problems, Avi_IO captures just fine if
the capture drivers are available and Virtual Dub works exactly the same as
in any version of Windows. Adobe Premiere 6 works just the same as in Windows
2000, editing in NTSC DV format I haven’t found major problemsl, at least not
more than in Win 2000.

to XP for video editing from Windows 2000 provides no substantial advantage,
while doing it from Windows 98/Me has advantages and disadvantages. Windows
XP’s native file system is NTFS, which has a file size limit in the area of
terabytes, so you can capture or export hours of video and have only one file
per capture. With Windows 98/Me, you’re restricted to the FAT32 file system
which doesn’t support files larger than 4 GBs, so you end up with segmented
files. That’s not a big problem itself, but can be a huge annoyance sometimes,
for example in Premiere, where you can import as many segments as you want,
but exporting in segments of a certain size requires knowing the particular
codec you’re using to calculate based on time and codec compression, and export
the segments manually one by one. After Effects provides automatic file segmenting
for export, but it doesn’t cut the segments right and there is audio lost at
the end or beginning some times. So with NTFS you don’t have to care about segmenting,
you can export all the work and it will only be one file.

Of course
the problem comes if you don’t work with the DirectX or Mainconcept DV codecs
and use either a DV or MJPEG card with their own drivers that don’t yet support
Windows XP. Some models already support it and others not, although probably
most brands will have to support XP in the future at some point now that the
9x kernel is gone for good. But if you have a card with bad support for Windows
2000 and XP it’s still a good idea to keep a first partition with Win 98/Me
and a second for Windows XP to do all the other tasks. If you have Windows 2000
and your editing card is well supported in it, chances are it will work fine
in XP with the Windows 2000 drivers, although not in all cases. Even with the
same brand and model, I read many reports of people having success with that
and others that didn’t. In any case, you should always check your card’s website
to see if any XP drivers are available, and if you plan to buy one, only get
one that has XP drivers available in final release status.

The Windows
Media Encoder 7.1 installs and works fine in XP, although I never use it because
I don’t like to be constrained to use Microsoft’s proprietary codecs that are
good only for coding but impossible to transcode again to some other format.
To me the best codec around for high video compression is Divx 4.11, which is
a system-wide codec and I can use any tool of my choice to encode to, such as
Virtual Dub, with the advantage that if one day I need to use a segment of my
Divx library to put on a video edition, I can transcode again to whatever codec
I’m using for editing. All those stupid copyright restrictions impose barriers
to pirates but also affect people that don’t use high compression codecs for
DVD piracy but for other purposes instead, such as home movies or segments of
TV shows not available for sale.

Media Player 8 is more or less the same as 7.1, only better looking and with
more skins, although most of them are truly horrible and I always use the default

Remote Assistance

(click to enlarge)

One of
the most useful features in XP is Remote Assistance. Through this feature, any
user can ask for assistance to a more knowledgeable user that also has XP installed.
The procedure is very easy. If you have a problem either you can launch the
Remote Assistance program or click on a link in a chat box in Windows Messenger,
if the person that you want  help from is on your buddy list or at least has
a .Net passport to be added. If not, you can still ask for assistance, only
you have to do it through the Remote Assistance program and follow the steps
to prepare an e-mail for the “helper” that he or she will receive and use as
a passport to your computer. However, don’t let this scare you, because the
helper won’t be able to control your computer unless you authorize him to do
it. When the helper gets into your system he or she can see your screen inside
a window, so whatever you’re typing or doing there can be seen, but he or she
can’t do anything so far. To take control the helper has to click on the “Take
Control” button in the RA program, and you get a box asking you to authorize
him or her.

(names blurred for privacy reasons)

If you
click yes, the helper can do anything in your computer, although of course you’re
seeing what he or she is doing at all times, and if he or she begins to mess
up or about to get into a secret folder you only have to press Esc and the helper
loses control immediately, or just press the Disconnect button and kick him
or her out of the computer.

(names blurred for privacy reasons)

Of course
this is something you only can do with people you trust, not with strangers,
because you’re letting someone see your screen and work in your computer. But
used in the right way, it’s a very useful feature. Before this, when I friend
of mine in another city or country had a problem I had to waste a lot of time
explaining by text how to fix or perform a certain task. Using this feature,
I just get into his or her computer and show him or her how it’s done, or get
into the registry and fix something, adjust settings and whatever I want to
do, with the only drawback that the speed depends on the connection and it can
be pretty slow, on a cable modem connection it feels worse than working in a
486 computer. But I should say that my cable modem connection is 512 kbps, cable
modem users in the US usually have 2 megabit connections that should speed up
this feature considerably, and of course LAN connections should handle this
one easily at nearly full speed.

But speed considerations aside, I’m really thrilled about this feature, and it’s clearly
to me one of the best in Windows XP.


no doubt for me that XP is the most stable Windows yet, even more than Windows
2000. It only crashed a few times on me, mostly under video editing programs
or Windows Media Player, but I blame for that the buggy drivers of my graphics
card, a Matrox Marvel G400, since Matrox is so arrogant that it announced it
wouldn’t support this card on XP, a card many people bought this year from them,
myself included. This left a lot of angry customers (again, myself included)
that have it have to trick the installers of both the graphics and capture drivers
to make them think you have the Millenium G400 to install under XP, and since
they both have the G400 chip, the latest drivers (ver. 5.72, not certified by
Microsoft labs, despite what Matrox claims) work decently. Of course XP comes
with specific drivers for this card but they’re only display drivers that don’t
let users access the special features of this card, so those embedded drivers
are almost useless. Even with these “tricked” drivers, XP seems rock stable,
it only crashed twice on me and I’m sure with a decent graphics card and proper
drivers there wouldn’t be crashes at all. The most important part of having
a rock stable system is that you can work confident that you won’t lose work
if one application crashes, provided that you have autosave enabled or save
manually often. This is specially gratifying when you have a program doing a
long task such as converting a video to Divx and working on another app at the
same time. If the app crashes, the video will keep converting. Even more, you
don’t have to reboot the system to use the app that crashed again, you just
launch it again and that’s it. The system doesn’t get unstable when an application
crashes, at least that’s the case with the majority of apps. I read reports
of some games crashing the system or leaving it unstable, but I didn’t experienced

Application support

I still
have to see one Windows program that doesn’t work just fine under XP, even some
old ones. XP provides an application compatibility feature for programs that
only will install under Windows 95 or 98, or even NT4 or 2000. However, the
most popular apps install and behave just fine under XP, without the need to
use this feature. I only have one game that was a lost case, “The Need For Speed
Special Edition”, the first version of this driving game, which was for DOS
but also provided compatibility under Windows though DirectX. It has separate
installer files, one for DOS and another for Windows, but none of them will
install on XP. It will blank the screen completely and the only way to get out
is press Alt+Tab which will get the system back with an error message. But once
again, this may be some incompatibility with my graphics card and other users
could have success with it. Luckily, versions 2 and 3 of this game install and
play perfectly. I’m afraid I’m not much of a gamer and those are the only ones
I play every once in a while, so I don’t have much to report on that first hand,
but for the reports I read, most Windows based games will work under XP, while
most DOS based won’t.

CD Burning

Another welcome feature of XP is embedded CD burning. They designed
it to make the process easy and straightforward for anybody. You just have to
right click on any one or multiple files and folders, choose “Send To”,
and then choose the CD recorder drive and a balloon comes up (this one is useful
contrary to most of the others) that you click and then the window for the CD-RW
drive opens and you see the files and folders you selected with medium opacity
and an arrow, indicating that those are waiting to be written to CD.

You don’t have to select them all at once, you can browse your files and add more if you want. When you’re finished, you have to click on the “Write these files to CD” link under the CD Writing Tasks tab on the left. Then the CD writing wizard will come up prompting you for a CD label, which smartly is already entered as the current date, and not in the difficult way Easy CD Creator used to do, but in a legible simple way
as you can see in the picture. Clicking the “Next” button usually begins the
CD burning process, unless you’re burning a CD with pictures. In that case,
an intermediate step appears asking you if you want to include a picture viewer
so that pictures can be viewed as a slide show when the CD is inserted. This
is especially useful for giving CDs with pictures to people with earlier versions
of Windows, because that viewer is compatible with them, and when you insert
it a slideshow begins automatically, with black background and a predetermined
amount of time for each picture, although you can navigate them with the cursor
keys. However, I had partial success with this feature, since many time I recorded
CDs with pictures in it and this step didn’t appear.

Picture Viewer.

Windows XP has also an embedded picture viewer that allows to easily navigate the contents of any folder with pictures in it. They have to be a supported file format,
like BMP, TIFF, JPEG, etc. When you double click on any picture file, the viewer will open and you can navigate them with the cursor keys or with the arrow buttons that the viewer has. It also includes buttons for rotating the picture, zooming in and out fitting the image to the window or show it at normal size, deleting it, printing it, copying it to another location, open it in the native application for editing, and a help button.

All around, XP has changes everywhere. There are many more to talk about that would make this article too extensive, but I’m sure anyone that has a system that supports it will be very gratified after installing it. One advice: don’t even think of running it with 128 MBs of RAM, go for a minimum of 256 and 512 if you can spend a few bucks. With the low price of memory these days, it’s not that painful to the wallet and it will be a total relief for your computing eXPerience.

About the Author:

Sebastian works as a freelance, teaching computing, fixing computers and OS mess-ups and do some graphic and web design. He lives in Argentina, but he would prefer to live in North America, Europe or Australia, but with the huge restrictions for immigrants it’s almost impossible to do so. He’ve been studying digital video editing for sometime on his own and the next two years he will be taking classes at an institute. He’s got a one year old Dell and a PowerMac G3, so he also experiments with most popular OSes, although he still runs MacOSX 10.4. BeOS 5 doesn’t run on his Dell not even in safe mode or any combination of switches. He had it on an old Compaq and loved it, but unfortunately all the programs he uses are only on Windows and MacOS. Sebastian tried Linux, but it’s too messy for his taste. Sebastian can be reached on [email protected]

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