01:58 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Langa Letter: The 10 Best And Worst Things About Windows XP

Fred Langa provides his personal likes and dislikes about Microsoft's newest operating system. Check them out, then add your picks to the list.

Windows is undoubtedly the 800-pound gorilla of the operating-system world. What happens with Windows--for good or ill--affects us all (even non-Windows users!). That's why, no matter what operating system you're using now, and no matter whether or not you ever plan to use XP, it behooves us all to know what's going on with it.

I've used XP Professional (the version that's meant for mainstream deployment in business settings) on various high-end and midrange systems, and I've lived with it as my full-time personal-use operating system ever since I got my hands on XP's "gold" code some time ago. For the record, the systems I've tested it on are all less than 2 years old--one's just a few months old--and by far, all exceed the minimum standards Microsoft publishes for XP. All the hardware passes the XP compatibility tests; likewise, all the software is XP-compatible.

In the time I've been using it, I've come to really like some things about XP. Other aspects make me grit my teeth in frustration. I've gathered them into a list of 10 items: the five best and five worst things I've found about XP.

Of course, any such like/dislike list is inherently subjective. So please use my list only as a starting point and add your own likes and dislikes. When we're done, we should have a treasure trove of pros and cons about XP, based on real-life XP user experiences. It should be highly informative!

Herewith is my list of XP highs--and lows:

Fred's Picks: The Best Things About XP
Taskbar and Tray: Amazingly, one of the seemingly smallest changes in XP's interface has the largest payoff for me in daily use.

You see, I run a lot of programs at the same time and need many other tools and applications just a click away. In other versions of Windows, this results in a hugely cluttered "Taskbar" and "Tray" area. (The Taskbar contains Start and other buttons representing running programs; the Tray is the "notification area" near the clock that contains the icons of background tasks and services.) In XP, the Taskbar intelligently groups like buttons: If, for example, you have five instances of Explorer open to different folder views, XP can place one button on the Taskbar labeled "(5) Windows Explorer." Click on the one button, and a popup menu lets you select which of the five instances you want. This saves space and keeps you from having to dig down through a multilevel Taskbar to find the particular instance of a program. In similar fashion, XP also saves space in the Tray area by hiding icons that either aren't actively displaying information or that you haven't clicked in a while. But if you need access to a hidden icon, no problem: You can still get to it with a click. Yes, these interface changes only matter if you're the kind of person who uses many applications and utilities simultaneously, but for that group of users, it's a wonderful improvement.

Built-in CD-R software: It's about time; XP finally does away with the need for third-party tools for basic CD-R burning. You simply drag files to your CD burner's drive letter, and XP caches the files and then burns them to a blank CD-R with good reliability. If you do encounter underrun problems, XP ratchets down the write speed of the next CD-R burn and keeps doing so until you get 100% verified writes. It couldn't be simpler to use.

Power management: For years, Windows' power-management tools just didn't work very well, with hang-on-shutdown and resume failures exceedingly common. Windows lagged behind the theoretical capabilities of modern hardware to power down, suspend, hibernate, and resume operation, as needed. XP still doesn't have it 100% right, but it appears to be the best Windows yet for finally getting hardware to suspend and resume as it should.

Backup: For years, I've generally avoided using Windows' built-in backup tools because I found them just too slow and clunky compared with third-party tools. But so far, I really like the speed and flexibility of XP's backup (based on the familiar "NTbackup" from NT and Win2k). Time will tell whether it's a true keeper, but it's looking that way--the only bundled Windows backup I've found worthwhile.

ClearType: Geared mainly for flat-screen and notebook users, but helpful on some standard monitors as well, ClearType lets you adjust the boldness or opacity of your on-screen fonts, resulting in smoother, far more readable type that belies the pixilated nature of LCDs. ClearType is built into XP, but you'll need a separate download to activate it and to play with its settings. You'll find background information on ClearType on another page.

Fred's Picks: Worst Things About XP
"Black box" elements: Many elements of XP's inner plumbing are not well explained, and their operation is somewhat mysterious.

For example, in these days of Trojans, viruses, and worms, it's alarming to encounter unexpected and unexplained network accesses. But many elements of XP seek to open ports or establish Internet access--or even seek to set themselves up as servers--for what would seem to be entirely local operations. While it's possible to track down and figure out what, say, "Process 960" is, and why it wants Internet access, it's a pain to do so, and Microsoft could have done a far better job of explaining what's going on and placing these accesses under user control. (There's some information in the Microsoft Knowledgebase. But several Usenet groups are far more helpful than is Microsoft for understanding what's going on at the port and access level, such as why XP's "SCVHOST" subsystem wants to keep your port 5000 open.)

Indexing: XP's Indexing Service just might be a candidate for the most inefficient piece of software ever written. I've never seen any indexing tool run as slowly or as resource-hungrily as does XP's.

For example, when I first turned on XP's Indexing Service, I immediately saw almost constant disk activity, but figured this was because of the initial building of the index, which is always time-consuming. But a full day later, when the disk was still thrashing more than half the time, I took a closer look. Even turning down the Indexing settings to minimum levels and confining the index to a modest 8-Gbyte C: partition didn't help much. The level of activity remained ridiculously high: a frequent, sometimes constant, chattering annoyance. I deactivated XP's Indexing Service; installed a free open-source indexing tool; and had a full, finished index of all files on my C drive less than an hour later. Sheesh.

Hibernation: Although I placed power management on the list of XP's best elements, I have to leave one portion--hibernation--on the "worst" list.

Hibernation is conceptually cool, and when it works, it can really speed up a system resume after power-down. What happens is that, upon suspend, a small tool "freezes" the system software and writes the complete system state, including RAM contents, to your hard drive. Upon resume, instead of going through a normal boot, the saved data is read back, bringing your system to exactly the state it was in when hibernation commenced. While useful on any system, hibernation is wonderful on notebooks because no matter how much later you return to the system, or what the power state was in the meantime (you can completely turn off the power or even remove the batteries), your system will return to exactly the way it was at the moment of hibernation.

Well, that's the theory, anyway: On my primary system here, even with XP-certified video hardware and drivers, I get an unreadable, scrambled screen on resume from hibernation. Working from memory and navigating blindly, if I log off and back on, the screen clears and everything's fine. But this is dangerous and annoying. Clearly, hibernation still has some rough edges. See the next item for a guess as to why this is.

Drivers: Many components and peripherals (even of fairly recent vintage) won't work at all, or won't work properly, with XP. Worse, even if your system receives the blessing of Microsoft's own XP Upgrade Analyzer, and even if you use only XP-certified and signed drivers, you may still have driver trouble.

For example, I naturally suspected my hibernation troubles above were video-related, but I was using drivers supplied by Microsoft itself, with all proper certifications and signings. I then visited my video-card vendor's site (Nvidia) and downloaded its "designed for Windows XP" drivers, but things only got worse: Not only would hibernation fail, but even ordinary suspend/resume generated a system error. So, even with all the proper checks, branding, and certification, XP's drivers may still be problematic. This is a situation that probably will improve rapidly with time, but it's a major pain now.

Passport and WPA: I've covered these extensively in recent columns, so I won't go into depth here, but Passport, bundled aggressively in XP software, is a needless privacy risk, and Windows Product Activation is a ridiculous annoyance. (See The End Of Anonymous Surfing? and 1,000 Posts Later: WPA Update)

A Few More Things About XP
XP also has some mixed-bag elements that don't clearly fall into the "best" or "worst" groups.

Take networking. XP's Professional edition works well in large enterprise settings, and the Home edition makes it relatively easy for novices to share an Internet connection. But networking for workgroups, departments, and small offices--especially in mixed platform, peer-to-peer environments--seems to have fallen though the cracks, even though the largest number of network seats falls into this category. (Many computer vendors get caught up in serving the 500 largest companies. Hundreds of thousands of other computer-using businesses are out there, just in the United States alone.) Yes, XP can work on these smaller networks, but not without some hair pulling and not as delivered.

Another mixed-bag networking item is XP's built-in firewall. It's a great idea on the surface, but it's anemic. For example, it totally fails as protection against illicit "phone-home" back-channel use of a system's network connection by a virus, worm, or Trojan. To see for yourself, try the free firewall Leak Test.

I'd also count XP's visuals--its look and feel--in the mixed-bag category. I like the way the Taskbar and Tray work to avoid clutter--this is animation with a purpose--but other elements seem gratuitous and without point. It's not just the silly cartoons--the dog that appears when you click Find, for example. You can turn off the dog. It's the myriad other little animations of screen elements that seem designed to make things smoother, but which more often serve to make things slower.

I'm also ambivalent about XP's default color scheme: It's initially fresh and nice, but after a long day of staring at the screen, I find the colors increasingly garish and carnivallike. And while all these elements can be turned off or modified, it's a laborious process.

What's On Your List?
Do you agree or disagree with this list? What other items would you add to either the best or worst side of the ledger? Which items do you consider to be mixed bags?

Please add your choices to the list, and when we're done, we should have a treasure trove of pros and cons about XP, all based on real-life XP-user experiences. It should be highly informative--and fun. Join in!

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