Windows XP right for the inexperienced

For those sensitive souls at Microsoft who can detect the beginning of a bout of gratuitous Redmond-bashing, don't take it personally. Instead, you could just lap up the attention.

Perhaps you might feel some sympathy for Microsoft as it builds up to the release of Windows XP on October 25.

Here it is, nearing the glorious moment when its biggest and best operating system ever is loosed on the world, and every nit-picking reporter around is intent on finding fault. It’s a matter of journalistic pride, after all, to get into print with some suitable put-down in the face of the next Microsoft marketing effort.

Well, I say you should keep some of that sympathy in reserve for us journalists. If Readers Digest conducted a poll on the esteem in which various organisations and occupational groups were held, I suspect the fourth estate and Microsoft would fare equally badly. But in this instance, Microsoft has done such a good job of limiting the opportunities for unkind things to be said of its latest OS, that we journos are going to struggle to live up to our reputations.

But fight we will. (For those sensitive souls at Microsoft who can detect the beginning of a bout of gratuitous Redmond-bashing, don’t take it personally. Instead, you could just lap up the attention.)

So to the barbs. It’s only when Microsoft brings out a new product release that there’s any acknowledgement from the company of defects in preceding versions. Thus it is with Windows XP. When Computerworld journalists were given a hands-on session with the new OS last week, our Microsoft guide’s first words were that XP brings “power and stability to home users that they haven’t had before”. Okay, so that means I haven’t been imagining things every time my Windows Me-based home PC crashed without provocation (unless you call running a Microsoft game an unfair test of system stability). Finally, I have official permission to blame Windows Me (something which countless of us have been doing for a long time already) …

Barb 2. Windows XP is one expensive operating system. (Actually, it’s two operating systems, and they’re both expensive.) XP comes in a Home Edition and a Professional version. The Home Edition costs $599 ($309 to upgrade) and the Professional version $889 (upgrade $599). Prices like those clearly show that Microsoft doesn’t feel threatened by Linux. They also show New Zealand buyers will pay a premium over US consumers. There, the prices are $US199 and $US299 for the Home and Professional editions, and upgrades $US99 and $US199. I know the exchange rate isn’t exactly in our favour, but by my calculations we’re being asked to pay up to 20% more than our US cousins. Microsoft can hardly claim that shipping costs account for the difference, since the commodity we’re talking about is digital.

Barb 3. Windows XP is just what the PC industry needs to spark a new round of hardware upgrades. The OS, like every new version of Windows before it, demands state-of-the-art processors, more memory than ever before and bigger hard drives to run comfortably. During my brief play with the OS, I ran it on a 700MHz Pentium III with 576MB of RAM and a 1GHz PIII with 256MB of memory. It performed fine, as you’d hope. But another member of the Computerworld editorial team, running it on a machine with 128MB of RAM, thought it rather slow. With the price of memory today – about $50 for 128MB and under $100 for 256MB -- perhaps you won’t consider that a big deal.

Okay, those are the barbs. I can’t personally report how stable XP is, having only experimented with it for an hour or two. But a former Computerworld editor, Don Hill, who’s been running it for about three months, declares it rock solid. He’s found no software compatibility problems, but has had driver issues with a Mustek scanner and a video capture card – he can’t get either to work with XP. But then Hill has been running pre-release software.

PC World in the US, a sister publication of Computerworld, has done extensive testing and declares the upgrade worth doing for Windows 98 and Me users whose systems will cope. Microsoft will make much of XP’s new interface in marketing the OS, but PC World reckons that’s not the reason you’d want to consider upgrading. Stability improvements, however, which can be put down to XP’s Windows NT/2000 heritage, make it worthwhile.

Will I upgrade? That depends. At home, I’m wary of having to reinstall applications. But I’m keen on greater stability. My home PC should be up to running the new OS. But I’m not keen on forking out more than $300 just for software to make the machine run.

Will IDG (Computerworld’s publisher) upgrade? Not likely, in the short term, at least. At the end of the year an OS upgrade is planned, but Windows 2000 is the more probable choice. The price difference between a Windows 2000 or XP rollout across the company isn’t that great, says our IT manager; he’s just not willing to test the bleeding edge.

He and I are probably not untypical of most existing PC users. Buyers of new systems, however, look like they have plenty to gain from Windows XP.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send email to Anthony Doesburg. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.